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: 

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.

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.

Teacher’s Political Paraphernalia Collection Is Unique to Classroom

When entering Tom Musselman’s classroom, anyone can tell it is far from ordinary. On the walls are tacked dozens of political posters; his desk is decorated end to end with political bumper stickers, some overlapping; directly behind it stands a life-size cardboard cutout of John Kerry.

Musselman is an AP U.S. History, AP U.S. Government, and Sociology teacher at Fredericksburg High School in Fredericksburg, Texas. But that’s only his day job. A political man himself, he is also the city mayor.

Although he wouldn’t describe himself as a collector, Musselman has accumulated political paraphernalia ever since he joined the school’s social studies department in 1995. Because he wishes not to present a bias toward one political party or another, Musselman displays local, state, and national signs from both the left and right.

POLITICAL PARAPHERNALIA ABOUNDS in Tom Musselman's classroom in Fredericksburg High School. This grouping of posters hangs directly behind his desk, and shows a mix of local and national campaign signage. The John Kerry cutout to the right is Musselman's personal favorite.

“I get my signs and bumper stickers from the political headquarters of the candidates,” Musselman said. “I have also accumulated some from various rallies I attended for state representatives.”

Adding a personal touch to his collection, signs from his own run for city councilman and later city mayor hang behind his desk. Musselman calls them “the most important.”

“However, the John Kerry cutout is one of my favorite pieces,” Musselman said. “I inherited it from my son who acquired it at a Kerry rally in 2004. It ended up in the backseat of my car when I moved him to Austin. I would like to find a similar one of George W. Bush.”

Other than the Kerry cutout, Musselman does not openly favor any signs.

“I of course have my personal favorites, but as mayor I try to be non-partisan. That is why I have signs in my classroom for educational purposes, but do not have any political bumper stickers on my car or other personal property.”

Aside from strictly signs and bumper stickers, Musselman has also lined the back wall of his room with newspaper headlines and clippings covering the disputed 2000 Bush-Gore election, in which controversy arose over vote counting. Nothing in the room lacks a political touch, and blank spaces are hard to locate.

Musselman has even inspired some of his students’ enthusiasm for political signage.

“A few years ago, a student in my AP U.S. History class made a poster reading “Musselman For Dictator,” which he would hold up during pep rallies,” Musselman said.

On a more serious note, however, Musselman feels the signs are valuable in the sense that they foster political awareness and encourage political participation among teens.

“Having these signs and stickers in my room sparks discussion, and talking gets students to reason about real issues happening day-to-day,” Musselman said.

 

 

Freight Train Graffiti Gets Political

Riding the rails: this three-part series of freight-car graffiti murals sees a lot of landscape—and spreads a message everywhere it travels.

BAILOUT - The first in a series of three boxcars with graffiti, this one expresses anger over the economy with the all-caps "Bailout" and the words "consolidating power" to the side.

The all-caps pieces spell out “BAILOUT,” “IMPEACH,” and “POVERTY,” but are accompanied by some instances of smaller type reading: “Secret Prisons,” “Liars, Killas, Cronies,” and “Consolidating Power.” The cartoon character Scrooge McDuck appears at the end of the “POVERTY” mural with bags of money at his feet, at once adding contrast and irony to the mural itself.

POVERTY - The boxcar with the word "poverty" on it features an ironic Scrooge McDuck with bags of money at his feet.

According to the Minnesota Independent, a small newspaper having run an article on the graffiti, the murals were done in 2009 and express outrage over the state of the economy. They were drawn by the Abe Lincoln Brigade, a politically-motivated crew of graffiti writers who target trains as mediums on which to express their protest over various current events.

IMPEACH - The final boxcar reads "Impeach," perhaps a solution toward improving the nation's economy, as viewed by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

In fact, die-hard graffiti artists consider freight cars the ultimate canvas, right next to high-flying billboards, overpasses, and the sides of bridges. Trains provide a moving, never-ending art exhibition of talent and effort that never gets old and is impossible to equate with more traditional graffiti avenues. Unlike stationary works on buildings and walls, train murals are not familiar—they’re new to someone different every day. Furthermore, so long as artists are careful not to paint over railroad identification numbers or the name of the rail line, their art is likely to be left on the boxcar. Graffiti is expensive to remove, and rail companies simply can’t afford to have a boxcar out of service for any period of time.

But the best part of writing graffiti on freight trains? What you create always comes back.

The Truth About Freedom

This piece of political art, stamped on a metal surface (perhaps a post office drop-box) in Manchester, England, uses the famous phrase, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a statement.

CONTRADICTION - This stamped message uses a famous quote from French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to send a message about the truth of freedom.

Rousseau, a French political ideologist of the 1700’s, originally coined the phrase while referring to governments at the time, which were organized under the divine-right theory. Under this structure, rulers were thought to have been appointed by God, and being so appointed, were given authority to do virtually anything. Rousseau was one of the first philosophers to openly disagree with this model.

With this rather cryptic phrase, Rousseau asserted that states at the time were in fact repressing the physical freedom that is the peoples’ birthright and were doing nothing to secure civil freedom for citizens. In other words, while man was free in theory, the number of social, political, and civil restrictions placed on him could not amount to true liberty.

The use of the phrase in modern society carries the exact same meaning: freedom isn’t really as free as it’s advertised.

Author of The Social Contract, Rousseau theorized about the most appropriate relationship between individuals and their government. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, can only be derived from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual protection. Individuals assemble into a political society only after agreeing to abide by common rules and accept corresponding political duties to ensure a long-term effective government.

ON GOVERNMENT - Rousseau's highly influential book, The Social Contract, theorized about the best possible and most effective relationship between a government and its people.

Rousseau deems the collective group of citizens the “sovereign” and claims that it should be considered in many ways like an individual person. While each individual has a particular will that aims for his own best interest, the sovereign expresses the general will that aims for the common good. The sovereign only has authority over matters that are of public concern, but in this domain its authority is absolute.

Rousseau’s Social Contract outlined four basic premises:

1)     Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.

2)     The Sovereign, having no force other than the legislative power, acts only by means of the laws; and the laws being solely the authentic acts of the general will, the Sovereign cannot       act save when the people is assembled.

3)     Every law the people have not ratified in person is null and void — is, in fact, not a law.

4)     The legislative power belongs to the people, and can belong to it alone.

As is clearly evident from the premises, The Social Contract argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered from God to rule and legislate. Rather, only the people, or the “sovereign,” are granted this all-powerful right. Rousseau’s ideas inspired political revolutions in Europe, particularly the French Revolution in France.

Furthermore, Rousseau’s social contract theory of government played an important historical role in developing the idea that political authority must derive from the consent of the governed, a principle regarded with the highest degree in American political ideology today.