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Obama Joker artist unmasked: A fellow Chicagoan


When cryptic posters portraying President Obama as the Joker from "Batman" began popping up around Los Angeles and other cities, the question many asked was, Who is behind the image?

Was it an ultra-conservative grassroots group or a disgruntled street artist going against the grain?

Nope, it turns out, just a 20-year-old college student from Chicago.

Bored during his winter school break, Firas Alkhateeb, a senior history major at the University of Illinois, crafted the picture of Obama with the recognizable clown makeup using Adobe's Photoshop software.

Alkhateeb had been tinkering with the program to improve the looks of photos he had taken on his clunky Kodak camera. The Joker project was his grandest undertaking yet. Using a tutorial he'd found online about how to "Jokerize" portraits, he downloaded the October 23 Time Magazine cover of Obama and began digitally painting over it.

Four or five hours later, he happily had his product.

Obama-joker-time On Jan. 18, Alkhateeb uploaded the image to photo-sharing site Flickr (shown at right). Over the next two months, he amassed just a couple thousand hits, he said.

Then the counter exploded after a still-anonymous rogue famously found his image, digitally removed the references to Time Magazine, captioned the picture with the word "socialism" and hung printed copies around L.A., making headlines.

Alkhateeb's original Flickr page surpassed 20,000 views. The Times found his Flickr site last week thanks to a tip left by a loyal reader of The Ticket. By Friday, the page had been taken down.

On Alkhateeb's page, a manipulated image condemning fellow Chicagoan and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (captioned "epic fail") was mixed in with parodies of the "Guitar Hero" game franchises -- dubbed Quran Hero -- and of Napoleon riding a motorcycle (pictured after the jump).

Flickr had removed the Joker image due to copyright-infringement concerns, Alkhateeb says the company told him in an e-mail. A Flickr spokeswoman declined to comment due to a company policy that bars discussing inquiries about individual users.

Alkhateeb says he wasn't actively trying to cover his tracks, but he did want to lay low. He initially had concerns about ...

... connecting his name with anything critical of the president -- especially living in Chicago, where people are "very, very liberal," he said.

"After Obama was elected, you had all of these people who basically saw him as the second coming of Christ," Alkhateeb said. "From my perspective, there wasn't much substance to him."

"I abstained from voting in November," he wrote in an e-mail. "Living in Illinois, my vote means close to nothing as there was no chance Obama would not win the state." If he had to choose a politician to support, Alkhateeb said, it would be Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

Napoleon Possibly becoming a villain in his home city wasn't his only worry. Time's cover and the Joker obviously aren't Alkhateeb's copyrights to fool around with.

Concerned about a lawsuit, Alkhateeb, an unnamed superstar whose nationally recognized artwork had stunned friends and family, was relieved that the situation had floated for months without any major news organizations discovering that he was the man behind the paint.

After we contacted him, he hesitantly agreed to an interview.

If it's any consolation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that defends digital rights, says Alkhateeb has a strong fair-use defense if Time or DC Comics decides to take him to court -- that is if one even does file a lawsuit.

"You really want to think twice about going after a political commenter," said Corynne McSherry, a senior staff attorney at the EFF. In Time's case, "a news organization probably doesn't want to be in the situation of pursuing political criticism."

Perhaps the strongest case for anyone, McSherry said, is for Alkhateeb to claim money derived from people selling T-shirts with his picture. Is it worth pursuing? "It would be nice, but it's not that big of a deal," Alkhateeb said.

Although Alkhateeb claims he was making no political statement with the artwork, he's plugged into the Washington debate. Though born in the United States, his Palestinian family closely follows Middle Eastern politics.

"I think he's definitely doing better than Bush was," Alkhateeb said of Obama. Alkhateeb's views on foreign relations align with the Democrats, he said, while he prefers Republican ideals on domestic issues.

Alkhateeb's assessment of Obama: "In terms of domestic policy, I don't think he's really doing much good for the country right now," he said. "We don't have to 'hero worship' the guy."

