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World-famous artist Shepard Fairey unveils Muhammad Ali mural

The mural of Muhammad Ali, painted by renowned artist Shepard Fairey, looks over the Chestnut Street Family YMCA.
Sylvia Goodman
/
LPM
The mural of Muhammad Ali, painted by renowned artist Shepard Fairey, looks over the Chestnut Street Family YMCA.

Shepard Fairey, an artist known for the “Hope” poster for former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, unveiled the seven-story mural of the boxer and activist.

The portrait looks out over the entrance to the Chestnut Street YMCA in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood. In the mural, Muhammad Ali fixes his steadfast gaze out on the streets that would have been familiar to him. Beneath the bright primary colors of the portrait, Fairey painted in bold black lettering some of Ali’s top ideals. Respect, confidence, dedication and a message: “Everyone helps everyone!”

Mayor Craig Greenberg spoke at the unveiling, saying that Muhammad Ali’s influence on the city is obvious. The airport and a major boulevard are named after him, as is the nearby Muhammad Ali Center.

“But this mural here today is something else. This mural is a statement,” Greenberg said. “This is the city of Louisville shouting to the world and telling everyone, this is our guy. This is our hero. He is our inspiration.”

Ali reportedly frequented the Chestnut Street Family YMCA, which is a couple of blocks from Central High School, his alma mater, and just a few miles from his childhood home.

Freddie Brown, the vice president of diversity, inclusion and global perspective for the YMCA of Greater Louisville, said they invested nearly a million dollars into the Chestnut Street YMCA in the past year. According to Brown, Ali played basketball, swam and watched old fights with his friends there.

“Generations to come will be able to have this experience. And now, not only the experience of the Y, the experience of community, but the experience of great public art that gives you some excitement about not just now but the future,” Brown said.

Shepard Fairey, the artist who painted the 2008 Obama "Hope" poster, stands beneath his latest mural depicting Muhammad Ali. He holds a proclamation from Mayor Craig Greenberg declaring April 26 "Shepard Fairey Day."
Sylvia Goodman
Shepard Fairey, the artist who painted the 2008 Obama "Hope" poster, stands beneath his latest mural depicting Muhammad Ali. He holds a proclamation from Mayor Craig Greenberg declaring April 26 "Shepard Fairey Day."

The portrait Fairey referenced for the illustration was taken by Ali’s personal photographer Howard Bingham. Bingham was a lifelong friend of Ali's and his son gave Fairey permission to use the photo for the mural.

Bingham took the photo in 1967 at a press conference after Ali was indicted for refusing the Vietnam War draft. Fairey said he was inspired by Ali’s strength in his beliefs, even in the face of not just legal challenges, but public attacks.

“He was able to remain dignified and maintain his convictions and his vision in that moment. I believe this image captures that essence,” Fairey said. “When we see it, we feel it, even if we don't know literally what was going on in that moment.”

Fairey said he solicited input on the piece from the YMCA Black Achievers, an educational mentorship program for teens of color. He was struck by how much they focused not on Ali’s sports achievements, but his values and activism. Fairey said he already felt aligned with many of the principles that Ali stood for and eventually decided to focus on one ideal: “Everyone helps everyone.”

Greenberg said that funding for public art will be included in his budget that he will announce to the Metro Council Thursday evening, “so we can continue to make more great public artworks happen in our city.”

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.