The posters show Nelson Mandela at his post-apartheid best: smiling, dignified, presidential. In mid-February, artist Robbie Conal and his cohorts pasted them up around Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco — part of an international effort by Conal and the South African nonprofit Art Aids Art to celebrate Mandela in the wake of his December 2013 death. The posters, which have also been distributed in Cape Town, South Africa, have two versions: one with Mandela's visage above the word "WALKING" and one with Mandela above the word "DANCING." Conal, a longtime poster artist in Los Angeles, based the work on a Mandela speech where Mandela said: "It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself."
Conal and his wife personally put up the two posters at 977 Mission St. near Sixth. At age 69, Conal is one of the oldest street artists still actively working. He first came to the city's attention in 1986, with a "Men With No Lips" street poster series that satirized President Ronald Reagan and three Reagan officials: Donald Regan, Casper Weinberger, and James Baker. Conal, who calls himself "an original hippie," still gets excited about putting up posters with like-minded supporters, even though they target walls that are theoretically illegal to post on. "It's the one part of my life where anarchy actually works for me," Conal says, laughing, in a phone interview. "I can't tell you what a thrill it is. Both my parents were union organizers in New York City, and I grew up in a very political family."
Conal was surprised that in Oakland, someone tagged the forehead of three Mandela posters with the words "Terrorist," "Communist," and "Murderer" — a reference to Mandela's revolutionary actions to end apartheid, before he was jailed. The defacings are a reminder that, even in the liberal Bay Area, a figure like Mandela has detractors who'll seize an opportunity to voice their opinion. By contrast, in Southern California's Culver City, a Mandela poster put up illegally across from a police station several weeks ago is still there. "Because it's Mandela," Conal says, "nobody touched it."