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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)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Oh being socialist isn't evil??? Sorry, I guess Castro in Cuba, Stalin in USSR, and Jong Il in N. Korea are (were) very nice people...And even in China were oppression still exists. Anybody with that much power, will abuse it...The scary thing is, is that this country is slowly turning into those other countries. Since when have parodies against the President been investigated like this? Just because he's African American??? No one snooped around for people making fun of Bush during his Presidency. Obama is trying to make this country "undemocratic." People speaking out against this government and it's policies are in danger of being called "unAmerican" just because they disagree. America was founded on the roots of disagreeing with the people in charge. This is not looking good at all.

This "artist" represents reflects the cynicism of his faith in the American Way of Life. His deceit, and cunning, generated by his shallow ego needs for recognition fail to inspire me. His arrogance reflects on the success of a liberal social agenda where nothing is sacred. Viewing his picture, and his racial background, one can surmise the contempt these individuals have for our president. Viewing the portrait picture as a cover for Time Magazine angered me: I may disagree with our president, but to depict him as does alkhateeb, only inspires the ignorant political left, and angers the political right.


You need to read the article again, and proof-read your post.

"Nothing about socialism is immature...its destruction to any your History..History Teacher."

He didn't say socialism is immature. He said that the practice of calling Obama "socialist" is immature. He's not for socialism, which is obvious from his preference for Republican domestic policies.

Also, you type "it is" as "it's." [2]Apparently you didn't pay attention to your English 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.

It's called a "t-shirt." They are not made out of leaves - the reference is to their shape. See my previous comment, [2].

Obama is pure evil? PURE EVIL? So, what do we call the people out there raping, pillaging, killing, and starting wars. Saints?

I'm not an Obama fan by any stretch, but you just proved Alkhateeb's point. Calling the president "socialist" is just as immature as calling him"Hitler" - and therefore you are just as immature as your counterparts. You also don't come of as particularly mature with improper grammar, and ignorant statements.

Well, being a socialist is not being evil. As I'm a history teacher and I never teach anything like that but if the person behind the socialist is evil then...your evil. I assume you were having fun with this art picture of Obama and seeking attention. Sometimes the wrongdoings that we contribute to the world is remembered longer than the good. So, remember that when it comes back to haunt you in your career!!!!!!!

Kudos, Mr. Alkhateeb. And I think we all understand your reluctance to say this is a political statement. Many of us believe it is a truly artistic characterization of current events - yeah, the saturation of our moral and political atmosphere by the ultra liberal cranks attempting to take control of our country. My best wishes, and like a few have said, Watch Your BACK...

An interesting point made by Alkhateeb: as a Palestinian-American (and most likely, Muslim), he would understand the ignorance that is behind the Muslim=terrorist meme that permeates our culture. I think it was a very astute observation that ignorance is also behind the socialism=evil meme that is currently making the rounds.

Socialism isn't evil, it's just, dare I say, un-American. The founding fathers of this country tried to write socialism out of the Constitution, as socialism is anti personal liberties.

commenting readers, please don't reproduce, this country is dumb enough as it is...and you folks are frighteningly ignorant.

After including examples of Alkhateeb's Photoshopped variations on Obama (and Napoleon), it's misleading to refer to his commented photo of Rahm Emanuel as a "manipulated image."

Many will assume Emanuel's likeness is altered by additions such as Satanic horns...or (let's say) a pencil mustache, along the lines of Duchamp's defacing of the Mona Lisa.

The photo of Obama's first-in-command, in fact, appears essentially the same as when it came out of the camera. Alkhateeb merely superimposed a caption on it: one which doesn't touch the subject's face. It's no more "manipulated" than a typical LOLcats pic.

At least you do mention the "EPIC FAIL" caption, and provide a link. Those who don't bother to follow the link, however, will likely imagine something quite different (and more defamatory).

