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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.

But Socialism is EVIL because it is incompatible with a truly FREE society. If one wants government running the minutiae of his life, then I suppose one might think socialism not evil. But if one wants to be able to make his own decisions without government coercion, and to accept the results, both good AND bad, then socialism is EVIL. Socialism is an attempt by government, and like thinkers to control other's lives through unwarranted, and unwanted laws and regulations that stifle personal responisibility and creativity, and force the population to follow their agenda without concern of competing opinions, needs, or desires. I'd rather run my own life than have the government regulating everything that I do. Governments are notorious for creating large bureauracracies that repress freedoms while they waste taxpayer's money on social experiments that help few while they punish the majority. Big government is the problem, not the solution.

He's my hero. I enjoy this bit of political expression. What's funny is he his a liberal and is an American of Palestinian parentage. However, he doesn't get that Socialism is evil. How dare anyone make fun of Saint Obama! It has to be a race crime. Liberals are full of it!

1. Who cares who created the image. Cat's out of the bag and it is now a rallying cry image.

2. This guy wants to be a history teacher. He better learn history to learn about the hundreds of millions of deaths and human rights abuses at the hands of Socialists throughout history.

3. Socialism always starts out being nobly touted and ends up with privileged elites at the top and nothing be equally spread misery and slavery to the state for everyone else.

4. Socialism always ends up being a really annoying Nanny State at best, and an oppressive regime the norm. By its very nature, Socialism hates freedom.

Of course socialism is evil. How many millions of people have been killed by socialists in Russia?

"To accuse him of being a socialist is really ... immature. First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?" did. It's a very simple statement, just one word. You (and many others) derived the implication yourself, and automaticaly assume it's meant to be derogatory.

Socialism is "Evil" moron! Read your history!

The only mistake on the poster is it should state "Marxism" and "Fascism" too. Other than that, there is nothing to get upset about because it's TRUE.

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

Oh my word! I can't believe any intelligent person would see it as anything but evil. Socialism dumbs everything down to the lowest common denominator so we are all equally miserable. Geez!

I don't understand what the problem is? If you can kill Bush off in a movie and write a ton of books against him (hyperbole for the overly sensitive) and draw pictures of him as Hitler, why can't we do the same with the Messiah?
He was always an "empty suit" and we knew it well before (well some of us with half our brains tied behind our back just to make it fair)he was elected and now that he is in a continual campaign mode, he is proving the point.
We knew he was at minimum a socialist from his inverviews, writings and associations (Saul Alinsky, ever read Rules for Radicals?) And, when he was elected, we just wondered how long it would take for the rest of society to find this "Joker" (no pun intended) out?

I know posting this statement will fall on deaf ears, (i've got 5 minutes before work starts) however Socialism is not inherently evil. Those who equate Socialism with Hitler and Mussolini, are stretching the facts and truth. Socialism existed in these countries before said dictators took over, these dictators modified their socialist states to become facsit military-police states. Socialism by definition is a governemnt of the people by the people ( The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Fredereich Engles). The true socialist movement is that of farmers and laborers, it's designed to work on a smaller populous scale, because all members of society should take an active role in government and social policies (sounds sort of like "democracy" doesn't it?). "It takes a village to raise a child" Is a good definition of Socialism. What do I know, right? It doesn't matter that I've grown up in a socialist country and have had real exposure to what I speak of, I'm still wrong aren't I? Also, to those who said Communism has never worked, last I checked, the Euro and Pound are both worth more than the dollar and have been for years.

Patrick Hamilton, What Firas Alkhateed did was about as American as it gets. He was able to express his thoughts with freedom. Had he done this in one of Middle Eastern countries it probably would have been an entirely different outcome. I for one, feel he had every right to express his point of view.

Geez dude, make up your mind.

Firas Alkhateeb is very creative. He can likely write his own ticket in the job market. Most employers would look past what the image is of and appreciate the unique way he presented his message. Firas would be good in Marketing or Design I bet.

He created a great poster for the times and will likely be remembered forever for it.

