Much has been promised and proven about young people’s involvement in the Obama campaign–from kids going door-to-door to voter registration drives on college campuses. Far away from that, though, there has been another outpouring of political participation on walls, abandoned buildings, scaffolding, posters, stickers and subway trains around the country.
Brooklyn-based Clark Clark, as he likes to be called, has spent the entirety of 2008 following one word around the country: “VOTE.” He paints it the way Robert Indiana painted “LOVE” four decades ago, a square box of letters that turned into as indelible a representation as any for the movement of that time. Clark has adjusted the sixties optimism of “LOVE” for a new generation–one that he feel has a candidate to believe in. While he started out nonpartisan, Clark began to incorporate a pro-Obama message into some of his work. After all, the very act of encouraging political participation with spray paint, of glorifying something so mainstream with a renegade art form, has been a phenomenon unique to the Obama candidacy.
Branching out from New York City, which he saturated with thousands of stencils, Clark spent his summer on a road trip. Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado, Florida–these swing states were among the twenty-seven that Clark hit with his pen and message. “VOTE” is on farms in Nebraska and brick walls in East St. Louis. Clark also had 200,000 stickers printed with his motto shipped to friends all over the country. But he is just one of many who have decided to turn their paint toward the November election. (Clark’s work can be seen online.)
“I can’t think of another period in time where a candidate has inspired people to create so much positive graffiti,” Clark said. “In Denver, at the conventions, the number of young artists that came out for Obama was out of this world.”
In Denver, artists took over an empty warehouse and 10,000 people stopped by to view a completely different perspective on how and why people support Barack Obama. Titled “Manifest Hope,” the event brought out graffiti legends, including CRO–a Chicago artist who set up the website gotellmama.org (“I’m for Obama” is the implied end of the phrase). CRO has also been on the move, covering 20,000 miles behind his work, which ranges from detailed renderings of Obama’s face to the image of the official campaign slogan dropping through a basketball net. “Nothin’ but Next,” reads the caption. His very personal brand of political expression has generated 50,000 Youtube views.
“This art is a fuel for the grassroots movement,” Clark emphasized, surrounded by his own work. “People see it over and over again and they can say, ‘this is ours.’ It’s all continuing the public conversation.”
That grassroots power has historically been relegated to images of bold, broad dissent. Perhaps no image exemplifies this better than the most famous piece from Shepard Fairey: a menacing, glaring face with the word “Obey” written under it, like some terrifying combination of Big Brother and Orson Welles in his later years. It is a clever, well-crafted symbol of what graffiti has represented–anti-establishment, angry, against. Yet in 2008, to his own surprise, Fairey became the man behind one of the most indelible images in modern campaign history.
He paints Obama’s face, staring off into some better future, in a mixture of royal reds and blues. “Hope” is written below. Just as Clark’s quick connection of “LOVE” to “VOTE” stuck in the minds of the millions who passed it, Fairey’s image provided an instant reimagining of how one could view a mainstream presidential candidate. It has found its way to posters, T-shirts, Facebook pages and Internet avatars the world over.
“I think that an image like that can become a reference point for people,” Fairey himself explained. “I have people say, ‘The moment I saw your poster, my feelings were crystallized.’ ”
Fairey recognizes the unique role that a respected street artist can have when he turns towards the mainstream. “The moment that someone seen as underground or hardcore comes out with a something getting behind a candidate,” he told The Nation, “it makes it alright for others to support it.”
It is difficult to remember now, after he has been accepted as the frontrunner, that Barack Obama’s run for the presidency began as something closer to a countercultural murmur. Yosi Sergant, the Los Angeles publicist responsible for putting together Manifest Hope, described it well. “Obama needed it,” he said. “He didn’t come into it with that strict, old infrastructure–it was: be the change you want to see, pick up a pen and get out there. It’s a campaign that’s really inviting. There was space in the movement for us and I believe it was intentionally built that way.”
That space has encompassed a wealth of street artists, from random bandwagon jumpers to respected veterans like David Choe and Arizona’s El Mac, who have created a place in their known aesthetic to fit Obama’s face. Each must balance their own authenticity and the outsider nature of their art with an accessible message of support.
“I made mine intentionally red, white and blue,” Fairey emphasized. “I made the look intentionally not that counterculture.”
The result is staggering. What started as 350 posters sold and another 350 put up illegally around LA has turned into over 200,000 posters, half a million stickers and 20,000 T-shirts–not to mention the billboards and bus stops that Fairey worked on. And that, of course, is just from the original source. One thing about street art is that it spawns imitation and reproduction. It become a public statement. The street art conception of Obama has become an equally popular alternative to the official campaign images. When The Nation ran its Democratic Convention issue, it was Fairey’s version of Obama that graced the cover.
“It was the right image for the right moment,” Fairey said. “Even though Obama’s branding was really great, there was nothing that had the personal connection of a portrait.”
Street art, in general, seems to be the right voice for this particular political movement, for young people looking for a different way to express their political identity. Beyond that, writing graffiti, wearing graffiti, following graffiti with a pro-politics message is a way for kids too young to vote to be heard.
Clark has targeted youth with his work. He taught a class at East Denver High School. Back in New York, he has been doing the same thing at two schools in the Bronx. When the kids get excited, he busts out some “VOTE” stencils, hands them to his pupils and sends a bunch of political artists home from school. While this may be distressing to some of their parents, it shows youth that they can be politically thoughtful and active, even if participatory politics remains both foreign and not allowed.
Clark has returned to New York City, and shortly before election day he opened a gallery exhibit at The Hamilton Fish Branch of the New York Public Library, a children’s library. His audience is young people from a poor neighborhood trying to understand a historic election. On one Thursday evening, three teenage girls walked through the exhibit after school. Almost methodically, they covered themselves in the stickers that Clark left lying around–on their jeans, on their hoodies, on their backpacks. They went back out into the bitter October cold, and as they crossed Houston Street to a block of public housing projects, you could see “VOTE” bouncing off them. “Obama!” they cried, and you could hear it over the traffic.