A little girl wearing a backpack in a pool of blood, the first black president of the United States standing next to Rosa Parks and the woman who dared testify against a future Supreme Court Justice.
Images that define moments in history. Images that stay with you forever.
San Francisco artist John Mavroudis has always let politics inspire his art, but last year when he pulled an all-nighter to create what would go on to become one of the most iconic magazine covers in history, Mavroudis turned to something else for inspiration:
“The moment that was the most powerful was when she took the oath of law … She kind of tilted her head back and closed her eyes a little bit, almost like she was in prayer."
Those who watched Professor Christine Blasey Ford testify in Senate about sexual assault allegations against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh know exactly what Mavroudis means.
We caught up with him at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — where he works as a graphic artist — to talk about life after immortalizing that moment for a lot of women (and men) and his latest work, another icon in history — San Francisco gay rights leader, Harvey Milk.
“Harvey had a way of speaking to people and moving past all the barriers that seemed to stop other people — And he didn't seem to take no for an answer when all he was really asking for was to be treated just like everybody else,” Mavroudis said, showing us the vivid typographical portrait etched out in the colors of the rainbow flag reminiscent in style to the Time cover — except this time the words form a halo around Milk’s face, immortalizing those who played an important role in LGBTQ history.
The portrait also includes names of people who died from the ravages of AIDS (there are currently more than 36 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide), you can also make out important places and moments in gay rights history — the attacks targeting the LGBTQ community at the Central Station nightclub in Moscow, the launch of the gay rights movement at New York's Stonewall Inn, the Orlando Pulse nightclub attack and Harvey Milk’s famous phrase, “Hope Will Never be Silent.”
When Mavroudis got a call from Roger McNamee, venture capitalist and band member of the San Francisco psychedelic rock band Moonalice (and author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, which was recently featured on a Time cover), asking him to help commemorate a light installation in the Castro called “Harvey's Halo,” he couldn’t pass on an opportunity to honor Milk.
“He represents so much about the history of progress in the gay rights movement,” Mavroudis said, adding that the project led him on a discovery mission about important figures of the civil rights movement — artists, actors, activists, and politicians. “I wanted to make sure people were represented fairly, people who had suffered the same fate … I knew about Matthew Shepard, and the tragedy that befell him simply because he was a gay kid, and that is unfortunately representative of often what happens to a lot of gay kids. Not all of them get killed obviously, but there’s a lot of bullying, and for a lack of better term, torture. And they go on to become symbols for something greater.”
After the artwork was used for Harvey’s Halo, Mavroudis decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to turn it into limited edition silkscreen prints. He hopes that his art finds a home in the new Harvey Milk Terminal at San Francisco International Airport.
We ask Mavroudis what Harvey Milk means for San Francisco and the gay rights movement today.
“Unfortunately a lot what Harvey wanted didn't happen while he was alive,” Mavroudis said. “I think he saw to it that a lot of it did. I think to this next generation of young people actually, it's not an issue like it was for previous generations … Like you're gay or straight doesn't matter. And I think that would have been an incredible realization, and I really wish Harvey had been around to see that because if you were living during the 70s and before, I think that you were either in the closet or you lived in fear of being exposed and you could never be who you were. So I think he represents hope for a lot of people.”
As he hunches over his iPad Pro, showing us a kaleidoscope of words, lines, squiggles, faces and figures on his Procreate app (his collection spans from illustrations for The Nation to the New Yorker to a poster for Sia at The Fillmore, San Francisco), Mavroudis’ reminds us of something between a modern day Andy Warhol and Banksy. If you look closely, especially at some of the melancholic faces that dot his portfolio, pieces of Greek mythology take shape, which is not surprising, given that his dad’s side of the family is Greek.
“I grew up in a family where I had aunts and uncles who constantly argued politics,” Mavroudis said. “I get outraged by certain things and I have to find some way to get that outrage out."
We move on to the question we already know some of the answers to, but can't get enough of: Did you know the Christine Blasey Ford Time cover was going to be a big deal?
“I was excited about it, I had grown up with Time magazine as a kid and I always loved looking at the covers,” Mavroudis said. “I kind of knew it was a big deal because it was a Time cover. I guess every Time magazine cover is kind of a big deal, so I don’t know where I fit in that scale. But I was kind of overwhelmed by the feedback. I’d check my Twitter notifications and there was like a hundred or something like right after it published and then I looked again there was like four thousand!"
Mavroudis had two days to work on the cover. The editors over at Time wanted something similar to his typographical portrait of President Donald Trump in The Nation.
“I watched the testimony as it happened, then I rewatched it two times — then I started pulling words and photos," Mavroudis said. "Ninety-eight percent of the photos were from the hearing because there were so few photos of her out there before."
In the end, there were some graphic elements of the testimony that Time decided to take out. "The point was not to retraumatize her. The point was to accurately depict her," Mavroudis said.
Perhaps the most powerful part of that image were the words “I tried to call for help,” right above her mouth.
When asked whether he would call the Time cover the defining moment of his career, Mavroudis said: “A lot of women who had been through a similar situation as Dr. Ford wanted to share their experience and thank me for it. They thought it meant a lot. There was one woman who worked with victims of sexual assault and she wanted to print it out and put it up because she thought it would really help the people she worked with who were trying to work through their own recovery from sexual assaults."
But the story that holds a special place in his heart is about an email he received from a woman while he was riding BART over to work.
“She said her husband didn’t believe her (Blasey Ford) because she waited so long," Mavroudis said. "And the woman said it was that moment, you know, she was sitting at the kitchen table, and she told her husband what happened to her when she was 13 years old. She never told anybody.
I'm surprised I can get through this without crying. But it meant a lot to me that she took the time to thank me for the cover because of what she had been through."
You can follow John @ZenPopArt to find out more about his work.