Remembered: Martin Luther King Honored Through Political Art

This was supposed to be a post about just one piece of work. I came across this image of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the quote, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and I thought the literary aspect added a nice touch—multiple layers and all. The work doesn’t have quite the same significance if the viewer doesn’t understand the origin of the words.

UPLIFTING - This quote from Martin Luther King Jr. was written in the letter he wrote to a priest from Birmingham jail.

This quote is an excerpt from King’s famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail, written on April 16, 1963 in response to a letter he had received from a priest. King was arrested on April 12, 1963 after he violated a court injunction prohibiting the civil rights marches that were taking place in Birmingham, Alabama. When King still continued to lead peaceful marches, he was incarcerated and placed in solitary confinement for eight days. He used toilet paper and the edges of newspaper to write his letter, which was later published as an essay.

In refusing to follow the court order and consequently landing himself in jail, King demonstrated the truth of a principle he lived by: equality comes with struggle. Always.

This is where the post should be ending.

But then, out of curiosity (or maybe some perverse desire to make all my posts exceptionally long this week), I googled “Martin Luther King graffiti” and hit the motherload of political graffiti searches.

Forty-four years following his assassination on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. is still in the public eye—thanks in large part to the art world. Dr. King has been positively memorialized on the street through numerous graffiti works and murals which honor his memory and mission.

Here’s one in East Harlem: a headshot of King with the word “DREAM” flowing from his brain, recalling the famous “I Have A Dream” speech. 

Another in Chicago shows King alongside President Obama, with the implication that King’s life work and dedication to civil rights for African Americans helped make possible the election of Obama, the United States’ first African American president. 

And this one is my favorite: King releasing the word “DREAM” to be caught by the spirits and minds of two African American children. It’s reminiscent of the classic blow-me-a-kiss game, only this time it’s not kisses being set free, but hopes and aspirations. There’s something very liberating about this piece, seeing the children lit up in this way—like they are feeling the freedom of being unshackled.  

A video of Walter Cronkite announcing Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to the public: 

Literary Graffiti Tells A Story

Who knew there was an entire world of what is called ‘literary graffiti?’ I’ve just discovered it, and I’m fascinated.

Look at the story behind these pieces:

Written on a sidewalk in a London park is the ending to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by; and that has made all the difference.” 

Literary graffiti often features bust-like paintings of prominent and admired literary figures, like this one of Sylvia Plath. Known as a ‘confessional poet’ who wrote about taboo subjects such as suicide, postpartum depression, and death, Plath is probably most remembered for her own suicide, flamboyant as it was–she stuck her head in her oven and gassed herself. 

In a France subway station, this remark from French philosopher Voltaire: “Love is of all passions the strongest because it attacks the head, heart and body.” 

Walt Whitman, who aspired to be “the American bard,” is most remembered for being a poet of the people. 

In New York, Shakespeare in shades. 

In Paris, Edgar Allan Poe in some sort of hat monstrosity. 

Most appropriately, this portrait of Dickens is found in London. Dickens used novels as a force for social criticism and created one of the most memorable characters of all-time: Ebenezer Scrooge. 

A montage of lines from literary works, including one by Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, E.E. Cummings, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Jan Zwicky. 

An Alice in Wonderland scene. Creepy.

The man is Albert Einstein but the quote, which reads, “A wise man is astonished by everything,” was said by Nobel laureate Andre Gide. Quite a thought provoking combination. 

The letters are bit eerie, but they read “John Steinbeck.” Somehow graffiti, coupled with the dripping letters, seems a fitting portrayal for a man who spent most of his life protesting government authority. 

Perhaps the most famous, and most thematic, line from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

And my favorite! This is allegedly the entire first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone scripted on a bathroom stall. Gotta admire that dedication.

 

Gandhi’s Play on Words

The most famous, and most clichéd, Gandhi quote is without a doubt “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wish there was an official count of how many organizations use that to “inspire” people.

In a close second, though, is this rather impish remark:

Reporter: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilization?

Mr. Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea!

The exchange always appears in searches of Gandhi quotes, but I haven’t encountered one that actually supplies the time and place where this back-and-forth is supposed to have occurred. In any case, the reporter is obviously seeking a good quote, and Gandhi basically dupes him. His reply is quite in character with the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor he is credited with having.

