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Photo essay: Obamafication

November 5, 2010 |  7:44 pm

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

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