The Murals of Obama’s First Term

Collected images.
Sept. 4 2012 6:16 PM

The Murals of Obama’s First Term

Sometimes the president is a preacher; sometimes he looks Latino.

"We love Obama." Jumpstart Learning Center, West Chicago Ave., at Birwood St., Detroit, 2012.
"We love Obama" on the wall of Jumpstart Learning Center.

Photo by Camilo Vergara.

On the wall of the Jumpstart Learning Center in Detroit, President Obama is depicted as a preacher addressing a crowd of tiny people from behind a lectern.

“We like Obama around here,” says the center’s director, Ms. Lockhard, who commissioned the painting from a neighbor for $150 during the first year of Obama’s presidency. When I commented that Detroit doesn’t look any better now than it did three years ago, Ms. Lockhard replied that her immediate neighborhood has improved.

Since Obama first took office in 2009, murals of his likeness have been appearing on the walls of fast food restaurants, barbershops, storefront churches, and other inner-city businesses across the U.S. The president is frequently pictured alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A South Los Angeles resident explained this choice to me: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so we can all fly.” A large mural at Master Burger in South L.A. suggests that Barack Obama has become president with the help of Marcus Garvey, the Tuskegee Airmen, Sojourner Truth, and other members of the black pantheon.

Urban murals typically show Obama wearing a tie and smiling. Often he has the up-tilted face and earnest demeanor of the famous “Hope” campaign poster: a statesman reflecting on issues of global significance.

Obama Murals

When painted by African-American artists, Obama’s tie is often red, his jacket blue, and his shirt white, this combination echoing the American flag that is often also incorporated. When Obama is depicted by Latino artists, on the other hand, he generally has Latino looks and lacks red-white-and-blue dress.

Lance Estos Bradley is proud of the mural of Obama he painted in an empty lot in Central Harlem for the Tabernacle of Deliverance.

"I did it lifelike," he told me. "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." The slogan written in big letters in the mural, “Yes We Can,” feels dated in 2012.

The murals are signs of trust in the president, but in some cases the paint is beginning to chip away.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his Web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.