Take Two #105: Proper Response to Racist Vandalism

By Kyra-lin Hom

Living in a big city like Seattle or where I am in Chicago, you very quickly become accustomed to graffiti’ed adverts. Billboards, posters and fliers – they all make perfect targets for artistic delinquincy. Particular individuals take their art a step further like the famous UK-based “Banksy.”

Banksy is the pseudonym for a politically active graffiti artist. He views advertisements as attacks on our public space, as abrasive invasions of our mental and emotional territories. And fair enough. We don’t have a choice about the ads we’re forced to see so why not reclaim them for ourselves. His artistic demonstrations are intelligent, subversive, satirical and darkly humorous political and social commentary. Whether you agree with him or not, his pieces are thought provoking, beautiful and enhance the spaces they occupy.

Banksy, however, is the exception to the rule. More often than not the graffiti we witness on a daily basis is crass, simple and even less welcome than the adverts they deface. One such display of asinine, witless dreck on the New York subway has recently gone viral not for the sheer level of its tastelessness but for the surprisingly tasteful response it engendered from the adverts’ source.

Gap’s recent classy yet glamorous “Make Love” ad campaign features artists of all makes and models who “are spreading and creating love in the world.” You might have even seen a few examples on your daily commute already. I just saw two more today, in fact, including the one that’s made such a splash. Why the scandal? Because it features a man wearing a turban.

This specific poster depicts an attractive man and woman of South Asian heritage. The man is actor and high-end jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia of the company House of Waris. I hadn’t heard of him either, but apparently his jewelry is a highly coveted status symbol the world over. The photo of these two is just gorgeous and sexy in a subtle, smoky kind of way.

In New York, someone chose to replace the Gap text “Make Love” with “Make Bombs” and then squiggle “Please Stop Driving Taxis!” just below. (If you’re thinking of comparing this to Banksy’s reclamation of public space, please first prove Sharpie’d genitalia’s merit as décor.) An image of the callously ignorant vandalism went viral thanks to Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of The Islamic Monthly. To everyone’s surprise, Gap responded directly to Iftikhar within a day, inquiring as to the poster’s exact location so it could be fixed.

Gap further made the image of Ahluwalia and the female model its Twitter account background image and released the statement: “…Gap is a brand that celebrates inclusion and diversity. Our customers and employees are of many different ethnicities, faiths, and lifestyles and we support them all.” Well-played Gap. Very nicely done. It’s just a shame this became necessary at all.

One, Ahluwalia is not associated with the Taliban and had nothing to do with 9/11. For the last time, Islam doesn’t equal Taliban or terrorism or violence. Second, Ahluwalia isn’t even Islamic. He’s a Sikh – similar part of the world, very different religion. But since 9/11, Americans have become experts at seeing an Indian man in a turban and instantly losing their minds: the Sikh temple massacre that took place in Wisconsin last year, for example. Oh wait, you didn’t hear about that? Me neither. Seriously though, so what if he was Muslim? Ahluwalia’s religious misidentification only serves to intensify the utter ignorance on display here.

Hats off to Gap for the fearless step forward. Now let’s just hope we’ll one day live in an America where a mainstream photo of a “handsome, bearded brown dude in a turban” (Iftikhar) doesn’t make national news just by existing.

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