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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

No joke, click here for Twitter alerts on each new Ticket item. Or follow us @latimestot or @mmilian

Photo credits: Firas Alkhateeb

Comments () | Archives (980)

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Let's put a smile on that face! The artist is using popular media's own tools as his own propoganda campaign...the anti-propoganda if you will. Quite frankly, it is not so much sad how much noise is made over people's personal opinions but more sad that we, Americans are too busy squabbling over this as our country heads towards its demise.

-Frankly, I have a feeling the mainstream is just really really out of touch with internet humor. This guy's "art" is internet absurdism that can be learned in a reasonable amount of time. It's one of the better ones technically, but it's really not that clever.

-Socialism is not evil, Americans are stupid probably have no idea what Socialism is (hint, it's not Communism, which also isn't inherently evil. Like all systems, government depends on the integrity of its leaders and populace. You know how many people in other countries look at America and think "wow, Democracy is evil!" because A) They don't understand what Democracy is, and B)America acts like a total douchebag to its citizens and the rest of the world.)

-Reagan fundamentally damaged this country by starting the spiral of making government completely ineffective, thus perpetuating its own myth of government incompetence and allowing private industry to cheat and steal from the general population as they've always done, so screw Reagan while we're at it.

-and while we're at it: the "Free Market" loved slavery and child labor too.

I just want to know where i can order t-shirts.

Ha! So the person who plastered "socialism" over the image used Alkhateeb's image without permission. Is he some kind of socialist?

This amazes me - - to make a comment about socialism not being evil. WOW and to think this guy is a senior in college and may someday teach history. I hope not for the good of the 'kids'.

"Who says Socialism is evil?" How about anyone with a brain? Or anyone who has lived in Cuba, Soviet Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea. In Capitalism everyone works for their own best interests. In Socialism everyone is mandated by the government to work for the group. The question arises when someone refuses to go along with the government mandate. What does the Socialist government do with those who just refuse to see how wonderful Socialism really is. The NAZI's had death camps. The Soviets, Gulags, the Chinese and Vietnamese, re-eduction prisons, the North Koreans, starvation, the Cubans, prison and firing squads,but who says Socialism is not evil?

Mr. Alkhateeb doesn't seem to be the smartest accidental-artist. He claims to agree with Democrats as far as foreign policy is concerned, which is all well and good... completely understandable for someone of Palestinian descent. Yet, he claims to agree with a more conservative approach to domestic issues, while at the same time asserting he would have supported Dennis Kucinich for President. He, like most self-described moderates (he didn't explicitly describe himself as such, but it seems reasonable to conclude that he would), lacks a coherent political philosophy. This is what happens when a generation (regrettably, my generation) convinces itself that being "informed" is watching The Daily Show.

To answer his final question: It would not be unreasonable to argue that Socialism (yes, -ism) is per se "evil;" given, of course, certain premises about morality including principles of freedom and individualism. To reject such an argument before hearing it, indeed, would be immature.

i know someone who is printing t-shirts with this image and cannot keep up with the orders! this bum is toast! once all the corruption hits the fan it will all be over except the riots. cannot wait to get my t-shirt and wear it proudly.

The real message behind the picture?

The Joker character was a twisted narcissist with a dark side. His "reality was intertwined with fantasy". That is what Obama is. His comment "there is not much substance to him" is correct. A Narcissist "projects a grandiose but false image of themself" ie...Jim Jones , Charles Manson, David Koresh, Adolph Hitler to name a few." They promised their followers the moon under the guise of giving them hope ... and brought them to their ultimate destruction. That is what O is doing to this country. "His posture and his body language are louder than his empty words." He is a racicst through and through, though he is what the black community would call an "uncle tom". being black was only convenient when he was giving his "black preacher style speeches" during the campaign. What an insult to the black community. He played them all as ignorant buffoons to get the vote...then he leaves them in the dust...pursuing his own agenda to grab as much power as he possibly every other Socialist leader in the history of the world.
If he is allowed to will be to the demise of our once great nation. Brace yourselves!!

Seriously? Why are we giving any attention to the man who has fueled one of the most poorly educated movement from the far-right? This image is disrespectful and its creator should be ashamed.

Socialism IS evil.