With a name like Mtz, it's gotta be incoherent. ( August 17, 2009 at 07:47 PM )

And no Firas, calling B.O. socialist is not immature, it's a tactful way of saying he's a rabid Marxist idealogue. And yes, you skull full of mush, socialism IS evil. Since you've been educated at government schools, they probably didn't tell you that socialism is directly responsible for over 100 million murders in the 20th century. Knucklehead.

Simply free speech!

Careful, folks. This is a tricky one, as it appears the artist is a Muslim. If you criticize him, you're an Islamophobe. But if you fail to support our president, you're a racist. Choose wisely.

This guy is a history major and doesn't know if socialism is evil? Unbelievable! No wonder Obama has fooled so many; people are clueless as to the evils of socialism. Whether you think socialism is evil or not, it is contrary to the Constitution. Remember that document this country was founded upon? Or if you're like this guy, apparently attending a liberal school, the Constitution is irrelevant.

To Joe: "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"

Be careful. If you look at the way tax dollars are collected and redistributed, you will find that the midwest pays more dollars in than it gets out. The coasts on the other hand, take more from the government than they put in. So, the midwesterners that you denigrate support you (and your right to make silly statements).

Love ya.

There has to be a way to confiscate all the money of the rich and support true American patriots like Firas.

So let me get this straight. Fairey is quoted as saying "To accuse him [Obama] of being a socialist is really ... immature. First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?" If according to Fairey that socialism is not evil, then why is it immature to call someone a socialist if that nomenclature is neither good or evil and fits? That would be like calling someone, say, an artist.

So, where are all of you Obamobots who were sooooooooo sure a racist, right-wing conservative was behind this now that it is revealed it was done by a liberal, 20-year-old Democrat from Chicago? Wahahahahahahahahaha, dolts.

obama is intentionally dividing America. The failure of the greatest country in the history of the world is his goal. He will not show his long form birth certificate because he knows it is a divisive issue. He pushes socialist policies because he knows that is a divisive issue.

A Palestinian-American who supports Dennis Kucinich! I'm waiting for the mea culpas from the pundits who blamed this on "right-wing extremists." But I won't hold my breath.

Awesome! This guy is my new hero! I'm ordering 5 Obama Joker t-shirts TODAY!!!

I love how the Obama supporters love to flaunt their imagined intelligence, when
by the mere act of voting for such a hugely inexperienced junior senator proves otherwise. You do realize that you fell for a man who simply reads from the teleprompter magnificently--talk about stupid!

ummmm yeah, so the media seeks out this artist cause he made fun of the president? thats pretty messed up. funny, the media didnt seem to care much when bush was being maligned...hmmm

Dennis Kucinich??? Wow, I thought he might have a brain but I guess not.

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

I do, and you can ask the people of Bulgaria who are trying to recover from the evil of socialism.

Who said being a socialist is evil? Ask Hitler or Stalin.... This hate mongering, racist, intolerant, bigot needs to be silenced!

Hmmmm? nothing wrong with socialism ? i imagine there are several million dead Russians dating back to the early part of the 20th century that would beg to differ with that assertion gives new credence that as the years go by people forget the lessons of the past

Funny Flicker still hasn't removed the pictures of Bush as the Joker. That picture was also published in Vanity Fair last year. Democrats themselves made Hillary into the Wicked Witch and made her into a nut cracker. They took pictures of an innocent infant Trig. Sarah Palin's infant, made him to look like a monster with a coat hanger. We all know what the coat hanger was for. An innocent infant who couldn't fight for himself. White Democrats took Oreo cookies and threw them at Michael Steele. No racism there...OK. I saw the outrage from the MSM. Yet, see no hypocrisy in the anger over this image...unbelievable. Those are some great morals some people have today. It's nice to see(facetious) their anger is based on principles.

