08/08/2012 08:54 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Mr. Klevra, Artist, Sets Out To Paint Life-Size Madonnas In Rome

ROME (RNS) Even in the heartland of global Catholicism, a life-size Madonna on a street wall is an uncommon sight -- especially if you leave the cobblestone alleyways of the historic center for the drab concrete of the city's former industrial districts.

But bringing sacred art back to Rome's run-down streets is exactly what a street artist known as Mr. Klevra has set out to do.

Mr. Klevra, a 34-year old Italian artist and a committed Catholic, paints Madonnas and other saints on thin paper posters and then glues them onto walls under the cover of darkness.

"I love the adrenaline of putting up the paintings while hiding from the police," he said. "I love the randomness of having your art torn down after five minutes or see it stay in its place for years and years."

Mr. Klevra is his artist's name -- like many street artists, he doesn't give out his real name, and prefers to keep his identity secret, even shielding his face from cameras.

In his paintings, he combines the millennia-old techniques of Eastern Orthodox iconography with modern tools such as spray paint and Uni Posca pens. Pop culture references sometimes find their way into his work, such as a Madonna with the motto "Only after disaster can we be resurrected," a line from American author Chuck Palahniuk's novel, "Fight Club."

An engineer for a multinational energy company by day, Mr. Klevra always loved drawing and painting, working his way through college by decorating skateboards and surfboards.

He's never had any formal art training, with the exception of a weeklong seminar on iconography at a monastery outside of Rome.

In 2008, he teamed up with fellow artist omino71, an avowed atheist, and with photographer Jessica Stewart. Together, they started the Eikon project, with the aim of creating Christian-themed street art: "There are thousands of abandoned 'edicole' (small street-side shrines) in Rome and we started putting Madonnas back in them."

Mr. Klevra says icons are the perfect art form for an urban context, since they were originally meant to convey the gospel to illiterate masses: "It is a perfect synthesis, it doesn't matter whether you are Christian or not," he said.

Painting Madonnas on pavements is an ancient Italian art, and for centuries the "madonnari" have used chalk to decorate streets for religious festivals. But Mr. Klevra says he's not a madonnaro: "They copy from classical models," he said. "I try to make something new."

In fact, bringing religious themes to the contemporary urban art world has not been an easy task.

"Painting violent images, with skulls and the like, is almost natural for a street artist," he explained, adding that he eventually felt the need to adopt more serene imagery: "In the streets, a sacred image can have a calming effect. I want to invite people to slow down for a minute and enjoy the beauty of this world."

Despite skepticism from some colleagues -- they labeled him "the altar boy," and it wasn't meant as a compliment -- critics have mostly appreciated Mr. Klevra's Christian work. His paintings and murals have been sold for tens of thousands of dollars and are on display in Rome's main contemporary art museums, as well as in Brazil.

"In his world, a new kind of sanctity is created when human and animal characters are juxtaposed with sacred symbols and rich hues like burgundy, deep blue and gold typically seen in religious art," reads a recent review in Hi-Fructose, a well-regarded contemporary art magazine.

In one of his most famous murals, an image of Christ is central to a depiction of a pack of bull terrier dogs, Mr. Klevra's signature animals.

"If someone stops and wonders at one of my images, I have already achieved my goal," he said. "It doesn't matter if he thinks it is beautiful."