It's stealing but even worse. It's legalized stealing. "Thou shalt not steal"-- 8th Commandment

The masses who covet the successful and legally steal their wealth. "Thou shalt not covet"-- 10th commandment

The masses are convince of equality through legalized stealing "taxation" through liberal/socialist politician's lies that an individual is not good enough to make it on their own without taking from the rich. "Thou shall not bear false witness or lie."--9th Commandment.

All prominent socialist countries have removed any mention of God from their schools, printed money, charitable works, and government. Government IS a socialist's god and thrives upon dependency of it for all its needs. "Thou shalt not have any other God's before me."--1st Commandment

Would someone please explain to me why conservatives keep using the term "czar" to explain why they believe Obama is Socialist?

1. The nation's first "czar" came about during the Reagan era: the drug "czar", or are your memories too selective to remember that?

2. Obama doesn't call these appointees "czars", it's the media so whine to them.

3. CZAR is a pre-socialism term, defining the ruling leader of pre-Bolshevik Russia. The Czars (Tsars) were destroyed by the early Communists. I learned this in high school and you all should have, as well. Stop using this ridiculous argument against the president and start arguing on policy. You make our country look foolish.

4. Not so much regarding the Czar situation, but GWB presided over the largest government expansion in history (Medicare rX expansion) PLUS if you are so against "socialism" or "government-run health care" then I ask you to pledge NOT to accept Medicare when you get to 65. If you are in the military, please pay out of pocket for your retiree health benefits, for which you and your family pay nothing. For life. THEN, you have the right to complain. Both are government-run health care.

Yeah, I thought so.

Thank you.


A Texas Democrat

Its funny that Shepard Fairey's famous posterized image and Ron English portraying Obama in a Lincoln mix is considered art, even before this "Messiah" actually did something deserved a comparison. Yet someone that takes a stand against the emperor wearing no clothes is put down as a party pooper.

Don't blame me I voted Ron Paul, you know the kook who like the constitution.

Props to you Firas, you are brave and hope that the positive response outweighs the Obamabots.

The conservatives are using it for target practice It is slapped up a little more than head high and encourages the crazies to shoot Obama. Art work is one thing .This has been used to set up Obama as a target for the mentally unstable radical conservatives

To Alkhateeb,

The "Socialist" tag works for one reason...deception.
Perhaps some think Obama came in as a socialist, but most would more likely put him up as a left leaning Dem. The fact sheet is now well compiled, and there can be no doubt, we have a tried and true "socialist" in the W.H. That again is not a surprise to many, but to the center mass this is a harsh pill to get down, hence your image, and the tag have found resonance. One might call it accidentalism in this case, but there you have it.
By the way, it is safe to suggest that there is cause for concern if we take even a casual look back at socialist leaders who were swept into office and then glorified by a state media machine.
Do take care

Socialism isn’t evil?!?! What is this guy smoking!? Everyone who reads this should report this bonehead bloger to the editor of the LA Times. Here’s the email address -
[email protected]

It's a work of art. That's all the artist meant it to be. It's also a tribute to Heath Ledger. It would be more befitting if the subject was Palin.

Capitalism is evil because it inherently takes the earnings from the productive members of society (the workers) and gives to those who are not (the wall street manipulators and CEOs that just move money around), and suppresses the liberties of individuals for corporations. Capitalism is the core principle of Bernie Madoff and Enron. That's why its wrong.

see how easy it is if you're a total moron?

Do unto others as you would have done unto you!
Okay! Let's get to work folks to make this raghead "Firas Alkhateeb" famous as a Palestinian Terrorist who along with all of his relatives want to distroy this Great Country.

And this is what I love about this country! If he were in Palenstine he'd be either be throwing rocks at an Israeli tanker or loaded down with a bunch of explosive about to kill innocent people.

He's a better American than the liberal idiots who worship Obama, that's for sure.

This is bothering the Obama worshipers because the truth hurts. He IS a socialist. Liberals are so thin-skinned its ridiculous. Go on the web and you'll find other politicians who have been "jokerized" - but no press coverage on any of them. Demonize Bush and its free speech and artistic impression. When its Obumble its cruel, unfair, and of course their favorite, racist. Idiots and hypocrites.

How soon will it be available as a screen saver? No seem to be bothered when it was Bush that they imposed the Joker onto his face. So what is the big deal. Can't take a joke or what.

