Ads by Hogre and doublewhY at bus stop in Rome, Italy (photo courtesy Hogre)

Anonymous artist Hogre wasn’t expecting to be arrested while checking their email at an internet café in Rome. Neither were they anticipating being charged under an archaic Italian law that punishes a public offense to religion with a fine of up to 5,000 Euros or a prison sentence of up to two years.

Hogre was one of two artists who, on June 1 of this year, placed satirical posters in bus stop advertising spaces in the Italian capital. Hogre’s poster “Ecce homo erectus” depicts Jesus with a conspicuous erection, resting one hand on the head of a praying, kneeling child. This was a response to sexual abuse charges against Cardinal Pell, the third highest-ranking Vatican official.

The other poster, “Immacolata conception in vitro,” is by Hogre’s friend doublewhY. Less obviously inflammatory, it shows two women holding a baby; one of the women is flipping off the viewer. The text and image suggest a parallel between in vitro and immaculate conception.

The moral panic that ensued was instigated by right-wing politician Fabrizio Ghera, who called for the resignation of the transport official responsible for the posters. The Italian media fanned the flames of this panic; according to Hogre in an interview with Hyperallergic,“the articles that were around looked like they were written by parrots and pigeons.” Eventually, says Hogre, the police interviewed the artist’s friends and tracked Hogre down at the internet café, where they were arrested. Hogre was eventually released after the police confiscated a cell phone, as well as a poster and two prints bearing Hogre’s tag. Now, Hogre is waiting to be called to court — which, owing to Italy’s bureaucratic legal processes, might happen after a lengthy delay, or not at all. The other artist, doublewhY, has not been identified.

“Ecce homo erectus” (image courtesy Hogre)

There have been a few similar cases in Italy. “Ecce homo erectus” isn’t even the first artwork to controversially juxtapose images of erections and religious officials. Xante Battaglia was fined for a 2015 work consisting of three panels: Pope Benedict XVI on the left, his young secretary on the right, and a penis in the middle.

It’s surprising that any democratic country currently has a blasphemy law, but Italy isn’t the only one. The penal codes of Austria and India also prohibit blasphemy, for instance. However, such laws are rarely, if ever, enforced.

Italy’s Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) has collected a number of instances, including in the theater and dance worlds, where Article 404 of the Italian penal code has been invoked for insulting Catholicism. UAAR points out that while this law is infrequently applied, this is partly due to preemptive censorship. Artists might tone down the religion-baiting of their work if they know that it will be hugely controversial.

Organizations like UAAR and the International Humanist and Ethical Union are campaigning for governmental secularism and an end to blasphemy laws. Hogre says their work is about more than criticizing the power of the Vatican. They are also interested in “subvertising,” or public art that challenges the visual pollution of advertising. Hogre cites influences, including Guy Debord’s critiques of consumerist culture and the philosophical anarchism of Max Stirner, which could be seen in their and doublewhY’s recent exhibition Moral Panic at South London’s WAR Gallery. The show included screen prints, illustrations, and digital artwork influenced by street art, pop culture, and protest movements.

The studio drawing of “Ecce homo erectus” was sold in the WAR Gallery show, and Hogre is planning to show the receipt for this sale in court, to establish the artistic value of the work.

More generally, Hogre hopes that their art, and the larger moral panic it references, will draw attention to the absurdity of artists being subject to a religious defamation law in the 21st century. As Hogre says, “my final intent is to win in court in order to put the law into discussion and, hopefully, highlight the relationship between the church and the state with criticism.”

Christine Ro writes about culture and other topics from London. She's relentlessly lowbrow.