More than any other politician in recent memory, Barack Obama has been the
subject of iconography. His campaign's official posters often portray Obama in
a beatific light--clad in a white shirt and silver tie, eyes squinting and
looking into some middle distance above the camera, a nimbus of wispy clouds
illuminating his sacred head. But even away from the Obama mother ship, graphic
designers and pop artists have adopted the candidate as their own, producing a
raft of posters and prints in support of his campaign.
Last summer, an Obama poster began appearing in downtown Chicago, plastered randomly in public spaces.
Drawn in mustardy yellows, Obama appeared from the shoulders up, staring
straight at viewers, with a sunburst exploding behind his head. Below the
image, in large block letters, the poster proclaimed "The Dream." At
the time, the artist was identified only as "CRO," but, as the
posters spread, CRO was revealed to be Ray Noland, a 35-year-old graphic artist.
Noland has admired Obama since his 2004 Senate campaign. During that
contest, Noland produced a poster styled like a bill from a 1960s prizefight,
touting the match up between Obama the "Crown Prince" and Alan Keyes
the "Hired Gun." While recovering from a bicycle accident in the
summer of 2006, Noland began toying with the idea of creating a poster
"The Dream" was well-received. Noland sold prints and plowed the
money into printing more. The poster became so successful that he created other
Obama images. His website, gotellmama.org, displays more than a dozen of them,
with designs ranging from "Speaking to U.S.," which depicts a
silhouette of Obama lecturing a television camera shaped like the lower 48
states, to "Obamahood," with its brown and green motif, where a
kindly Barack is handing a sack labeled "Health Care," Robin Hood
style, to the peasantry.
To get a sense of Noland's politics, you need only look at the details. In
one print, a crowd of Obama supporters is waving tiny placards, some of which
read "Surge of Diplomacy" and "Peace Is Patriotic." Another
poster, titled "No! From the Go," bears the slogan "U.S. out of Iraq."
Noland's designs attracted a huge amount of attention in the art community,
and even some interest from the Obama campaign. At first, campaign officials
asked him to donate his images, according to the New York Post. He
declined. But the campaign finally did purchase a poster, which was used as
part of the official promotion for a September 2007 rally in New York City.
Shepard Fairey was the next to step forward. He is best known for his early
1990s underground "Andre the Giant has a posse" campaign, a cultural
phenomenon designed around a small, easily reproducible likeness of the
wrestler. Fairey distributed thousands of stickers and posters bearing the
image, which eventually took on a life of its own, turning up in cities and
towns across the globe--the image itself becoming part of the popular culture.
Fairey specializes in this sort of epiphenomenon, which he calls
"propaganda engineering." As his website proudly proclaims, he's been
"manufacturing quality dissent since 1989."
Fairey is not new to politics. As he told
Creativity-Online.com, "I've been paying attention to politics since the
mid-'90s." In 2000, he created an anti-Bush poster. In 2004, even though
he "wasn't really that impressed" with John Kerry, he mounted what he
calls a "pretty aggressive anti-Bush poster campaign" called "Be
the Revolution" in support of Kerry. It wasn't until Obama appeared on the
scene that Fairey really fell for a candidate. He would later explain that he
admired Obama's "radical cachet." "I have made art opposing the Iraq war for
several years, and making art of Obama, who opposed the war from the start, is
like making art for peace."
In January, he unveiled two posters in support of Obama. Done in blood red
and grays, the prints depicted a large, iconic Obama, head thoughtfully cocked.
One version of the poster proclaims "HOPE," the other,
"PROGRESS." As Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum noted,
the Fairey motif was something like "Bolshevik constructivism meets
skate-punk graffiti art," all of which suggests that the subject might be
"a Third World dictator." But the American Thinker's Peggy
Shapiro grasped the poster's more proximate ancestor: Fairey was using
"the graphic style of totalitarian Soviet propaganda ... [recalling] the
idealized portraits and personality cult of the 'Beloved Leader' such as Stalin
Fairey's posters have become huge hits--you often see them at Obama rallies
adorning either T-shirts or signs and plastering urban places such as bus
kiosks. (And instant collectors' items, too: Numbered prints from the original run
fetch hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars.) Here, too, the campaign
took notice. In February, Obama wrote to Fairey thanking him. "I'm
privileged to be a part of your artwork," Obama said. The campaign also
asked Fairey to design another print for them, featuring the word
"Change" and a different angle of Obama's face. He obliged. The print
sold out on the official Obama website.
Artists keep flocking to the Obama campaign, designing posters, sometimes
selling them, and often giving them away for free. Some of the work is more
traditional, such as New Jersey
designer Rob Kelly's poster showing a cartoonish Obama with stars and a "Barack
Obama for President '08" tag. Some is self-consciously iconic, such as Louisville designer Tom
Fox's aping of Andy Warhol. Some came from big design firms: A Brooklyn company
called Hyperakt, which has done work for Colgate, Ford, and the NHL, distributes
free posters it created for the candidate. And some efforts remain anonymous,
like the stark black-and-white Obama bills that covered downtown Seattle last fall.
Designer Jean Aw, trying to explain the attraction, told the Huffington
Post that "By placing such an emphasis on building a visually
appealing brand, Obama is validating the importance of design in communication.
This in turn builds support from the design community, who might feel that a
design-conscious candidate best represents their personal beliefs."
Of course it is equally possible that artists are responding instead to an
ideological kinship with Obama. The Upper Playground is an artist collective in
which the San Francisco Chronicle helpfully describes as a
"multiplatform international lifestyle brand encompassing artist-centered
clothing and housewares." In February they endorsed Obama, writing,
"For too long we have been plagued by mediocrity and incompetence at the
Executive level. As an international company, we feel that it is time to
support a candidate that truly embodies the American spirit in both his
campaign and his ideologies. We believe that Barack Obama is that
To support their candidate, Upper Playground has worked with a number of
artists (with handles such as "Morning Breath" and "Munk
One") to create and sell posters about "the man we have all come to
love." Some of the designs have the funky feel of '70s agitprop; some are
even more socialist than the Fairey works. In advance of the Texas primary, Upper Playground teamed with
an artistic duo called the Date Farmers to create a Spanish language print that
portrayed Obama as a cross between an immigrant labor activist and South
American dictator. Another collective, known as HVW8, created a work depicting
Obama looking eerily like Chairman Mao.
It's unclear how much contact the campaign has had with all these artists.
Probably not much. An Obama volunteer named Yosi Sergant (an L.A. publicist who is listed as a
"California Media Adviser" for the campaign) claims to have been
nominally involved in the Fairey posters, telling PaperMag.com, "I
ran into Shep at a party and he said 'I love Obama. I said, 'Make a poster,'
and he said, 'You think that's cool?' And I said, 'GO FOR IT.'"
The New York Post reports that the Obama campaign's external online
director, Scott Goodstein, emailed Ray Noland, telling him that "we think
what you're doing expresses the true emotion of the campaign." The Post
also reports that a mural made by graffiti artist "Kofie'One" is now
Generation Obama headquarters.
But whatever small confidences the campaign has doled out, for most of the
radical/progressive artists their Obama ministry is a labor of love. The
artists believe that Obama really does represent something new in American
politics. For the Bolshevik-constructivist, skate-punk crowd, he is the one
they've been waiting for.