Someday, Alkhateeb hopes to be a history teacher and high school football coach. He won't be pursuing a full-time career in art, but he'll continue playing with Photoshop on the side. He's honored by Shepard Fairey's assessment of his Joker picture, but disagrees with some of Fairey's comments criticizing the message of the Socialism poster.

"He made a picture of Bush as a vampire," Alkhateeb said about Fairey. "That's kind of speaking with two faces."

Regardless, Alkhateeb does agree with the Obama "Hope" artist about "socialism" being the wrong caption for the Joker image. "It really doesn't make any sense to me at all," he said. "To accuse him of being a socialist is really ... immature. First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"

-- Mark Milian

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Photo credits: Firas Alkhateeb

Comments () | Archives (980)

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Hope Firas Alkhateed doesn't encounter a backlash over his identity being uncovered.

This is interesting. Is it "racism" if the perp is also a minority? Of a different minority?

When those from the "Middle East" can come here, utilize our resources to achieve their personal agenda openly without shame is truly the end of life as TRUE RED BLOODED AMERICANS once knew...


Wannabe "artist" Firas Alkhateeb can kiss Le Grande Tookus. It's one thing to be a fool, another to be an idiot and still another to claim that you're an "artist". This guy takes the prize. Good luck with your career at McDonald's.

Funny, "There isn't much substance to him".

But we know that.

Nothing about socialism is immature...its destruction to any your History..History Teacher. Great Obama tea shirts ordered and posters..if they can kill Bush off in a movie and call him Hitler...hey we can call Obama what he is...pure evil and he is a joke.

Socailism is evil because it inherently takes the earnings from the productive members of society and gives to those who are not, and suppresses the liberties of individuals for collectivism. Socialism was the core principles of Hitler and Mussollini. That's why its wrong.

I dont get it, they removed it from flickr, but left all the pics with ACTIVISIONs logo on them?

Laughable, they removed it because they're Obamabots.

This photo to some is very controversial. It's not. There is some truth to the messages in this photo anyway.

This photo to some is very controversial. It's not. There is some truth to the messages in this photo anyway.

Socialism is evil. Look at how the Oligarchy took control of countries using socialism. Obama is a Marxist. Look at the people he was around while in the Ill gov and as senator and now with all the Czars. The one that needs to grow up is this student that created this picture.

So there we have it. This right-wing propaganda is nothing more than a joke! They don't understand who the hell made this, why, and how their message has NOTHING to do with the art.

Typical mainstream bastardization of art someone did over the internet for their own personal trail to make a nonsensical point. Thank you average Americans who actually think you're actually going somewhere with this. You've just cemented your own average IQ that proceeds nothing more than following the guy in front of you.

Artist from Chicago? What is so hard about "photoshoping" and image onto a picture. I dont think any person in the art world takes midwest philosphy seriously, becuase they are big fish in a small frozen pond, or in this case a lot of small frozen lakes

Oh, have made a grave error. You have upset the czar of humanity...the black jesus...he will send ACORN after you--watch your back, kid! Liberals have no morals...they will do ANYTHING to get you. Don't drink anything you haven't seen made or you have made yourself. I mean, think--if you get poisoned, no one would help you under Obama's health care plan--you are a "lost cause". BTW, socialism is evil--because it leads to communism--and that has NEVER, EVER, EVER worked as a final solution to problems. NEVER.

Awesome....I'm a Firas Alkhateeb fan!! Firas you are now enemy #1 with the liberal media. Stay strong my friend you are a brave man!

I say it: socialism is evil.

You are Brilliant Dear Sir!!!! You have inspired thousands upon thousands - you should put a signed copy up for sale on eBay!

please look and join! meko

Next time around, we need to elect people like Kucinich or Paul. I don't care anymore if they pretend to agree with my positions, I want someone who has principles.

Whether the Joker analogy is right or not, at least it raises awareness of Obama's Modern Liberalism and the resulting Socialism.

