At the end of February 2004, New York illustrator and graphic designer Mirko Ilic had an assignment: come up with a meaningful image about gay marriage and the legal battles that were beginning to foment. Minh Uong, then the art director of the Village Voice, commissioned him to design and illustrate a cover because he had recently seen a cover that Ilic created for the New York Times Book Review, when I was art director, showing a personification of lady Justice. He requested that Ilic, who is well known for his symbolic acuity, create something with Justice as the focal point.

The title of the article was "I'd Leave the Country, but My Wife Won't Let Me,” and it was about a lesbian couple and their lengthy travails prior to the time when legalizing gay marriage was gaining momentum. “I didn’t think the Justice image was enough because the issue was also about freedom,” Ilic recalled in a recent email. “I was thinking I needed to incorporate the Statue of Liberty as well, to represent the freedom part of it.”

Inspired by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 V-J Day Life photograph capturing the moment a sailor and nurse kissed during the revelry in Times Square, Ilic thought that “having an image of two ladies—Liberty and Justice—kissing seemed right.” He positioned statues in a similar pose to the one in that famous photo, which has had its fair share of parodies and homages, and voila! Transformation.  

The editors of the paper ended up opting to put a simple photo on the cover and use Ilic’s image instead as an opening, full-page illustration to the article. But that didn’t stop it from going viral among gay institutions and pro-marriage-equality groups.

“I got calls from many organizations and individuals asking for permission to use the image for different purposes from websites, to posters, t-shirts, sculptures, even cakes,” Ilic said. “And of course they would ask my fee for usage. If it was not for resale I gave permission to use for free. Sometimes, as in the case of t-shirts, I’d request a sample or two.”

Mirko Ilic/Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association
A cake by Paul Paper Designs

For Ilic it was satisfying to take three iconographic clichés—the Statue of Liberty, Statue of Justice and Eisenstaedt photo—and make a brand-new, positive symbol. “And it’s a nice feeling,” he added, “watching on TV, a gay pride parade and seeing the image appearing among the crowd.”

Like many indelible images, including Grand Wood’s American Gothic, Munch’s The Scream, and Milton Glaser’s “I HEART NY,” Ilic’s original concept has been borrowed and reinterpreted many times. Last week, Nate Beeler, talented editorial cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch, was awarded the recent Fischetti Editorial Cartoon competition honor for his response last year to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. While Beeler’s image is drawn in a more comic idiom than Ilic’s sculptural rendering, the influence in the basic concept shows that the Ilic’s original has become part of the symbolic vernacular.