DOUBLE MEANING - Gandhi was famous for his impish sort of humor, evident here in his response to this reporter's question.

Western Civilization was a frequent theme in Gandhi’s writing and speeches. He did not hold it in high regard and firmly believed industrialized civilization to be a disease because of its materialistic, consumer-oriented focus.

In one of his speeches, Gandhi pounces on Western materialization, saying, “I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites, and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic.”

In several speeches, actually, Gandhi is quoted with comparing Europe to the spirit of Satan. More than anything, Gandhi feared India becoming a ‘westernized’ nation. In another speech, he expounds on this idea:

“India’s destiny lies not along the bloody way of the West, of which she shows signs of tiredness, but along the bloodless way of peace that comes from a simple and godly life. India is in danger of losing her soul. She cannot lose it and live. She must not therefore lazily and helplessly say, ‘I cannot escape the onrush from the West.’ She must be strong enough to resist it for her own sake and that of the world. European civilization is no doubt suited for the Europeans, but it will mean ruin for India, if we endeavor to copy it.”

But I digress. Back to the quote.

The joke relies on a sort of pun. When the reporter uses the word ‘civilization,’ he’s using it as a noun. In other words, “what do you think of the Western model of civilization?” When Gandhi replies, however, he uses the word ‘civilization’ in the verb form, ‘to civilize.’ In other words, “I think it would be a good idea to civilize the West.”

Gandhi makes his opinion of Western Civilization perfectly clear by implying that it doesn’t exist—the current model of Western Civilization cannot, in Gandhi’s opinion, be viewed as civilized at all.

Cleverly put. And the reporter can’t even complain. In the end, he got a better quote than he was hoping for.

Surveillance Saturates London Streets

This piece was unfortunately painted over by British police, but it marks one of Banksy’s most audacious stunts—a three-story high protest against Britain’s surveillance society just feet from a CCTV surveillance camera.

EYES ON THE STREET - Banksy's work protests the ubiquity of surveillance cameras present on streets and in public places in London.

The guerilla artwork appeared one day on a wall above a Post Office yard in central London. It features a boy in a red jacket painting the slogan “One Nation Under CCTV” in stark white capitals. His actions are filmed by a policeman next to a barking dog.

The secret work is made more impressive by its height, which would have required Banksy to erect temporary scaffolding—all of which went unnoticed by Post Office employees and the London police, despite being watched by a CCTV camera.

CCTV Security Pros is a leading supplier of security cameras and surveillance systems.

According to the London Evening Standard, London reportedly invested in more than 10,000 CCTV cameras in the late 1980’s in a publicly-funded 200 million euro crime-fighting push. The cameras are erected all over the city, but their effectiveness in stopping crime is widely debated. The Standard reported in 2007 that, “a comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any. In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average.”

BBC News later reported in 2009 that, “Only one crime was solved by each 1,000 CCTV cameras in London last year, a report into the city’s surveillance network has claimed. The internal police report found the million-plus cameras in London rarely help catch criminals. In one month CCTV helped capture just eight out of 269 suspected robbers.” BBC further claimed that “there’s been little or no change in London’s crime rates since they [the cameras] were more widely installed in the mid 1980s.”

Despite numerous reports detailing unimpressive facts concerning the city’s security system, the number of surveillance cameras has continued to rise over the years, and British citizens are now being watched by an estimated 51,000 police-run CCTV cameras. (The same amount of public money could have funded 4,121 new police officers). However, when including the number of privately-owned cameras and cameras situated in other public places like train stations and bus depots, the estimate is closer to 1.85 million cameras throughout the city.

A FAMILIAR SIGHT to the London populace, this sign warns that CCTV cameras are overhead.

An article published by the Christian Science Monitor in February of this year says that, “Privacy activists are worried that Britain will become the bleak totalitarian society George Orwell painted in his classic novel “1984,” where citizens were spied on and personal freedom sacrificed for the benefit of an all-powerful state.”

The article continues, “The civil rights group Liberty estimates that the average Londoner is captured on camera around 300 times a day while BBW claims Britain has 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras and only 1 percent of the world’s population.”

Bomb It Follows Graffiti Around the World

From the graffiti capital of the country, New York City, to the streets of Berlin, where graffiti is called ‘spraying,’ from the slums of Capetown to the sewers of Sao Paulo, Bomb Itsplices together images of graffiti around the world to create a world mural of the art.

