By ALEC SMART
Over Christmas 2020, satirical wall artist Scott Marsh painted a George Michael mural in Erskineville, replacing one that was defaced by fundamentalist Christians in November 2017.
Marsh described it as: “A Christmas miracle rising from the ashes: the resurrection of George Michael!”
Surprisingly, the Christians haven’t returned to sabotage the new illustration.
Marsh is internationally renowned for his amusing, highly detailed and often socially divisive wall murals around central Sydney, which satirise prominent politicians, errant personalities and topical events.
The new mural, which commemorates the fourth anniversary of the pop singer and gay icon’s death from natural causes on 25 December, 2016 features the late George Michael sat astride a unicorn.
It has since attracted dozens of well-wishers, who’ve written supportive messages beneath the artwork in coloured chalk on the black patches that defaced its predecessor.
Marsh’s original George Michael painting, on a wall at the end of a row of terraces in Bray Street, Erskineville, was one of two of his controversial murals targeted by supporters of Christian Lives Matter (believed to be members of Hillsong Church’s Alexandria campus, three streets away. Hillsong, a controversial Pentecostal denomination founded by the son of a paedophile pastor, is the favourite church of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison).
The other mural, featuring Cardinal George Pell and situated just 250 metres away from ‘Saint’ George Michael, was painted on the rear wall of the Botany View Hotel in Newtown.
Charlie Bakhos, administrator of Christian Lives Matter’s Facebook page, declared that Marsh’s two murals were “hate speech” and “offensive”. After supplying the addresses of the respective murals, he urged fellow Christians: ‘We call for you to act on this urgently!’
The murals were subsequently defaced.
Both murals were defaced in protest at the result of the national Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite, which on 15 November, 2017 revealed 61.6 per cent of Australians voted ‘Yes’ to allow same-sex couples to marry.
The Botany View mural understandably aroused strong reactions: it cheekily and provocatively featured Cardinal Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat under Pope Francis, stood alongside former Prime Minister Tony Abbot, who had his hand down the Cardinal’s ‘budgie-smuggler’ rainbow-coloured swimming pants.
The manager of the Botany View told me shortly after the vandalism occurred on 16 November, 2017 by four men with a bucket of black paint and rollers, that the same four men had pelted the mural with white paint the night before.
“When the four men returned, our staff tried to intervene and stop them but we were threatened with violence,” he revealed. “They shouted at us and were very aggressive. We decided to leave them to it and not exacerbate the situation.”
Police arrived too late to intervene.
Although the Pell & Abbot mural was only completed by Scott Marsh the day before it was vandalised, Christian Lives Matter also launched an economic campaign against Botany View Hotel, which provoked 743 one-star (dismal) reviews posted to the community pub’s Facebook page.
Hotel management revealed they also received a barrage of intimidating phone calls.
A group of Christians then assembled outside the popular hotel to pray to God for divine intervention to reverse the plebiscite decision and, presumably, punish the Newtown venue.
Charlie Bakhos cheered the sabotage of Scott Marsh’s Pell & Abbot mural with a statement on Instagram: “Now that’s what you call a happy ending… God bless these boys who did a great job defending our city, our faith and our children’s freedom of innocence. Politicians, police and our leaders did nothing, yet theres plenty of us ready to fight the good fight.”
Both George Pell and Tony Abbott actively campaigned against the Same-Sex Plebiscite, although Abbot’s younger sister, Christine Forster, a Liberal councillor on City of Sydney Council, was in a same-sex relationship (the couple have since married).
In 2014, Ms Forster posed nude with her fiancé, Virginia Edwards, in a portrait for the annual Archibald Prize competition to raise awareness and support legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In December 2018, Cardinal Pell was jailed for six years for sexually abusing two choirboys while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, but released on appeal in April 2020 after serving 13 months of his sentence.
Further historic paedophile allegations against Cardinal Pell will likely never be prosecuted and he will return to working for the Catholic Church leadership at the Vatican when Covid-19 abates. This, despite a Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse finding in 2017 that Cardinal Pell was aware of children being sexually abused within archdioceses under his supervision.
‘Saint’ George sprayed
The original ‘Saint’ George Michael mural in Erskineville, known as the Patron Saint of Parks at Night, featured the gay icon in a priest’s smock with a rainbow scarf, a golden halo behind his head, and holding a giant marijuana cigarette in one hand and a bottle of pills – likely ‘poppers’ (a slang term for alkyl nitrite inhalant stimulants) – in the other.
On 18 November, 2017 it too was covered with black paint, both rolled and splashed on by a man in a white tracksuit who declared it “sacrilegious”. He was video-recorded on mobile phones by at least three onlookers, and later identified as 23-year-old Ben Gittany by police, who arrested him at the scene.
