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The Powerful Ways Street Artists Across America Pay Tribute to MLK and His Legacy (Photos)

On city walls across the country, muralists and street artists depict Martin Luther King as a statesman, visionary, hero and martyr.
 
 
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Photo Credit: By Minnesota Historical Society [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

The following article first appeared on the Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.  

This article appeared in the September 2-9, 2013 edition of The Nation.

Traveling along the streets and alleyways of inner-city American neighborhoods, I find commercial signs, graffiti, folk altars and murals that announce why the residents remember their dead, who is worthy of admiration, whom they pray to and the proud achievements of their ancestors. These artifacts, painted or assembled by neighborhood people, represent a shared history of beliefs. They give us glimpses into what the residents of America’s poor minority communities hold as meaningful. 

Drawing from this urban graphic art since the 1970s, I have created a photo archive of work devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. that I encountered in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and other cities. I did not set out to form a collection. Instead, I found an image and photographed it and then found another, eventually accumulating a unique, well-defined group of images. These portraits appear on the walls of liquor stores, barber shops, neighborhood markets and fast-food restaurants. Often the business owners gave the artists a free hand with the commissions. (I excluded less spontaneous representations of King in public schools, hospitals and community organizations that were made under the scrutiny of a principal or public official.) Repeatedly revisiting neighborhoods to photograph them, I looked for signs and images that endure, their survival providing the best testimony of their acceptance.

Bridgeport, 2010.

Harlem, New York, 2009. Artist: Estos. 

In talking with artists and storekeepers, I learned the various ways these folk images function. They serve many purposes, from helping to sell merchandise, to making businesses more secure against vandalism and crime, to encouraging a sense of pride in poor communities. For example, after the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, many Latino shopkeepers painted King’s portrait on the facades of their businesses to deter rioters. Later, when Latinos became the majority, King’s image was often replaced by that of Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe and other symbols of Mexican or Central American identity. 

On the streets, King is represented in many ways—as a statesman, visionary, hero or martyr. Often his most famous pronouncement, “I have a dream,” accompanies his image. Some paintings depict him as proud and thoughtful, resting head on hand; in others he looks friendly and compassionate, arms outstretched.

Los Angeles, 2006. Artist: Cornell McKennon.

Detroit, 2012. 

Los Angeles, 2010.

The sign painters and amateur artists who create these portraits use iconic photographs of King to model their subject. However, they often fall short of producing a good likeness. It is not uncommon for him to turn out looking Latino, Native American or Asian. In Los Angeles in 2013, I had to stop at El Taco Mexicano to ask the cook if the portrait of someone looking like a brown-skinned campesino, depicted between images of Cesar Chavez and JFK, was really of MLK. In black neighborhoods, though, portraits of King rarely include Latino figures. Rather, he is often accompanied by such icons as Malcolm X, embodying righteous anger, or by other black leaders like Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. And while King continues to be a popular icon, portraits of Malcolm and Mandela are fading out, with few new ones replacing them. In group portraits, King takes center stage, usually as the largest figure. Since 2009, he has been painted with President Obama. A local resident explained the pairing by saying, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so we all can fly.”