On the other hand, Obama's poll numbers are dropping so I guess people are figuring it out for themselves.

First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"

really? you honestly want to ask that question? try history for instance

''First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"

I said it.



The artist's identity has been at this website for some time. This is the first interview I've seen, but this is not an unmasking.

HA! HA! HA! I love it!!! A fellow Chicagoan? Too funny!!! Did the Left go after the artists that depicted Bush as a Nazi??????? What a bunch of hypocrites!!!

"First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"

Well, Friedrich Hayek said that Socialism led to National Socialism in Germany, and that Socialism would similar evils elsewhere if we continue to pursue it.

Faris, I really admire your work. You have a unique perspective and ability to bring it forward. Great work! Don't let them (the nut cases) try to beat down your perspective. Great!

I wish it was a joke that this nazi is president.

I think people can finally see Obama for the clown he really is, NOT Presidential material at all!!!

"First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"

Socialism is not evil. It's just stupid.

I there's nothing evil with being a socialist (according to Alkhateeb), why doesn't he just call Obama a socilalist? Honesty is the best policy.

Being a socialist is evil, kid. Hopefully we won't have to experience to full force of it first hand.

Alkhateeb's rendition of the current President pretty well hit it on the mark especially when you look at the character and the audacity of the Joker.

Great caricature of the Messiah Obama!!!

Where was the media during the artistic slaughter of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Co? Where?

This man is an artist and should be honored for his creativity and freedom of speech!!!

The origin of the poster doesn't really matter that much. The important thing to remember is that Obummer is an America hating, Saudi King bowing, dictator loving, former cocaine addict, racist Kenyan usurper dirt-bag lying fraud Chicago thug!

Obummer is less trustworthy than the Joker! Nothing he says can be trusted.

Watch this video. You’ll see obama lie like a dog in his very own words.


"From my perspective, there wasn't much substance to him." -Precisely, young Firas Alkhateeb. But now go on with your education and research socialism with the same energy you gave photoshop.

Nice to see the original come out and voice his opinions, hopefully he doesn't go to court. I really enjoyed his artwork, it provokes a whole lot of character questions that are paralleled between two individuals. One portrayed in a movie, as a sinister criminal to someone else in real life, who is quite popular and certain individuals would view him as a criminal or sinister.

Either way free speech is still alive and well, to me this sounds like a accidental rise to stardom, no the less its great in its own way...

Lets see...Who says Socialism is evil?..I don't know..Stalin..Mao...Hitler? Wait mabye Pol Pot. No, none of those guys. I know Castro!! Damm ,I knew I would get it.

Why would this be considered "racism" in the first place? That is the problem with America. Not everything is about "race".

I trace the steep decline in Obama's poll numbers to when this picture got wide release.

It struck a cord in me as well.

Far from putting a mask on Obama, it does the opposite.

It defines in picture form what many were already feeling but could not express.

There is something creepy and pathological about Obama.

Deep down there is something very wrong with the guy.

This picture nails it.

Great pic. Already have it framed, thinking of using it for Christmas cards. Too bad it just shows the good side of BO.

this kid is my new hero. Unfortunately his life will now be torn apart by BO's adoring media for daring to poke fun at their scumbag hero.

He must be a terrorist!

socialism is not bad he says... however if you want to be a history teacher, read our constitution and tell me what baracks basic job is. it isn't to create a nanny state now is it? rob the haves to pay the non haves. so in that sense, socialism is bad.

Nice art work.

This kid is my hero. Unfortunately he will now have his life ruined by the media scum for daring to make fun of their beloved BO.

So he's critical of Obama because he's not Kucinich? That's the lamest thing I've ever heard. I too was a Kucinich supporter, and was def. not a fan of Obama from the beginning. And anyone who supports Republican policies on the domestic front is a highly confused Kucinich supporter.

Let the rabid wild dogs of the Left begin. 3, 2, 1, go.

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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