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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.

It's amazing how crack reporters can track down an obscure 20 year old who made a poster, but can't seem to find Obama's original birth certificate.

Boy, the left gets touchy when an "artist" defames something they hold sacred! It is artist expression! We have been dealing with leftest artist defaming what we hold sacred for years! Either condemn it irregardless of ideology or get over it!

The "socialism" moniker is not about it being "evil". The pursuit of socialism is a JOKE and a fool's folly. I think the moniker fits perfectly.

That's what I said! "Who said socialism is evil?"

Anyone making book on this guy getting a friendly greeting from the IRS next year? Maybe an "accidental" drug raid at his house? "Random" mugging? Too bad you can't get a concealed carry permit in Illinois. Sometimes you need the Second Amendment to defend your right to the first.

This guy isn't even American! (ugh!)

Isn't it interesting when the liberals protrayed George Bush as the Joker there was no outrage no calls or racism it was just one's expression and the exercise of their first admendment rights. But do the same to President Obama it is ugly, racism, and digusting to one's human senses! Why is that America is because one is white and one is black. If that is the case than Racism will never cease to exsist and the Black community will always be isolated due to their sensitivitys.

I remember all the posters of Bush being the joker, or Hitler, or with fangs with blood dripping.....but I do not remember all the ruckus about who did it and why!

Actually, Obama & Rahm are very insecure!

Alkhateeb made the comment "To accuse him of being a socialist is really ... immature. First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?" Well if he truly wants to be a teacher of US Histroy then he should know that in this country socilaism is evil. We were founded with this slogan, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" to which socialism cannot factor in as it requires government to interfer with the everyday lives of all Americans. I would hope that the school he attends does a better job of teaching that very point. For if the school cannot make that point(freedom over scoialism), then in my lifetime I will see the first American dictator and the America I grew up in will no longer exist.

What is a wannabe artist? You do not need to be classically trained to create art. Just like you do not need to hold a degree in Journalism to post idiotic thing on news comment pages Bucky.

I am a graphic designer and think he did a pretty good job with the stamp tool. I printed one out and have it in my office. Although he didn't intend this outcome with his tinkering, good for him for getting this notoriety for his fooling around. Now if my Photoshop head swaps can get noticed, I can get that made-up controversy I have longed for...


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.


I, for one, will say that socialism is evil. And the elements of socialism that are encroaching on the US are also bringing evil. Government control of personal property, interference with religious freedoms, suppression of free market economics and innovation, opressive direction of the energy markets, the forced investment of all taxpayers into defunct/troubled automobile manufacturers and banks (with the label of bail-outs) are all examples of socialist economics. Each of those example are wrong and either failing or doomed to fail. So long BO, see you at the polls in 2012. Bring your suitcases.

Truth resonates.

So this is the racist who created the image?

Remind me again- which newspaper was so bent about it?


I'll say it, too. Socialism is evil. It destroys individuality and freedom.

Firas, if you are going to teach history, first you need to study history and learn from it.

Nice Firas! I will be actively looking for future pictures. I think employment opportunities will be opening up more and more everyday. Socialism is for those that need the government to wipe their rears for them.

Any of you who say this isn't art are egotistical dimwits. You must think you have some divine insight into what is or is not art. Who are you to judge what is or is not art? If a piece of work has a strong political message that does not automatically negate any classification it may have as art. In fact, most art does have a political message on some level though it may not be obvious.
The other point I would like to make is directed to any of you who feel the need to bash the creator of the work. First of all, he did not ask for his work to be spread all over the country, the media, or to be in the eye of the mainstream media. For those of you who criticize, you are essentially saying that he should not have the right to manipulate an image, in a manner that he deems as art, to align with his political views, and post it publicly on his personal Flickr page. You are arguing against free speech. You are arguing the constitutuion. You probably call yourself a patriot. I argue that you are a hypocrite for doing so. If you really want someone to blame then blame the people who are so easily manipulated that this kind of thing actually affects their political opinions.

I will say that being a socialist is evil because it is fundamentally based on the premise of slavery - that the group has the right to force some individuals to do work for the group that is forced on them under terms decided not by free contractual negotiations but by state fiat. Socialism requires the enslavement of all by all. It's brother in arms is parasitism - the willingness to steal the production of some in order to use it as bribes to win the support of others seeking that which they did not earn or produce.

The only thing worst then "Obama is the Messiah" people is this whole crowd of "Obama is the Devil" people.

Wondered if Rush Limbaugh & Glenn Beck fans will be bothered that the love something made by a Palestinian?

and when will Washington Post renounce its ridiculous editorial ranting that this was 'racism'? Doubtful.