So of course we will be getting an apology from all the leftist who assumed this was some "right-wing hatemonger" blah, blah, blah... I won't hold my breath.
Does it get any better? He's a democrat and a muslim immigrant-hehehe.

This man said he would vote for Kucinich. All of you who are applauding him for pissing off the "liberals" might want to look Kucinich up.

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

This guy wants to be a history professor?!!!!!!!!!!
Got a long looooooooooooooooooooooooong way to go!!

It sounds like the Dems aren't accustomed to having to respond to bad press. Been a bad August for the Obama admin.

Okay, who's the joker in white face?

That's funny, because Obama is one of what Firas Alkhateeb is, (look it up), and here we have one of his own kind “trashing” him, so now it's ok. Now it's "ART". When Republicans were being blamed for this "ART", it was "HATE" and "RACIST" and "TERRORISTIC". When he did it to Bush, it was "FUNNY", but now that another middle easterner is the culprit, it's "JUST ART". Make up your minds you filthy, backward, liberal hypocrites!!! He should have superimposed Satan with a hammer and sickle in the heil Hitler pose on this no good, SOB. That's what he is.

I will say socialism is evil. It invalidates the rights of the individual.

What a marvelous piece of satirical art. It reminds me of the likeness of George Bush as Alfred E. Newman on the cover of Mad Magazine; of course that one never really took off.....did it.

Many Americans are so negative- Many of us are stuck in the past, don't be so ignorant and indignant- African Americans cant be slaves forever just as this country cant keep their feet on peoples necks forever- do some research and then analyze it, just as we have to accept technological change we must accept political change . American will never become a depressed,suppressed country we are to strong for that. Obama is African American so get over it , you cant mold him in your own image just because you feel a certain way. He is determined to clean up this mess. Its been far to long that Americans only give equality to those with money and a fair skin tone and then don't give an equal chance for all to obtain a higher financial status- We are hypocrites and its time we take accountability for our actions! HATE is what got us here in the first place! So stop teaching your children , loved ones and those who count on you that this is all one mans fault. As Americans we all are to blame because we held our tongues and waited to long to verbalize or feelings about the condition of this country because it was ran by white men. Finally we saw a scapegoat over in President Obama for all the wrong reasons and wanted to lay it all down on him- It's not right we are not slaves and were never meant to be slaves so wake up and smell the roses- White America does not run this country and soon better than later you'll realize that you have to share it with those who helped build it, fight for it and keep it free! Bless you all!

I find it funny how it seems that we can all read the same article and some people believe that the kid who did the drawing found on the LA posters is this dude from Chicago. It says that all he did was take the Time Cover and put the Joker's makeup on it. SOMEONE ELSE then downloaded that and used the word socialist. Which is kinda dumb...I mean, the Joker was an anarchist, not a socialist. This version of the Joker believed in total chaos, not government control and not that people should get a free ride.

To the right wingers that say it fits...a few months ago, the attack was that Obama was a can't have it both ways. Communism and Socialism are not one and the same. Look it up in the history books you guys are talking about. And I believe what you see in the history books are dictators that took advantage of both of those ideals. Kind of like North Korea saying their name is the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea". We know they are neither democratic nor are they for the people. And socialism isn't inherently's just that those that have been seduced by power have abused such power to force their views on the society. Oh and by the way, to the dude that mentioned Hitler...was not socialist. He claimed to be Communist, even though his actions showed otherwise....kind of like the Republicans claiming to be of a "Higher Morality" and have "Family Values" and then use gov't funds to cheat on their spouses.

Hey Choti - no one's been saying "racist." At all. Except you. What does that mean?

And Chicago Garden - I guarantee he WILL. And I'll laugh.

A kid whose favorite politician is Dennis Kucenich, the Prince of bankruptcy, is not very savy as as political pundit.

What happened to freedom of expression? All of you criticizing this image of Obama - all you're doing is agreeing with the added caption: SOCIALISM. If he thinks Obama is a Joker - like MANY americans do - then why not express it? Whether you like it or not!

