Photographer Chronicles Martin Luther King Murals For more than 30 years, Camilo Jose Vergara has photographed murals of Martin Luther King Jr. found in inner-city neighborhoods around America. The paintings are sometimes faded or obscured, but all convey the reverence with which the artists treated their subject.
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Photographer Chronicles Martin Luther King Murals

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Photographer Chronicles Martin Luther King Murals

Photographer Chronicles Martin Luther King Murals

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People were commemorating King's life long before there was a holiday. And for three decades now a photographer has been taking pictures of King's image on urban walls.

Camilo Jose Vergara has turned his cameras to murals depicting King in neighborhoods from Detroit to Los Angeles to Chicago to Newark, New Jersey. He has also spoken with people who painted those murals. They're on the walls of playgrounds and restaurants, even liquor stores.

And the images include one which Vergara photographed in the South Bronx, in one of New York's poorest areas in 1977.

You've got an orange background. You've got Martin Luther King. I'm not sure I'd know that if you didn't tell me that because it looks like it's been spattered with things, posters have been stuck over it, maybe it's been shot at. I don't know what's happened to that mural. It's just chipped all over the place.

Mr. CAMILO JOSE VERGARA (Photographer): I think the more important issue is how few of those there are. You know, it is that if you paint Martin Luther King, it stays. And that, I think, is a sign of respect, and that also, I think, is a sign that the people in the neighborhood feel that Martin Luther King and his effigy and his accomplishments, as they are often listed, represent them. You know, because it's obviously, you know, very seldom somebody gets paid to do those things. So they go there and put their thoughts on the wall. By looking at the pictures you get to see the diverse ways in which people in the neighborhoods that Martin Luther King most - was most concerned about looked at Marin Luther King and thought about him.

INSKEEP: I have come to one here. This - it's labeled seafood restaurant, South Normandie at 47th Street, Los Angeles, 1997. And what's remarkable about this is someone has drawn a portrait of Pancho Villa, the legendary Mexican bandit and rebel leader with his ammunition belts around him, and right next to him is Martin Luther King. I guess it's supposed to be Martin Luther King, although honestly it looks a little like Pancho Villa.

Mr. VERGARA: Well, you know, you gave Mexican sign painters a picture that was taken from a newspaper or from a calendar of Martin Luther King and says, go and put this on the wall. And often, what happens is that they had never before made a portrait of an African-American person. So they ended up making him looking Latino, and that's what it looks like.

But the particular story with that - with that seafood place was that the owner thought that by putting the two of them together, it would make African-Americans feel at home. You see the merging of two cultures, which I think is a very interesting thing. As you can see from the Latino portraits, their main purpose there often was to say, look, we're talking to you. We're not different from you. We want your business. We want to be friends with you.

INSKEEP: And here's one where there seems to be some kind of gate or grate that's been closed in front of Martin Luther King, like a store window grate. And it looks like he is in jail.

Mr. VERGARA: Yes, yes. Well, what usually happens is that the portrait - it's placed there. The image is placed there. And then, something else needs to be put in there. So, in that case, it was grates. In other cases, it's been a TV camera, you know, which in another one of the pictures, you know, he has - you can look at an ear of a giant head of Martin Luther King, and the ear has a close-circuit television camera pointed at the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: I'm looking at this now - a no loitering sign.

Mr. VERGARA: That's right.

INSKEEP: A symbol of freedom, and not quite as much freedom perhaps as you thought. Or maybe too much freedom. I don't know.

Mr. VERGARA: Well, I mean, there is a certain ambiguity in all of this, you know?

INSKEEP: Did you ever meet a mural artist who painted Martin Luther King again and again, who, in effect, was as obsessed with painting Martin Luther King as you have been with exploring these murals?

Mr. VERGARA: Not really. Not really. I just - the kind of obsession - and what I find very interesting is let's say somebody who is homeless, and just all of a sudden gets a mission, and in an alley - as you can see one of the pictures there - paints Martin Luther King with the pyramids behind. So even though he's down and out, you know, even though he has no place to go, you know, he puts Martin Luther King there as something, you know, that is uplifting.

INSKEEP: Camilo Jose Vergara - it's great to talk with you again.

Mr. VERGARA: Well, it's a pleasure to talk to you, Steve,

INSKEEP: He's a noted urban photographer, and you can see some of his photographs of Martin Luther King murals for yourself simply by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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