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Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Abraham Obama in Boston"

Street artist inspires too much enthusiasm.
Fans' unauthorized ad blitz draws fire
The mural by artist Ron English on Harrison Avenue features composite portraits of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, their faces melded in a rainbow of colors. The mural by artist Ron English on Harrison Avenue features composite portraits of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, their faces melded in a rainbow of colors. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

The owners of a small South End gallery say they had the best of intentions when they commissioned a famous and often mischievous street artist to install a massive political mural on a construction wall lining one of the artiest strips of the South End.

The mural, 13 feet high and nearly a block long, features multiple composite portraits of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, their faces melded together in a rainbow of colors. It is meant, the gallery said, to inspire dialogue.

That it did. The morning after artist Ron English and his band of volunteers finished the mural, "Abraham Obama," it stirred a tempest in this insular arts community, though it had nothing to do with Lincoln, Obama or English himself.

Rather, residents, business owners, and even fellow gallery owners expressed frustration, angst, and anger over the way some English enthusiasts descended upon the city, plastering windows, telephone polls, and other surfaces with miniature posters meant to advertise the massive exhibit.

By yesterday, the sponsors of the exhibit, Gallery XIV, got a call from Boston police, apparently prompted by a complaint by the nearby Boston Center for the Arts, where two unauthorized posters were plastered.

"My best alibi and the truth is that I had no idea what we were getting into," said Will Kerr, director of exhibition sponsor Gallery XIV. "We were just interested in the installation on Thayer Street, which is an incredible work of art. I'm really trying to be a good neighbor and do damage control."

Kerr said the gallery made sure the exhibition was installed legally last week with permission from the building owner, but gallery owners apparently underestimated the fervor of the artist's fans. The mural is the feature piece of a street art exhibition called "a politic," scheduled to run through Oct. 4. They marketed it as "a legal billboard," by an artist more popular for illegal billboards in cities from New York to Amsterdam.

English's presence drew interest from some of his fans accustomed to the mischievous nature of his street art. They heard about the planned Boston installation through blogs.

English made a name for himself by co-opting corporate billboards in New York City and pasting over them with his own billboards that lampooned corporate excess, war, and other hot-button topics. His website, popaganda.com, displays a gallery of illegal billboards he has erected.

"We had people in their early 20s who drove to Boston overnight from Maine and Vermont," said Kerr. "After the installation was done, Ron English got into signing posters, and they gave away posters to everyone at the party."

English's fans were apparently so enamored of his work Wednesday night that they snapped up autographed prints of the image and pasted them, illegally, on several buildings in the South End.

"It's kind of hard not to notice," said Joseph Carol, director of the Bernard Toale Gallery on Harrison Avenue

The next morning, Gallery XIV's phone was ringing with residents and business owners in the South End complaining about the vandalism. The posters had popped up on utility boxes, on the sides of private homes, and outside law offices and restaurants. Kerr estimated that dozens of the unauthorized posters were plastered around the South End and that he personally received about four or five phone calls from angry property owners.

"I have seen a few scattered around," Carol said. "I assumed they were illegal, and I was curious to know why they would do that. Especially since it's not underground; it comes right back to the pieces on the street and the gallery that sponsored it. That didn't seem to be the brightest thing in my mind to do."

Indeed, a police report filed that evening about the illegal posters mentions Gallery XIV's exhibition opening.

"But we have no responsibility for that," said Paul Riedl, of Gallery XIV. "I have no idea who did it. I know the artist has a following of people and they might do this. He's noted for guerilla-type tactics and stuff, but those were done not with our permission."

In an e-mail last night, English said "a couple hundred" copies of the portrait were distributed by his publisher at a reception following the installation and suggested he had no problem with supporters posting them around the neighborhood.

The Boston Center for the Arts on Tremont Street filed a police report over a poster on one of its outdoor bulletin boards. Hamersley's Bistro, a tenant in the arts center's building, complained about a poster on its facade, said Jim Marko, director of development and marketing for the center.

He dismissed the irony of an arts center complaining about street art, saying the concern was protecting the historic building.

"There were no artists suggesting art shouldn't happen," Marko said. "There were facilities people doing their job, which was to keep the public spaces around here clean and proper."

He said had Gallery XIV asked permission to place a poster marketing the exhibit on one of the center's outdoor display boards, it possibly would have been approved.

The portrait, prints that English created and began selling earlier this year, has drawn interest on political and street art blogs.

English said he was born and raised in Illinois and is an Obama supporter. He said he wanted the image to serve as a springboard for conversation about Obama's candidacy. "I believe Obama will take up Lincoln's challenge of uniting the country," English wrote. "This is the most excited I've ever been about a presidential candidate and I'm looking for ways that I can contribute as an artist and a citizen." Some say the comparisons between Obama and Lincoln only go so far.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com

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