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

Every true American who believes in liberty over tyranny.

What a bozo. He makes an insulting image that the extremists in the Republican party grab and distribute. And they can claim that "we didn't make it. It was a lefty. Ha ha". It's like giving bullets to a crazy to use in mass murder. And his criticism of Obama is that he's not perfect enough for him.

That's funny, because Obama is one of what Firas Alkhateeb is, (look it up), and here we have one of his own kind “trashing” him, so now it's ok. Now it's "ART". When Republicans were being blamed for this "ART", it was "HATE" and "RACIST" and "TERRORISTIC". When he did it to Bush, it was "FUNNY", but now that another middle easterner is the culprit, it's "JUST ART". Make up your minds you filthy, backward, liberal hypocrites!!! He should have superimposed Satan with a hammer and sickle in the heil Hitler pose on this no good communist. That's what he is.

How can anybody be bored?
go to the hosptials, homeless shelters, animal shelters there are lots to do besides what you did a waste of time shame shame

It's definitely safer for anyone anti-Obama to not voice their opinions here in Chicago. We're definitely viewed as "evil" for not bowing down to him.

Anarchy and socialism are not the same thing. Maybe I didn't read enough comics as a kid, but I am pretty sure that the Joker falls in the anarchy camp. This poster really makes no sense.

The visual equivilent of childish name-calling. Is this really what passes for "news" these days?

Everyone in this society has a right to freedom of speech. But lets face it prejudice is still alive in every hateful form imagineable. If this had been a picture of "former" President Bush it would have been ripped from the internet never to be found again. Then you all would have cried foul because some kid voiced his opinion on Bush. I did hear any of you dummies complaining when Bush was getting rich off the back of you good citizens during the oil "Glutteny". He made millions if not billions. Did anyone cry "foul" "conflict of interest". Hell no! Let's face it, Hitler and Mussollini were mad men that hid behind socialism. They used socialism to perform Pure Evil. This country is in a mess. How can we all pull together to get our country back on its feet?

Of Palestinian persuasion, he's spouting socialism? What would he know? "Born in america, was he not? And last I looked, Palestine was an ideal, not a reality. Should spend more time with a history book & a dictionary, rather than Photoshop.
As to Shepherd Fairey, he's nothing but a cheap plagiarizer. Of course he would get this hack's work, although he claims not to understand the commentary, but hey, that's okay, cuz the artist admits he really didn't understand the commentary either! Two rank amateurs..........

I hope he set-ups a mechanism where I can donate to his cause!

Thank you so much for getting this out. Americans need to know that we voted for "Obama and change" but all we are getting is another "Bush and Lies". This is not anti-american this is true patriotism to stand tall and question authority no matter who they are. Our troops where suppose to be home by now, and look what happened they shipped more over to die! We will not be lied to again like Bush did and we know the truth about 9-11 and you will pay. End the Bilderberg corp. and take back your country before its to late fellow Americans. youtube- Obama Deception now for more info. Thank you and God Bless this beautiful free country!

Well it's a good piece, I don't like the meaning behind it but he did do a good job on it. LOL

Electronic Cigarette

What a mind-This guy didn't vote because he thought his vote wouldn't count.

I suspect that the original "socialism" version of the image may have been from another Flickr user, "friscogo":

Caption reads:

"Based on Khateeb88s work
Quick and dirty photoshop

Which was sourced from Time Magazine Cover,16641,20061023,00.html"

No idea who "friscogo" is -- the profile page for the account is blank, and the photosream only has a handful of pictures. One of them shows a truck with no license plate, but it appears to have a US Department of Defense ID tag; another is an aerial photo of Nashville, Tennessee.

The datestamp on this version of the Socialism image is from August 4th, which may be later than it started showing up in Los Angeles. Then again, it may have been uploaded to Flickr after the posters went up in the city, so that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

I'll say it, socialism is evil.

And here we find the problem.

