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Photo essay: Obamafication

Frank Tires #1, 4270#CECCFF
Frank Tires #1, Detroit, 2009

Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, 2010

In inner-city murals, Barack Obama almost always wears a tie. He smiles a lot, or else he has the up-tilted face and earnest demeanor of the famous “Hope” campaign poster, a statesman pondering weighty matters. He doesn’t generally look defiant, like Malcolm X; he doesn't convey approaching martyrdom, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- two other heroes in these neighborhoods.

Shopkeepers, bar owners or pastors whose buildings are the artists' or sign painters' canvas sometimes pay for the privilege, but these are mostly the painters' pictures. One of the storeowners with a presidential portrait decorating his business said he would have preferred King. A bar owner wanted Bill Clinton at the time, but it didn’t cross his mind to negotiate between leaders.

A few of the artists worked for free. A Detroit muralist described a smiling portrait of the president on the side of an abandoned building as “a rose blooming through the concrete of the ghetto.” In the same city, another muralist did a series of head-and-shoulders portraits along Harper Avenue, including one of Muhammad Ali as well as Obama, as a way to advertise his work.

The murals form their own vote of confidence in the Obama administration. In the black pantheon, Obama is becoming the central figure, a position that until recently belonged to King. At Master Burger on S. Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the president looks directly at us, while Malcolm X and King, turned slightly away, seem like sidemen, joining Stevie Wonder, black nationalist Marcus Garvey and a host of others in the background, ready to offer the president guidance.

Lance Estos Bradley is proud of the mural he did for the Tabernacle of Deliverance in central Harlem. "I did it lifelike," he said. "I picked the photograph myself in the Internet. It reflects a moment in time when a black man was elected president. I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime, and it may never happen again."

Across an empty lot from Bradley's portrait of Obama is a matching mural of King with the words "Dreams Come True."

--Camilo José Vergara

Photographer Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include "American Ruins" and "How the Other Half Worships."

The photo essay continues after the jump>>> 

253 West 125th St.,#CECCEF
Near the Apollo Theater, Harlem, 2009

Cheers Soul Food Caf#CECCF5
Cheers Soul Food Café, Los Angeles, 2010

Jackson St. at 23rd#CECD13
Jackson family house, Gary, Ind., 2009


1124 Martin Luther King Blvd., Los Angeles, 2010

Master Burger, Los Angeles, 2010

Tabernacle of Deliverance, Harlem, 2009

MVP Bar & Grill, Detroit, 2010

Red lips, Red Tie
Mugshot Bar & Grill, Detroit, 2010

Teita's Market, 481#CECD21
Teita's Market, Los Angeles, 2009

Wyoming at Plymouth #CECD27
Wyoming Road at Plymouth Street, Detroit, 2009


Comments () | Archives (13)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Melvin Painter

How about that, the inner cities are idolizing a dictator in hopes they will get more entitlements.

Joe Bydin

How about that, Melvin has been drinking paint again.


I mean, he grew up white, but I'm glad people can find something to take pride in.

Miss Lee

How dare you Mr. Painter... have you no respect for the American Dream or are you just a racist, insinuating that only black & poor people must love the President because he is going to give them free money.
I am a 25 year old white student that comes from a middle-class family that never took anything from the government. My parents sacrificed.
You are not only a disgusting excuse for an American but a human being.
Why can't the people have hope? You say they're looking for entitlements... I say they want to be liberated from the CORPORATE ELITES who have stolen everything from them, their homes, their dreams, their dignity.
Clearly, these people who have been lucky to hang on to their businesses & they chose to depict the President on their own property. God Bless America & God Bless the President of the United States. May he save us from ourselves.


We in the Afrikan American community feel that the honorable President B.O. is and has been leading the country in the right direction with his excellent policies.
We disagree with his policies for Afrika; we want him to send tr oops, if necessary, to stop the death and rape there.
We are watching carefully the racism on display in the media and in certain segments of the society when it comes all things B.O. Our advice regarding the President is for these people not to push us too far.



Miss Lee:

When you grow up I hope you will be a money maker rather than a money consumer. Then you will know what it is like for government to take money away from you because they think they can spend it better than you.

Also best hope minorities have is not in obama, but in themselves: Go to school, stay away from drugs, be married before having kids, look to yourself for success not the government. Somehow I think Obama promotes none of the above






CALIFORNIATHEBLUESTATE - how long will it take you to realize that most educated people are leaving CA. Do you know why? Take a minute, well you may need longer than that, and look around you and ask yourself why? If you finally realize the truth, that's good. If you neven figure it out, I'm sorry. Here are some things to ponder. Are you satified by the crime, high taxes, and poor school?


Hey painter ya you melvin,suck it!Always hating, you prick Get a life


A dictator?? Melvin, do you see Dick Cheney's picture anywhere in those murals?

Jose Miguel Hernandez

Mr. Painter sounds like he's upset about the decline of unearned white privilege and the rise of a multicultural America.

st. george ut attorneys

Those inner cities who keep on idolizing a dictator will become hapless for it's not dictator that they need, it is a true public servant, who listens to his constituents rather than dictating to his constituents.



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