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."
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.