BOMB IT - Jon Reiss' documentary explores graffiti around the world in all of its different forms, specifically looking at its use as a political medium.

A documentary produced by Jon Reiss, Bomb It follows political graffiti everywhere it flourishes.

The film opens with a night scene of graffiti writers sneaking around a train yard in New York City, whose graffiti scene has surpassed Philadelphia’s, the former graffiti capital of the country. The man attributed with starting the movement in New York, Corn Bread, comments in voiceover that “art is a weapon,” a sentiment reiterated by one artist seen scribbling “voice of the people” on a New York subway map. In places like the Bronx, a labyrinth of run-down areas that at best resemble cities in the aftermath of World War II, graffiti murals are thought to brighten up an otherwise dismal environment.

The camera then turns its attention to a series of European cities, beginning with France, where the artist Blek “focuses on the misery and poverty of the poor in Paris.” A proponent of the school that believes “art must serve a political and social cause,” one of his most touching pieces is of a homeless man sitting on a street corner. Blek began his career drawing rats along the bottoms of the walls, symbolizing the misery and filth the poor endure.

A PICTURE OF POVERTY - French graffiti artist draws the poor and homeless.

RAT CITY - Blek began his artistic career drawing rats around the walls of France, symbolizing the filth of the cities.

In Amsterdam, a teacher by day turns graffiti writer by night. Her work always includes a pair of watchful eyes in an I-see-everything-you-do Big Brother fashion. In London, a soldier having returned from Iraq turned to the streets to express his frustration with the war. One of his political works displays picket-like signs exclaiming, “Stop the War,” “No War,” and “Fuck Party Politics” with the underlining question “Still think you’ve got a say?” Not strictly a political writer, he also did a lovely interpretation of the woman from Lord Byron’s poem, “She Walks In Beauty,” on a busy street corner.

WAR! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? - Having returned from fighting in the Middle East, one graffiti artist in London turned to the streets to express his frustration through art.

LITERARY GRAFFITI - Not purely political in his work, the same London artist draws an interpretation of the woman in the famous Lord Byron poem.

Back in the U.S., the talk turns to the fads of train and subway graffiti. Described as “museums on wheels,” trains and subways are top-notch spots for graffiti writers because their work is ensured a high degree of visibility. One New York artist sticks to the subway tunnels, writing angry (and less than artistic) messages on the walls: “NYC is my toilet bowl,” “The poor bail out the rich,” and “death feels like an old friend.” The same artist regularly writes “F You” on NYC police cars.

SLIGHTLY LESS ARTISTIC - One New York graffiti writer confines his work to messages and words lacking color or design.

In Berlin, where graffiti writing is called “spraying,” an artist says he was inspired to take up the art because “the current social situation is fucked up.” His reason is seconded by a Tokyo artist who says that although Japan is a well-controlled country, there is still resistance to the government: “If there was no rebellion, we’d be stagnant.” Such resistance is often reflected in graffiti messages and murals.

A man in Barcelona ensures his resistance to the government will be permanently felt by chiseling his work into walls so that it cannot be painted over. In Cape Town, graffiti was a powerful tool during the apartheid regime.

PEACE - One example of graffiti calling for peace during the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Artists who wanted to “help toward something” began what they called artistic guerilla warfare by spray painting political demands by the dozen: “Africa: Freedom in Our Lifetime,” “Free South Africa,” “Free Our Leaders,” “Free Mandela,” “Peace,” and “From Pieces to Peace.” One artist attests that his artistic efforts made him “more socially and politically aware.”

DEMANDS - An art piece along a highway advocates for Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

A CRY FOR HELP - Another Cape Town image demands freedom.

In Sao Paulo, another artist seeks to raise awareness about urban deterioration and poverty by painting in the most deteriorated places in the city—landfills and polluted tunnels underneath the city, home to many of the city’s homeless.

The documentary wraps up in Los Angeles by featuring Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant/OBEY campaign, an effort to remind the public not to exercise blind obedience to government.

 

OBEDIENCE AWARENESS - Shepard Fairey's OBEY campaign is intended to make the public less likely to practice blind obedience to government.

Stencil Speaks On Immigration

There are disputes over whether this piece is a Banksy graffiti or not, and not that I’m any expert, but given the distinctly stenciled design, I’d wager it was.