I feel sorry for all of you who think that socialism is evil. I know you never traveled, never went to socialised country. Your politicans whant you to belive that socialisam is evil and that this is the best you can get. It is not. I lived there and here. Nothing wrong with helping other. Education, healthcare we all give a little and everibody was covered. Don't let them to scare you.
There is world out there you do not know nothing about.
You should be proud of this president.
Good luck.

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.

Posted by: Danile Hubbell | August 17, 2009 at 07:46 PM

Funny how when we are asking the British, French, and Canadians for helps in Afghanistan or Iraq or the countless of other conflicts we are involved in we do not think of them as evil or countries controlled by ruthless dictators like Hitler and such........
If socialism is so evil we should do away with everything socialist, including our socialist allies, our social security, our Medicare, our public schools, our firefighters…… now would that be a great country socialism free?

Hey Firas, great job on the pic, please prepare to be Community Organized.

I hope you prepared for the Saul Alinsky inspired deluge you now be subjected to.

So - he would vote for Kucinich, but thinks the Republicans are right on domestic issues? Can this gut read? Or more importantly - can he comprehend what he reads? And this guy wants to teach?

Who said Socialism is evil? Me. I said it.

Does he have the original artwork (rough original drafts of the poster) on his computer or elsewhere? Does he have the plane ticket to California or the train ticket or bus ticket or any proof that can show he was in California putting up posters (how 'bout a photo)? Does he have the master artwork with the letters SOCIALISM lying around that we could examine?
"Who said being a socialist is evil?"
"It doesn't make sense to me either." You're gonna give history teachers a bad rap.
The batman joker is an anarchist not a socialist. You didn't do the poster you're a liar and a fake hoping to cash in.

the people that talk about socialism being evil, are generally the ones who have never traveled outside the country, to see it in action. or they are the ones who are making a fortune out of the oligarchy we have in the u.s.still called a democracy. the right wing always talks about the liberals being violent, but they are the ones who display their semi automatics at town hall meetings, just because they can....not to threaten anyone or anything. they are also the worst losers in the world.

Dude.. Your'e a Moron for saying you'd would vote for Kucinich - that idiot is worse than any of the lineup we had! Come on! At least John McCain served our Country Honorably while the stump jumper we have as President now was in some Hassadra in Indonesia.. ANYWAY, I think its great that we have talented people who AREN'T Afraid to do this kind of thing... Wait.. they did it to George Bush. Whats the big deal with doing it to Obama? Is there a double standard? No. I think it hilarous that Liberals can open this fly traps and spew forth so much BS but when it comes time to take it like men/women.. they cry FOUL!! They are Truly WEENIES of the 1st Class kind. I'm serious! Mr. Obama is saying that Fox News isnt being Fair?!? HUH - WHAT? WHO? FAIR? Wait.. What about CNN, CBS, NBC's treatment of President Bush? Again - Liberals are so thin skinned they bleed when brushing a gnat off. AND - I've also found the best Liberals can do when confronted with facts is curse at you and call you names. They dont have anything intelligent to say. Seriously - so why would this kid worry about Liberals in Chicago? Hey kid - BUY A GUN like most of us have. Someone gives you grief - SHOOT THEM. Problem solved. This Country has gotten too soft on crime and on BS. People want to intimidate you and try to hurt you ... not going to happen to me.. Ill guarantee you that WILL NOT HAPPEN to ME BUBBA or ANY OF MY FRIENDS. If you need some pointers on which weapons to purchase or the basics of gun safety just let me know. Get a copy of your local gun laws so you'll know when its legal to put 2 in someone's 10 ring and when its best just to pop them in the kneecap. Good luck.

WOW... I am so ashamed that the majority of the comments left below are dripping with old generation white power "American pride" as you people criticize this man for expressing his God-given right to an opinion in an artistic way (and he wasn't even trying to get fame or money or anything... plus he isn't even trying to be an artist so why are people making fun of what others are calling art and what he is calling what it is... photoshop by a History major) What the eff is "red blooded Americans" ( reference from comment by Patrick Hamiltion aka douche) in case you were not aware... this country was founded by immigrants from all over as we pillaged through the natives land and took it for ourselves because we were selfish and now people are angry that a true AMERICAN is voicing an opinion, and the reason it looks like they're angry is because of his race. HELLOOOOO... welcome to the 21st be American does not mean just one race it is a nation of races and we need to support one another in the freedom that our forefathers fought for (this same freedom that Alkhateeb has rightfully used) if not in any other area. You don't have to agree, but don't stoop to a racist level and judge him or call him a terrorist (bob's comment) I mean come on wake the eff up and look around at the world!!!