Gittany was not the first person to target the ‘Saint’ George mural. It had been attacked two days earlier by a 16-year-old boy and also by an unidentified man who was filmed spray-painting over the artwork whilst wearing an Azztek Stone T-shirt.
Azztek, a Condell Park stonemasonry company (deregistered by ASIC in Nov 2018 and renamed Cornerstone), later posted an apology on Facebook condemning the vandalism and proclaiming the employee was dismissed.
“The company is willing to compensate for the damage that has been done and return the art work to its original condition,” their statement said.
The following night, Friday, 17 November, members of Christian Lives Matter also began whitewashing the ‘Saint’ George mural around 8pm, before police intervened.
Gittany, who claimed in Court that he was “defending his religion”, was eventually convicted of malicious damage to the mural, and ordered to pay $14,000 in compensation and given 300 hours of community service.
A coalition named Persecuted Christians Group started a GoFundMe online fundraiser to pay Gittany’s legal costs but raised only $5,575 from 104 donors.
However, more than 30,000 people signed an online petition declaring support for Gittany’s vandalism. They claimed the ‘Saint’ George mural incited hatred against Christians by invoking religious iconography – Marsh’s mural spoofed a typically pious pose of Jesus, common in historic religious portraits.
In his defence, Gittany told the Court he believed the artwork was “offensive to me because it was a mural of Jesus holding drugs in full view of everyone”.
Ironically, on 15 August, 2020 devout Christian Gittany was granted bail after police allegedly found 1kg of cocaine at the Kingswood home he shared with the mother of his four-week old baby. Gittany was already on bail for serious drug offences. During the police raid the woman claimed to officers that the drugs were hers. New bail conditions required that Gittany stay away her.
On 3 December, 2020, Gittany, a former biker with the Finks motorcycle club, was back in the news again after he was arrested by NSW Police’s Strike Force Raptor at his Oatlands home.
Strike Force Raptor, the specialist police squad that targets criminal bikie gangs, was established after a bomb exploded outside the Hells Angels’ clubhouse on Crystal Street, Petersham in February 2009.
During the raid on Gittany’s home, detectives allegedly found a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, ammunition and drugs – cocaine – in Gittany’s home. A trial is scheduled for early 2021.
Scott Marsh’s new ‘Saint’ George mural is reportedly protected by a graffiti-proof coating.
Scott Marsh versus the censors
A political mural of a burning police van, painted by Scott Marsh on a Redfern wall, was defaced on 23 June, 2020 less than 19 hours after it was completed.
However, the censors weren’t fundamentalist Christians but City of Sydney Council employees, responding to a request by NSW Police.
A City of Sydney spokesperson confirmed to me after Marsh’s burning van mural was covered up: “At the request of the NSW Police, the City of Sydney this morning removed a mural from a wall in Glover Lane, Redfern.”
Marsh told me afterwards, “Police should stick to policing. They are not our cultural curators, no matter how inconvenient the message of that culture may be for them.”
The Redfern artwork referenced TJ (Thomas Junior) Hickey, a 17-year-old Kamilaroi Aboriginal boy who died on 14 February, 2004 after he was impaled on a spiked fence behind the nearby Waterloo Towers housing estate.
According to some accounts, TJ, who was cycling home, was hit by a police car, catapulting off his bike and onto his back on the spiked steel fence.
At the time he was being pursued by four Redfern Police officers in two vehicles. They were initially looking for a thief in a handbag snatch at Redfern Station but went after TJ instead, although he wasn’t a suspect.
Redfern Police deny that Hickey was hit or even chased by their vehicle, yet the principle officers pursuing TJ at the time refused to testify at a coronial inquiry into the boy’s death.
TJ’s cousin, Roy Hickey, arrived shortly after TJ was fatally injured, as he happened to be driving past in a community health bus. Roy told lawyers from Aboriginal Legal Team that six Redfern Police officers attempting to revive young TJ refused to let him near the gruesome scene.
Marsh told me that the burning police van mural in Redfern was an extension of another piece he painted at the start of June, featuring two New York Police Department (NYPD) vans on fire.
The NYPD artwork was created to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the USA after a black man, George Floyd, was suffocated to death by a Minneapolis police officer, who deliberately pressed his knee into Floyd’s windpipe.
It’s highly likely Redfern Police were embarrassed by the reference to TJ Hickey’s death in the wake of the international BLM rallies.
Marsh disputed the claim that police “responded to complaints” about his burning police van mural.
“Within one hour of me finishing it and posting it on socials [Facebook and Instagram], three officers were at the Lord Gladstone Hotel asking where the mural was (they thought it was there),” he revealed.
“If there were complaints, would they have asked where the mural in question was?
“They were actively hunting it.”
TJ’s family are still seeking an independent public inquiry into their son’s death.
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