Reportedly, the first instance of this work appeared in Bristol, England in 2007 but spread to other cities over a period of months. A deal of controversy arose when in 2009, an instance of the artwork in Glastonbury, England was painted over by volunteers as part of the town council’s anti-graffiti agenda. Being a supposed Banksy, the work was allegedly valued at 5,000 euro, and the owner of the wall on which it was painted, Julian Chatt, had requested the image not be painted over.

The stencil pairs Paddington Bear, a classic fictional character in English children’s literature, with the message “Migration is Not a Crime.” Whether the artist is Banksy or not, the meshing of a serious theme with a children’s character is clever. While the message is clearly intended to be political, it is dampened significantly by the presence of Paddington Bear, a harmless persona. In this instance, the visual innocence is a trump card, making it difficult for anyone to get too riled up about the art or the message.

BANKSY OR NO? - It's disputed as to whether this stenciled work is a true Banksy or not. Regardless, the pairing of an innocent Paddington Bear with a serious message is a clever move by the artist.

This is quite a feat considering immigration is a rising global issue today: a problem with no clear solution, or at least not one escaping a swirl of controversy.

Perhaps I’m making the artist out to be cleverer than even he knew, but I find it interesting that this theme of migration, or immigration, is paired with Paddington Bear, who is evidently known in stories for his capacity to find trouble, despite his always “trying so hard to get things right.”

Issues and disagreements surrounding the policies of immigration are not even closely resolved in the United States and in many other countries. But perhaps this artist is proposing that government officials working on immigration laws, restrictions, and requirements take a lesson from Paddington Bear—just try hard to get things right, even if complications inadvertently arise.

Maybe a far-fetched connection.

But maybe not.

Rallying Signs: Vietnam Posters Express Outrage

Few things have caused a greater schism in American society than the Vietnam War.

The 1960’s encompassed a time of political, racial, social, and cultural unrest as the U.S. became polarized between those who advocated continued involvement in Vietnam and those who wanted peace. Central to the conflict was the fact that many did not understand the origins of the Vietnam War or the reasons behind the U.S. decision to intervene. To a majority of Americans, the war seemed futile and pointless, and it left the nation questioning the policies of a government it had always trusted.

The movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began with demonstrations in 1964 and grew in strength over the next few years, peaking in 1968. Many in the peace movement were students, mothers, or anti-establishment hippies, but there was also involvement from educators, labor unions, clergy, journalists, lawyers, military veterans, and ordinary Americans. Expressions of opposition ranged from peaceful nonviolent demonstrations to radical displays of violence.

In terms of peaceful nonviolent demonstrations, a large number took place independently on college campuses, while national demonstrations took the form of Marches on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of people and continued up until the war’s end in 1975.

Out of these demonstrations arose countless posters and political signs harboring anti-war messages and slogans. Some are direct and simple, a call for something; others, with sharp and severe messages, prompt a double-take; some are sad, while others mock through ironic jokes and a biting sort of sarcasm; still others are vulgar and obscene, placing blame as they look for a scapegoat and search for someone to blame.

Here are some particularly poignant rally signs and posters from various anti-war demonstrations:

CALL FOR ACTION - A fairly generic rallying sign calling for the end of the war and the return of U.S. soldiers.

DESPICABLE DRAFT - The poster reads "I don't give a damn for Uncle Sam" and protests the draft. Uncle Sam was a familiar character on recruitment posters.

MASTER PUPPETEER - This photo shows two protesters, one labeled "Saigon Puppet" and the other "U.S. Imperialism."

A SIGN TO LAST THE AGES - A rallying sign featuring one of the most familiar and famous messages of the 1960's: make love, not war.

COME WITH ME - A sign calling for those opposed to the war to participate in a protest march.

A NEW HITLER? - One of the more darkly labeled rallying signs, this poster compares President Nixon to Hitler, substituting a swastika for the 'x' in Nixon's name.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY - This poster suggests that the war's effects are not only taking a toll in the U.S.

PROTEST POSTERS - A group of protesters walk with rallying signs reading: "Bring the Troops Home Now," "War No More," "End the War in Vietnam Now," and "Self Determination for Vietnam."

LEADING THE WAY - This rallying banner leads a group of marchers protesting the Vietnam War.

Watch this video for a deeper look at Vietnam War protests.