Obama and the Vandal

Craig Dathe

By now almost everyone is familiar with the Obama HOPE poster.  It was the ubiquitous face of Obama’s election campaign, appearing on everything from television to t-shirts, and proved so influential that a copy of it resides in the National Portrait Gallery.  The poster’s designer, Shepard Fairey, is now one of the most famous artists in the country.  GQ named him a Person of the Year in 2008, and his Obey Giant clothing line is incredibly popular.

This is an artist who has had an enormous impact on our culture and our politics, yet when Fairey arrived at an exhibition of his own work at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art this past February, he was arrested as he got out of his car.  The charges: vandalism.

Many don’t know that the Obama HOPE posters began illegally.  Fairey wanted to help promote Obama’s campaign, so he designed the posters (originally with the slogan PROGRESS instead of HOPE) and pasted them to walls in cities across the United States.  Although he had made a powerful and positive political statement without receiving any payment from anyone else, putting up posters without permission on buildings that don’t belong to you is against the law.  Obama wouldn’t affiliate his campaign with Fairey’s design until Fairey agreed to produce it legally, and change the slogan from PROGRESS to the more uplifting HOPE.  With Obama’s endorsement, Fairey’s design went from vandalism to national icon.

I mean for this anecdote to prove that graffiti does not have to be racist and destructive like the tags we found scrawled in the Miramonte bathrooms this fall.  Drawing a hanging black man on the wall of a stall is a hate crime, but Shepard Fairey’s posters are different.  Graffiti that has heart and a positive intent should be referred to as “street art.”  Street artists take graffiti to another level; they create art that interacts with our everyday environments, art that lifts our chins up from our chests and makes us take notice. They understand the legal repercussions of their actions, but believe that opening the minds of others is worthy of the price they pay.

It is this fearless creativity that Miramonte seems to lack.  We’re so chained to our textbooks that we forget that there’s something outside their covers.  If there is any artistry going on here it’s going on behind closed doors.  A more daring creative attitude would do our community some good.  Let’s take this creativity outside the classroom.

Two years ago a bold act of creativity occurred at Miramonte.  A student used our campus as her canvas, using stencils and simple imagery to ask students to “pop the Miramonte bubble” and open their minds. The artist was unavailable to comment at the time of this writing.

Good street art, just like any good book or painting or song, pushes us to think beyond our mundane daily routines.  But unlike other methods, street art appears where it is least expected.  The forms it takes are endless, from the flash and dazzle of tags on New York City subway trains to Banksy’s stenciled scenes and characters.  The range of creativity in street art really must be seen to be believed: woostercollective.com is a great place to start.  In the end, street artists have the courage and audacity to make a statement on the very walls around us.  Some of this courage and audacity is just what Miramonte needs.

I do not advocate vandalism.  However, I do advocate the creative and positive use of our right to free speech.  We forget the degree to which we can shape our world.  You decide what to say, and how to say it, and if your message has integrity then your words will not be wasted.  Dare to think, and to create, for yourselves.