Nine years ago, a young black American whip-smart by the name of Barak Obama became the 44th President of the United States. As we'd just moved overseas, I didn't vote in that election, but if I had, it's likely I would've cast my vote for the graphic designer who created this masterpiece:
This image was iconic, a post-modern evolution of pop art. It was hard to fault the image of hope cast in shades of red and blue, superimposed on the gorgeous face of the new America. I mean, if we're just talking visuals, this is what he was up against.
So when I jokingly say that artist Shepard Fairey won the election for Obama, I'm actually quite serious. Without the HOPE poster, I'm not sure we would've had the first African-American president of the United States. It was simple in its profundity.
After all, isn't hope itself just like that? Simple, raw emotion and power?
Today, in another country, I'm seeing other political campaigns being fought in Adobe photoshop and illustrator, in street art and coffee shop pamphlets. And I have to tell you: there's a clear winner.
Much like the YesEquality Campaign of the 2015 Irish Marriage Referendum, legalising gay marriage in the republic, the "Repeal the 8th" movement – seeking to repeal and replace the 8th amendment in the Irish constitution that aims to equally value and protect both an unborn child and the life of the mother – has art on its side.
"All art is, in some way or other, indelibly political because it relates to the workings of the society from which it emerges," wrote Cian O'Brien, artistic director of Project Arts Centre, after street artist Maser's mural first appeared in Temple Bar in 2016, both inspiring - and angering - arts patrons. "It is vital for art and artists to be at the centre of our nation’s great debates – as, indeed, they always have been."
Not just art, but sentimentality and nostalgia, reminiscent of bubble print of the 1980s and the preferred vintage apparel of all millennials everywhere. This unofficial mural has become the sign of the revolution, if you will. Maser's art perfectly illustrates the concept that if you want to win the hearts and minds of the masses, create art people will understand, appreciate, love, and most importantly, social media share.
“It was uplifting and it did engage people," Andrea Horan, who originally commissioned Maser's mural, told TotallyDublin. "It wasn’t to force something down someone’s throats like 'This is why you need to do it’. It was to create conversation so you’d see it and either feel supported by it or questioned by it and you’d engage with it.”
In comparison, the Love Both campaign, while just as legitimate a cause, arguably does its beliefs a disservice with their own logo and branding. Breast cancer awareness staked its claim on pink decades ago. By using the exact same colour palette, Love Both muddies the waters of its message with its advertising. And honestly, other than my daughter's primary school classmates, I don't know many people willing to rock the pink on pink look no matter how true or noble the message is.
Of course, there is always the exception. "Make America Great Again" baseball caps were routinely slagged during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, while "I'm With Her" buttons and t-shirts were all over social media and popular media, college campuses and farmers markets.
And we all know how that turned out.
So why am I going to all this effort to compare important, life-altering, culture-shaping topics by seemingly trite font and colour choice? Couldn't it be that the younger the demographic of any one cause, the more culturally aware the branding will be?
Branding matters, way more than we like to admit. Art holds great subversive power. We can identify with the name of a campaign, but if the visuals don't grab us, inspire us, draw us into a greater conversation, the message will irretrievably get lost.
The aesthetic look of any one issue doesn't make it right, but it can make it effective.
Concludes O'Brien, "To me, the power of Maser’s work is not the message it contains, but the legacy it has created. The imprint of the work on the building remains in many people’s minds (and on their social media), and is almost as powerful as the work itself."
After all, who can say no to a giant heart? Who wanted to say no to a bright rainbow (and doves!) declaring "YesEquality"?
Who could say no to HOPE?
Well, many of us did. But not the majority, and in the end, majority rules, showing us that art won't just change culture. Art can – and will – make history.
PS: You can find my report on Ireland's debate over legalising abortion here.