This whole episode demonstrates the outrageous pretensious prejudice of the main stream media.

100 lawyers go to Alaska to dig up dirt on Palin & energize every Dem operative activist in that thinly populated state for national Dem purposes .... but ..... John Edwards obvious 'personal' issues get ignored for years until Nat'l Enquirer goes for the low hanging fruit just hanging there waiting to be plucked. Pathetic.

2008, the year main stream media lost all constructive relevant informative neutral credibility.

So why should anyone pay for 'prejudiced' (beyond bias) views? Where is the analytical positive? There is none.

And a great journalist at the NYTimes John Burns (and there are a few others - he reports - not tells you how he thinks or you should think), will go down with a sinking ship unfairly.

Wonder how much time the media spent looking for the guy that did the same thing to George Bush's picture? Fools and edits....that's what running our country and reporting most of our news.

It's a little hard to respect anyone's political opinion when they don't even vote.

Turns out the great and righteous conservative movement, which believes SO STRONGLY in intellectual property, stole their first and only decent propaganda image in the fight so far. And from a Kucinich voter!

Guess that's why they've already mobbed this site to rant crazily about "socialism," which they don't know anything about...

Firas Alkhateeb is just as much a legitimate Artist as useful tool Shepard Fairey is.

Like I said, Firas lawyer up and get a food tester because obama true believers and the double-standard Leftists are out to get you now. It's all fun and games except when it's one of their own. Well done, Sir.

actually, he's not the creator of the poster - the crucial steps in this whole process is glossed over in this article - whomever took his image, removed the "Time" references and added the word "socialism" and then hung the posters is the person who really created the poster.

those are the important steps that turned the image into the giant news story that it is - even though Alkhateeb had tens of thousands of hits for his manipulated magazine cover, it's not remotely the same.


Socialism is good until you run out of rich people. I wonder who the socialists will turn their tax plan on once all the rich are gone?

The guy is just looking for attention. Try thinking for yourselves & not being a bunch of idiot followers.

What a submline subtle form of censorship. I suppose the author reviewing the posts is open to all forms of comment, even those in oppposition to the plan.

BUCKY is a perfect example of what is wrong with America: A JOB SNOB! His last line is "good luck with your career at McDonald's." A job is a job is a job. And if someone wants to make a career out of McDonald's, so what? Does that make this person less than a CEO of a company, or say, a lawyer, account, or salesperson? What has happened to our America? If someone wants to be a trash hauler, who cares? SOMEONE has to do it, right? I'm sure BUCKY is the same person who complains about all the illegal immigrants coming to America to do the jobs that HE won't do, such as, working at McDonald's.

I've seen this around, frankly it's not a very good image, and it really doesn't make any sense at all. Now I know it's done by a kid "playing with photoshop.." It explains why it stinks.

I also don't understand how socialism is evil.
Seriously, you people are saying it is evil to create a world where everyone has the minimum they need to be housed, clothed, educated, fed, and treated with medical care.
Selfishness is what is evil, perhaps the notion of socialism makes you have to confront your own selfishness and this is the real reason why you don't like it.

Why is the FBI investigating someone putting up a poster? On any given day dozens of poster for bands and protests yet the FBI does not investigate those.

Since when is free speach a federal offense, oh yea, Jan 20th, 2009.

Posted by: Joe: 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

The difference Joe, is that he DID it, and you DIDN'T...and now there's an article about him and you're still pulling double shifts at the canning factory. Real Artists do take this seriously, it's called Pop art. If it was that easy, why didn't YOU do it?

My biggest regret is that I didn't plaster my total dislike of Bush/Cheney and their policies all over my car or the net.
No, instead I acted like an adult, accepted democracy at work and respected the office. I worked to help elect a President that shared some of my values, I didn't smear Bush et al in the process.

Republicans have domestic policy? I thought it was to mess up the country and to give Iraq 1 trillion dollars while America's own citizenry has nothing.

Job 1 and only Job for those 545 Career Politicians is to uphold their OATH to our US Constitution.

Obama, Natural Born Citizen of united States, governed at
birth by British law?

You think?

Does the government health care plan meet constitutional muster?


Why wasn't there a big deal made of it when they did Bush as the Joker. If you look it up they did a much better job on the art work.

Isn't it comforting to know that this student who proclaims that, in his opinion, socialism is NOT evil, hopes to become a history teacher? Considering his remarks, the history teachers that taught him did an effective job of subverting the real history of this once-blessed nation, and instead filled him with the globalistic screed of America as an imperialistic evil nation.

