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.
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.