Artists for Obama

Kevin Nguyen and Nick Martens look at three well-known pieces of Obama campaign material and discuss how they advocate the candidate in unconventional ways.

Barack Obama’s campaign has employed innovative fundraising mechanisms. Where they have succeeded best is creating new tactics that reach out to the candidate’s strongest constituency: the 18-30 demographic. Since young people can’t stand the corporatized, focus-grouped publicity associated with a traditional presidential campaign, the Obama camp set itself apart by employing something no college kid can resist: independent artwork. We found three of the most well-known posters and prints that support Obama and broke down what makes them work.

Scott Hansen

Kevin: Scott Hansen of ISO50 was the second artist commissioned by Obama’s camp.

This is the only print we found that doesn’t feature the candidate’s proud visage. In fact, there’s little here that identifies the Barack Obama campaign beside the logo at the center and maybe the ambiguity of the word “progress.” Still, I showed this poster to a few friends, and they identified Obama immediately, which speaks both to the strengths of this piece and the campaign’s brilliant logo.

The silhouetted, handholding children and birds gathering under the tree might be a bit of overkill, but there’s no denying the artistry here. Hansen has incorporated excellent use of organic colors that communicates a warm message rather than what might typically be interpreted as a cold campaign motto. This is one of my favorites.

The print has a limited run of 5,000 copies, with each purchase giving $70 to the Obama campaign.

Nick: What I like about this print is that it combines an immediate effect with deeper symbolism. A single glance communicates the most important points Hansen wants to make: the signature “O” tells us it’s about Obama, the tree evokes unmistakable environmental advocacy, the handholders reinforce Obama’s theme of unity, and I don’t need to interpret the big “PROGRESS” stamped across the bottom. If you saw this only briefly, you would still get that Obama equals good.

But, seeing as this is a limited-edition artistic print, it invites a longer and more in-depth viewing. Hansen rewards this extra effort with detail and nuance: the tree’s roots burrow in to both red and blue-tinted soil, just as Obama claims to draw support from both sides of the political spectrum; the migrating birds lend the print a sense of movement, or in other words, progress; and all of the energy in the frame radiates from the central “O,” making Obama the cause of all the positive vibes that suffuse the print. Whether or not you agree with Hansen’s assessment of Obama’s glory is beside the point; this is an extremely well-crafted piece of campaigning that sends a surprisingly complex message in an aesthetically pleasing way. This is about as good as it’s gonna get when it comes to what is, essentially, propaganda.

Shepard Fairey

Kevin: The “Progress” print was available through Fairey’s own Obey Giant company, while the “Change” print was sold exclusively through

Fairey is known for styling his work after propaganda, and even for a presidential campaign that proudly distinguishes itself from impartial messages and doublespeak traditionally associated with politics, this pair of posters work.

Nick: Fairey is a good match for Obama for a couple of reasons. They both hold mass appeal over young people, an effect achieved through some sort of charismatic aura that no one can accurately describe. They both carry themselves as being apart from, and better than, the status quo while remaining markedly mainstream. And more to the point here, they both have incredible brands. Many observers have compared Obama’s campaign to Target or Apple’s advertising, and not without good reason. As we saw in Hansen’s print above, that little “O” has taken on a lot of meaning.

Fairey is no less deft at wielding a logo. He stuck his Obey Giant face on the cover of 1984 for God’s sake. His approach to Obama is less intricate than Hansen’s, but what he lacks in depth he makes up for in impact. Fairey’s style is so unexpected in a political context that these images can’t help but take you off guard. While Fairey usually amplifies the oppressive and deceitful aspects of propaganda to criticize American culture, here he uses propaganda’s power to uplift and ennoble to turn Barack Obama into a visionary hero. Among the most interesting aspects of these prints is that Obama somehow manages to look virtuous despite half his face being cast in a flat red shadow. Any other time, you might expect to see that shading on a satanic communist, but Fairey uses the color without implying any kind of menace. Say what you will about Fairey’s other work, the man knows how to send an unambiguous message.

The Date Farmers

Kevin: Unlike Fairey’s work, this poster is unabashedly un-American. The Date Farmers’ work is known for combining the influence of their Mexican-American heritage and social political ideals.

It’s rare to see a political poster that’s not set in red, white, and blue, but the Date Farmers’ use of bold colors–those found on the Mexican flag, no less–is a daring tribute to Mexican street posters. Combine it with the Spanish wording and the fact that it was released for the Texas primary (that’s right, a border state), you have one of the most controversial pieces to bear Obama’s name.

But it’s effective. Here, Obama is propped up not as a politician but a working-class folk hero. That certainly works to Obama’s campaign. Words of change and progress mean nothing without a charismatic figure to lead them, an individual cut from a different cloth.

The thing looks gorgeous too.

Nick: Another poster that challenges the styles associated with American campaigning, this time not only by drawing on Mexican themes as Kevin discussed, but also by casting its subject in an unflattering light. Obama really looks ugly here. It works, though, because it makes you turn your head. Besides, the exuberance in the other graphic elements of the poster cements it as a piece of advocacy, and while many won’t understand the Spanish text, the “Obama ’08″ at the bottom is unequivocal. Plus, the Date Farmers prove that an Obama poster can make do without being branded by his ubiquitous “O.”