He should find many comrades of like minds in the profession.

Being a socialist is evil. Let's see - the Nazi's, Lenin, Chirac, Castro, Chavez, Mao, Obama on one hand and Thatcher, Reagan on the other. Which group caused more suffering and economic nightmares?

Any suprise that a SENIOR history major at the University of Illinois doesn't see anything wrong with Socialism? Another brilliant, gleaming jewel of ignorant liberal indoctrination is pushed forth from the academic nest.
This Palestinian likes Obamesssiah's anti-Semitic policies better than Bush's. Shocker.

"I abstained from voting in November."
Translation:" Socialism isnt that big of a stretch for me.
" Alkhateeb (is) plugged into the Washington debate"-
Translation: I watch a lot of CNN/MSNBC.
"Alkhateeb's views on foreign relations align with the
Translation: Im a PALESTINIAN, and Obama is speaking my language! Down with Israel and the zionist occupiers!
"he prefers Republican ideals on domestic issues."-
Translation: Except for Freedom and Democracy
"First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"
Translation: Im an Honor Student at the University of Illinois
"Someday, Alkhateeb hopes to be a history teacher"
Translation: regurgitating the liberal agenda he was taught in college was the hope and intention of his "educators."

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other peoples money."
-- Margaret Thatcher

When you download a copy of Photoshop you automatically obtain "artist" status. Good going Firas, you inadvertently supported the fringe loonies with your basic photoshop skills.

He's now the safest Palestinian on the face of the Earth. Obama and the media know that no harm can come to him.

If all forms of socialism are evil, would someone please clue in my 90 year old grandma and grandpa that medicare and social security are pure socialism. Since my grandparents love both programs and would have died years ago due to serious health problems, therefore, they must be evil people. I always figured behind their innocent smiles, pure satanic evil resided.

I think the National Socialist party that ran Germany in the '30s and '40s pretty much demonstrated the extremes to which Socialism can be taken.

A lot of people are saying socialism is evil, but they can't seem to explain why, except that "Socialism leads to communism."

Well, socialism also led to trade unions, which gave us the 40-hour work week as well as workplace safety and child labor laws.

Socialism does a piss-poor job of maximizing production, but capitalism does a piss-poor job of protecting the safety and health of workers and consumers. If capitalism weren't so skewed towards funneling wealth up the pyramid of class, socialism, with its emphasis on spreading wealth around horizontally in the class structure would have probably lost its appeal long ago.

There are modern countries which use socialist policies in combination with capitalist policies. America is one of them, leaning towards the capitalist. Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, Japan, and France are other examples, leaning to various degrees more to the socialist side. Some industries function better in private hands; others, such as the provision of clean drinking water to the population, work best under government control. There are plenty of examples out there to study and evaluate. It's not a giant mystery or anything.

The only slightly socialist idea Obama has proposed is government-administered health insurance, which would be modeled after already existing government health programs like Medicare and the VHA. So, we already have a little bit of socialism in our government and it hasn't killed us. I suppose some kooks will say that private enterprise would do a better job taking care of Veterans and the elderly, but the track record of private insurance companies really undermines that idea.

Moral of the story: socialism isn't inherently evil, any more than capitalism is. All the hysteria about socialism is just that: hysteria.

Obama looking like the Joker is not a new idea. When Obama is asked a question which he doesn't want to answer or cannot answer truthfully he gives smirk and cocks his head. When I saw this it immediately looked like the Joker and I was surprised others had not noticed the similarity.

Augtographed edition on E-bay...that's a good one.He'd pay off his college,easily.
The left was so sure it was a white racist behind it...the multi-culturalists won't attack an Arab...halarious.

This kid has figured it out all by himself, it's a pity that the rest of America hasn't followed suit.
The picture manipulation, though used without permission, exposes some truth, allows thought. The annointed one, the second coming, the media darling, is, in fact, the joker. His right hand man is a confirmed communist, his mother, a sympathizer. I so wanted this man to be different than I predicted. I truly hoped I was wrong. I was wrong, he's far more than just a "liberal".
He must be a Christian as he "speaks in tongues".
Unfortunately the golden boy can not answer a question without skirting the issue, double talking, or lying. America beware! This man is evil and has surrounded himself with the same. His deeds shadow those of Hitler.

FAKE! He did not add the SOCIALISM caption or make it into a poster. He also did not put it up in CA.
Also, doubtful he photoshopped the Joker imaage.
The poster originated from Florida.

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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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