One cannot simply become an icon. To become iconic, images must be a reflection of accomplishments in a specific field at a specific time, visual representing something greater than the actual subject itself. Jimi Hendrix is an iconic representation of the 1960’s music scene; Michael Jordan’s is icon of basketball – in 1996 a global poll found Jordan’s face was as recognizable as figures like Chairman Mao, Bill Clinton, John Lennon, or even Jesus Christ. The Coca-Cola logo is an iconic representation of American capitalism and certainly, if T-shirts are a barometer, Ché Guevara’s face, beret and flowing hair are THE icon for revolution and political change.
Viva la Revoluccion! Government propaganda like this was the only thing I saw painted in Havana when I first arrived, slogans to bolster the Cuban spirit combined with images of the revolution’s heroes. In particular, Ché’s face, taken from Alberto Korda’s famous photograph, was as common on the streets of Havana as it was in college dorm rooms around the world. The photograph was no longer a representation of the man himself, nor even his actions, it has become a representation of revolution against a world ruled by capitalism.
Icons take on a life of their own and represent a greater ideal than the subject itself. In a country where media and messaging are controlled by the government, where free speech is controlled by fear, where advertising for commercial objectives has no place, the only allowable public messaging is political propaganda. In this vein, Cuban graffiti has achieved an iconic place in contemporary Cuba, as a means of expression, and in that a rejection of sanctioned propaganda.