Kudos to the guy for giving an interview, it could cost him a LOT in the liberal snake den of Chicago. To those of you who say we should vote for Paul or Kucinich I say amen. Too bad the good politicians are passed over for hype.

this minstrel like version of Obama ia as unfunny as was
the New Yorker Obama muslim cover during the campaign-
in both cases the perpatrator can try to call his crap art
or thought provoking but we all know this tripe is simply
feeding into the rant of the haters and those who will
bever accept Obama as our President-am truly sorry that this
obscenity has been given so much play in the media-this guy
is now his own hero-

I'm a republican and can't stand Obummer, but I still gotta ask, is this Alkateeb even legal?

I'm reading some of your comments... I see why America is a stupid country. America will always be a hateful nation and will never change... LOL

Socialism, most of you people couldn't spell it or define it.

"...who said being a socialist is evil?"

There you go. One more future history teacher not knowing history!

So Moron # 14 (a.k.a. Danile Hubbell) wrote: "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."

Hilter was a free market Capitalist, just go to a search engine, and see for yourself. That is why capitalism is wrong. Why do you think so many US/UK interests at the time let him rise to power, they just didn't know he was going to try to take over the world, that is our job, so we stopped him. Get a history book, your ignorance pisses me off.

What this guy did, was make a bold personal statement that caused debate and invoked thought............... sounds like an artist to me.
Of course since he turned out to be a minority, the liberals can't try and pull the failed race card on this anymore. So I guess they'll all become master art critics and claim this as not.

How the hypocrisy and stupidity runs endlessly with the pathetic left.

I would buy this guy's artwork anytime! Unfortunately, our Leftist regime will probably destroy him - Freedom of Speech in any form is only for the Left, you know. I love it that while the Left thinks they have exclusive rights to protest and dissent, they are being outdone in every direction you look and they are hopping mad that they have to consider any other point of view but their own. Where can I get the tee-shirt?

You have no right to complain if you DON'T VOTE

Our founding fathers said big government is evil. Socialism is big government. Socialism is evil. We have been in wars fighting socialism. Socialism leads to repressive government and places all power in the hands of a few. Capitalism puts power in the hands of many. Socialism = evil. Capitalism = good. Get it?

The National Socialists were another name for the NAZI party. It's all the same. Socialism is evil.

I am just so happy so much energy went into finding this guy. That is the kind of country I want to live in. And the posters here attacking him are right. What right does he have to attack Obama? His rights are from the government and they can be taken away and should be. I want to live in a country where if someone disagrees with me, I can track them down and crush them. Good job democrat party.

He doesn't like Obama b/c he's not socialist enough?? So this wasn't a right-wing insult, it was an extreme leftist bound on destroying this country who can't even appreciate everything Obama is doing for the left. They should ship him back to Gaza where he belongs, let's see how his leaders will deal with his freedom of expression

"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?"

What? He is a Socialist and Socialism is EVIL! My God wamts me to live a life of Freedom, Not Bondage!

Wow, the right wing really does contain a bunch of racist idiots.

I guess this message board is where all the political history experts come to hang out.

Danile Hubbel for instance has such a novel interpretation of history. "Socialism was the core principles of Hitler and Mussollini." How someone could make such a completely wrong statement with such overwhelming confidence is a marvel. Hitler and Mussollini frequently vilified, demonized and persecuted socialists. The notion that their political philosophy was in in any way based on socialism is laughably and demonstrably false. The only way you could make such a statement is if you didn't have the first clue what socialism and fascism actually mean.

Two thumbs up! The best example of "one picture is worth a thousand words" in recent memory.

Sadly the joke of Jefe Obama is on all of us.

Its not that being socialist is evil. Its that socialist doesnt fit in the US Constitution. Straight Marxist socialism/communism does not fit within the realm of freedom as enumerated in our Constitution. Marxism/Socialism is not enumerated as a power of the federal government in our US Constitution. Dont play the public library, social security, public education card. Certain basic programs for community unity are well needed. Obama wants a single-payer health system, thats blatant socialism above and beyond the proper limits to still maintain liberty.

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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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