I can't say this enough I am thankful I am no longer a member of either party. I will no longer vote for just one or the other side. I will vote for whomever realizes they're a public servant, and as such is willing to work for WE THE PEOPLE. Not themselves and their own personal agendas. The extremist on their side. They're not there to get rich, and spend. They represent both sides of the table when we send them to Washington, no matter which side of the table they come from. Now people can say what they want, but apparently Republicans were able to keep people employed. Roofs over their heads. Food in their stomachs. They even made every American part of their stimulus package. We need that balance of power. We apparently can't have one side or the other in total power, it goes to their heads like children playing the playground bully.

Who says socialism is evil?

I do.

Alkhateeb, stay safe. Chicago doesn't like people who think independently.

It's awesome how much this image has inspired and angered so many. Sometimes a symbol becomes bigger than its original intent.

An apt characterization, seeing he's trying to play a joke on the American people. Trouble is the grass roots of America has a little batman in it's blood....

Those who demand tolerance the most from others

rarely display the trait themselves.

I've got a concern about this guy's mental state. It seems he has no problem with a socialist state. Therefore I implore him to seek out this way of life-from within his native land. Being proud to declare his "Palestinian" roots and not his "American" status, please feel free to vacate this great land that allows your ability to act and speak so freely. I also wonder if some of my tax monies helped install him in his current "school of higher education"?

I don't see how anyone would think this is racism. Ridiculous. I like the term 'hero worship,' because I think Obama is unfairly given praise just because he followed the ever-hated George W. (who deserved all of the hate mind you).

This guy shouldn't be prosecuted or anything, it's called freedom of speech. Time should leave him alone. Politics are such a crock of [edited].

SOCIALISM IS EVIL, as it denies our Creator and as a result fails to recognize where our rights come from! If our rights were given by the State, then the State could take them away or abridge them. Thankfully, in this country, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, our rights still come to us from the Creator, making them UNALIENABLE! The rights of man cannot be abridged or limited by the amorphous State - that is the entire premise upon which our nation is founded, and if we lose sight of that, the world will be lost, for the global point of moral reference as pertains to human rights will be removed from public consciousness, preparing the way for the State to dictate the substance of our lives to us, rather than the other way around!

Dude, get a food tester...

I agree with Alkhateeb and Fairey that "socialism" is the wrong word for this poster. A more appropriate word would be "joke." Unfortunately, the joke is on us.

You tell it like it is! What the heck is wrong with free speech? Oh, it doesn't appeal to the liberals agenda! Double standards AGAIN, huh Folks???

Whoops. He should not have done any interviews, nor allowed any pictures.

It MAKES SENSE since Obama has now become a caricature of HOPE!

"It's racist." Shut up. Everything is racist when it comes to this idiot. And, speaking of idiots. George Bush had the EXACT SAME THING done to him by Vanity Fair Magazine. So quit your crying, ya little pukes. Your boy's a LOSER. He's in over his head, and he will KILL this country. Congratulations.

See, we knew all the time it was one of those rightwing extremist.

I thought the picture was great. Hopefully he won't regret putting it out there. My son just asked me the same question as chotii. Is it still racism? Good question.

The left is furious and frustrated that they cannot demonize the origninator as a white rightwing racist (oh how they love to play the race card whenever they can).

Alkhateeb should be applauded as he is a visionary... if only for having painted a picture showing the emperor has no clothes.

Who hasn't wanted to claw their own eyes out after waking up next to "a closing time bar room beauty"? Its not unlike the last election... the choice looked and sounded great (painted in the most flattering light/filter of the leftwing media) but as the intoxicating coverage drones on and on, it becomes annoying... a drip drip drip like Chinese water boarding.

Oh, how the left hates having the truth told about them, evidenced by their anger over a picture (sticks and stones might not break their bones but truthful words and images slay them... alas, albeit figuratively).

You are right. He lacks substance. He's to be pitied that he didn't vote. A loser in my books.

Save Firas!

"Who said being a socialist is evil"? This just illustrates how brainwashed our youth are and why they voted for this incompetant community organizer. Wait till they stand in lines at the unemployment center and two years from now, they find themselves standing in bread lines. What fools know not what they do. However, there may be hope afterall. My 20 year old daughter told me the other day that she wished she had not voted for him and said that her friends tell her the same.

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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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