Last year, Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, popped up in posters and graffiti throughout New York.
Now he’s in L.A. This poster, alongside Lincoln Blvd. in Venice, went up about among a month ago. I took this photo just yesterday. Given the poster’s condition, it’ll be gone inside three weeks. Another of these posters, affixed to a wall on Abbot Kinney, may last longer.
The design site Global Graphica has posted a whole gallery of street art devoted to Ai Weiwei, featuring works in both L.A. and New York. Here’s an example from Brooklyn. The neon green slogan, “Where’s My Passport,” refers to an international campaign that pressured the Chinese government to restore Ai Weiwei’s travel privileges following their suspension in 2015:
Meanwhile, I’ve seen the Lincoln Blvd. poster daily on my walks around town. None of the neighbors know who put it up. Neither does the owner of the Lincoln Blvd. business next door. No matter: I’m glad it’s there.
Ai Weiwei is just one example of the political street art that has come roaring back since Trump took power. Robbie Conal is back in fine form with scathing posters reminiscent of his best work during the Reagan Administration. (Who can forget “Women With Teeth” and “Men Without Lips”?) Here are two of his latest, taken in July near Rose and Lincoln.
By the way, lest anyone imagine that Conal’s visual style goes too far, take a look at early 20th century French cartoonist Jean Veber’s 1901 rendering of Edward VII for the French satirical magazine L’Assiette au beurre (Wikipedia offers pretty good summaries of L’Assiette au beurre‘s history here and of Veber’s career here).
Still, the large well-wrought image of Ai Weiwei has surprised me. I cannot recall another time – not in the last thirty years, at least – when an international political figure became such a symbol for American political dissatisfaction.
Ai Weiwei is no Che Guevara. He’s much closer in spirit and thought to Vaclav Havel, the playwright whose defiance of Czech communist authorities in the 70s and 80s made him a symbol of that era’s newly reborn human rights movement. Yet it’s hard to imagine Havel’s image spraypainted on a New York or L.A. sidewalk,, though such graffiti did appear in Prague.
Vox links Ai’s ascent to the international success of his art, which in turn feeds on his fame as a dissident. This begs the question: how does an artist gain that kind of pop following?
I’d advance three explanations. First – obviously – there is something appealing and inspirational about Ai Weiwei’s wit, his brio, and his resilience in the face of severe government pressure. Second, the man knows how to make the most of contemporary technology: he posts almost daily for nearly four million followers. More important, street artists themselves identify with Ai Weiwei’s flamboyance and satire. Though few Americans know his name, the kind of people who slap their art on walls at 3am see in Ai a fellow traveler.
All this is speculation. I would love to know who actually designed and mounted the Lincoln Blvd. poster, and what that artist hoped the piece would achieve.
One thing’s sure: it has my attention.