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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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 San Francisco, 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 candidate."

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 in L.A.'s 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.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.