Funny , the people using this image he has created ,have nothing but hatered for him , or anyone that that does not look like them. That would be old ,white , overweight, and also not very bright.

The 'Joker' character, as portrayed in the Batman series, is best known for his name ('Joker' - i.e. one who jokes or plays pranks on people) and for the evil pranks he played as he attempted to lure Batman (a force for good) into his various traps. Less attention is paid to any purported overall agenda for social anarchy. As a 'joker' who now plays evil pranks against those of us who trusted him to make 'change' for the good of American society, Obama wears the face-paint perfectly...

HA! Shocking...America's future teaching mind thinking socialism isn't a bad thing....sorry, but the future is here....ask your kids teachers what they think. You may be in for an awakening

I thank him for the creation. Its such an image that captures the true marxist/socialist character and essence of this phony, lying president.

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

Socialism is completely contrary to our governing document, the Constitution. Socialism could not exist without the government stealing (though they call it taxing) property from one to give to another. Read Bastiat's "The Law" to learn more about legal plunder and how it is in fact unethical (or evil).

Right on! I like this guy! I'm a kucinich supporter my self. AND Chotii: If there was anything racist about what he has done the answer would be yes. But he is criticizing President Barack with art, nothing more. Here's a question to you: Does disagreeing with some of Obama's policies make someone a racist? That seems to be what you are implying here.

Okay for all you "socialism is evil" thinkers, then let's get rid of Medicare that's helping Grandma to stay live, and the post office, Veterans Administration benefits, etc., etc.

It gets better all the time. Who said "socialism" is evil? Me, and many others, that's who. I want Big Government (personified by the kid's Joker Poster) out, O-U-T-by-God! of my life. This health care scam has torn it for me.

My question from here on in is, "Why would anyone be a Democrat."

Democrats stand for destruction of individual freedom and The Constitutional Republic. Why would any freedom-loving person want to be a "Democrat"?

Obama didn't invent socialism in this country;it's been sold to the rubes piece meal for generations under the banner of liberalism.It's a shame,too,because classical liberalism protected the inddividual's private property rights from the mob.Modern liberalism,though,is statism.Your money only belongs to you so long as the state or the collective(the mob)doesn't claim a large chunk of it-for the "public good",of course.We have replaced charity by a moral civil society by the coercion of the social welfare state.It is a gross violation of the ecomnomic rights of the individual perpetrated by people who masquerade as individual rights champions.What a joke it is!

Taking someones innovative design (John Caglione Jr, Makeup Designer, The Dark Knight) and mixing it with a copyrighted photos is not art, you're just a Photoshop Hero.

As a Batman fan, I'm offended. Obama is exactly the type of politician The Joker would be trying to take down.

I'm an artist and I post politically themed artwork on my site ( all the time. I am not bothered by people reposting or postering my images, but I would be very upset if someone changed the context to alter its meaning.

Whoever stole Alkhateeb's work and labeled it "Socialist" should be pursued and made to compensate the artist for his work. Alkhateeb made significant alterations to the Time magazine cover that constitute free use. The thief did no such thing.

"Socialism was the core principles of Hitler and Mussollini. That's why its wrong."

You, sir, are a dumbarse. Both believed in fascism. Look at your history books.

One person misused the term. This country is Russia, ie Putin - post Yeltsin years. You go against him. You go to jail, disappear from the face of the earth, or have a nuke piece under your bed.

"Corporatocracy" is the backbone of the US now.

Both the demo and the elephant parties are socialists. The difference is the rate going towards it.

You want more freedom. Look at Gov Arnold of Cali. He's slashing tons of gov't programs, because the state is BANKRUPT by these programs on both sides of the isle.

Is this newsworthy? Gimme a break. The same image was done of the last President and no one thought anything of it but since it's Obamasiah it's a grand capital crime that we must investigate? Please people, get a grip, it's free speech at it's best. BTW, NAZI is a German acronym for National Socialist Party. Yeah socialism is bad.

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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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