The Magazine

Let a Thousand Posters Bloom

Artists and designers have flocked to the Obama Campaign, depicting their man as everything from a saint to Chairman Mao.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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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 campaign.

"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 and Lenin."