I like graffiti. It’s not because of the allure of running around at ungodly hours and spraying art all over establishments and alleyways, or the danger of being caught by “The Man” for the sake of artistic creation. I like graffiti because it’s art made by the people, seen by the people. You can’t get better free visibility anywhere else than on public property, because “public property,” in some circles, also means “public visibility.”

While the passing of the Ann Arbor anti-graffiti ordinance might suggest an urge to repress graffiti art, I think we’ve begun to see more of a cultural acceptance of graffiti-type images in contemporary culture. Take the Barack Obama “HOPE” poster by Shepard Fairey, for example. Those bright patches of solid red and blue and thick, contrast-heavy lines are reminiscent of spray-painted graffiti art stencils and silkscreen prints, à la Andy Warhol’s Marilyn (Monroe) prints.

The iconic image of Obama was originally created by Fairey in an attempt to get the word out about the then-presidential candidate. Fairey is also a graffiti artist and the person behind the André the Giant “OBEY” graffiti posters that had begun popping up wheat-pasted to buildings in cities like New York and Chicago.

Fairey mentioned in his interview with Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report” that, instead of resorting to illegal distribution tactics for his Obama image, he wanted to get the word out legitimately — he decided to wait for the support of the Obama campaign administration. Once permission was granted, his “HOPE” became the unofficial image of the Obama campaign.

This legitimizing of graffiti art is intriguing because graffiti has classically been labeled as illegal and somewhat of a nuisance to property owners. It’s easy to get mired down in all the political and property-based arguments against graffiti, but it’s equally important to look at graffiti art’s visibility and how Fairey’s stencil graffiti-style “HOPE” became so widespread and iconic. I think it has a lot to do with two elements — the image’s stylization and its extensive distribution.

Fairey’s Obama stencil image manages to find a middle ground between the photorealistic and the abstract. Certain details are made more prominent, like the detailed, contemplative eyes that look off the plane of the poster, and the mouth that’s drawn in a way that not only makes the face more recognizable, but gives the image a more regal, self-assured look. And certain details are removed, like skin textures and hair textures that may serve to smooth over individualistic details, moving the image from the realm of “individual portrait” to that of “recognizable icon.”

We’ve seen this in Warhol’s Marilyn. The lack of detail in the image, in conjunction with its recognizable quality, makes the image pop out and become something visible over a longer distance. It’s similar, in a way, to logo branding. When you simplify a restaurant chain’s name into two golden arches, you make an “M” that people equate with “loving it,” Big Macs and fries.

Similarly, when you boil down a person’s image to its simplest parts, you create a symbol. Marilyn Monroe’s image became a symbol for glamour and fame in the ’60s. Obama’s image is equated with “HOPE” or “CHANGE,” as these are ideas his campaign tried to introduce into the mass consciousness.

But don’t forget the visibility of the image. The mass-produced quality of Warhol’s Marilyn prints is important to the artwork as well. One of his pieces features ten silkscreen prints of Monroe’s face set next to one another; each image is produced using different colors for the lips, eyes, skin and mouth. The repetition of the image, and the use of the image of a famous figure, seem to recreate what happens when an image is placed everywhere for the public to see: It becomes immediately recognizable by large groups of people.

Similarly, Obama’s face has had incredible visibility as a symbol and logo. The red and blue “O” logo is more than just an “O;” it represents the beliefs and slogans of the entire Obama campaign. The idea of mass-visibility has also changed a great deal since society placed more importance on the internet as an information highway. Fairey’s poster was initially released online for the public to use and distribute, and it immediately went viral, spreading between users through e-mail, forums and online communities.

It’s interesting to see the spread of image visibility occurring primarily within a virtual space. The internet was the starting point that spawned stickers, T-shirts and graffiti created by people interested in the Obama campaign. Virtual accessibility of the image created mass visibility. It’s something very different from Warhol’s time, where Monroe’s face became iconic because of its repeated presence within the print media — Obama’s face became iconic because of its repeated presence on websites and places like Facebook. The media is just moving online.

In this sense, Fairey’s “HOPE” poster has risen to its iconic status because of both its pop-art roots as well as its ability to be quickly mass-produced and spread. Just as the Marilyn prints were created using silk-screening, which is used to efficiently mass-produce a single image, “HOPE” was created by a graffiti artist who utilized the internet to mass-produce his own work.

While the idea of mass-visibility might have once concerned print publications and the placing of graffiti tags or images where people can see them (illicitly on public buildings, for example), the Obama poster has become a type of virtual graffiti: an art for the people, spread by the people.

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