Ron English Interview on Eve of Abraham Obama Film ReleaseJuxtapoz // Saturday, 14 Feb 2009
On the eve of the San Francisco premiere of Abraham Obama, the new documentary film from JetSet Graffiti, Jeremy Hatch pulled legendary street, studio, and ‘popaganda’ artist Ron English aside to speak with him about the origins of his now iconographic image of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln fused together, forming one stunning (and slightly trippy) picture.
Hear English’s thoughts on Obama, Shepard Fairey’s HOPE image and AP scandal, his experiences plastering his Abraham Obama all over the country, getting sued, and why he was reported as having been in a gun shop with David Choe at the DNC.
Read it all in an interview by Jeremy Hatch with Ron English.
Jeremy Hatch: Who commissioned you to do the image?
Ron English: I think the campaign contacted Upper Playground, and they put together some street artists who did posters in support. I had like three days to get them an image. The idea was that the campaign was reaching out to the youth, and street art is huge with youth today, so they were looking for some luminaries of street art to entice the kids into building the campaign with them.
Why Obama plus Lincoln?
There are so many obvious similarities, even that they're both tall skinny guys from Illinois. But at the time we first heard the argument that Obama didn't really have the experience. But he had almost the equivalent experience of Lincoln, and nobody seemed to be arguing about Lincoln's experience.
In contrast to the Fairey poster or the Date Farmers' poster, your image is not overtly political.
We put a lot up in Colorado Springs because we were trying to hit some Republican strongholds, and there was a lawsuit there because it was too close to the election to put up campaign posters. If it was art, then it was fine, they could leave them all up, but if it was campaigning, it was illegal. And the court ruled that it was art, not propaganda. It's not that overt, it raises questions. So they stayed up. Everything we did in connection with the campaign was legal.
First time in my life!
You actually got permission from every property owner to do all that postering?
Yup. Wasn't much fun.
But for example, when we hit Colorado Springs, a lot of people were really excited to have us there. Even in this bastion of conservatism, people there were glad to open up their businesses and let you put something up. But we also did it legally because I didn't want that to come back on the campaign.
One of the funniest moments in the film comes at the Denver convention, when you show the image to the WWE newscaster, and he can't see Obama. Did you encounter a lot of that?
When I first made the image, I was struggling with whether you could see Obama in it at all, because there was so much of Lincoln around him. So I brought in the other artists in my building and asked them what they saw. "It's Abraham Lincoln." I'd say, look a little closer. Same answer. So then I thought I'd give him kinky hair or something. But then my wife said no, let them see Lincoln, then Lincoln as a black man, and then they recognize Obama. It's more fun if you come to it, rather than have it hit you over the head. So that is the original version. But I was concerned because none of the other artists could see Obama. But everybody else seemed to see Obama fine!
Except for one crazy guy in Boston, who insisted that Abraham Lincoln was black. To this guy, we said, "no look -- that's Obama." And he said, "you take a look at them lips, and you tell me he wasn't a black man." That was the only time we ever got that.
You knew this question was coming: did you base that on an AP photo or what?
I based it on two different photos, because I'm actually quite conscious of that kind of thing. I always had it in the back of my mind, and I just don't need a lot of lawsuits.
But since you bring it up, I think Shepard is completely fine. Because, say the AP had brought Obama to their studio, and lit him with their lights, and said, "look longingly into this light over here on the left," and that was a pose they had put together, then they might have a case. But Shepard didn't have access. And he wanted to make an image of him, so he had to use press photos. Besides which, he completely altered it. Obviously he wasn't hawking that image, he was hawking his style, superimposed upon it. It could have been any image.
I think Shepard's just gotten so big that now all the sharks are coming after him. But they have to be careful about that, because sometimes a judge will rule that he has the complete right to do that -- and by the way, now you owe his lawyers the money for the case, because it was a frivolous suit. That happened to, what was that guy's name, Forsythe?
You mean the "Barbie in a Blender" case? Tom Forsythe.
Right. A million and a quarter, Mattel had to pay his lawyers, and because he had the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, so he didn't even have to put down any money.
Have you been sued?
I get cease and desist letters, but nobody follows through, because they don't have a case. If they do, I'll bloody 'em. I actually have a whole bunch of lawyers waiting for someone to come after me, because they hope this is going to be their big Supreme Court case.
What were you guys doing in that gun shop? Was David Choe actually going gun shopping?
I wasn't there. But the guy who had the gallery that did the Manifest Hope show, his brother was a gun dealer. So he took David and the other guys gun shopping. Our DP just worships David like a god, so that was his payday, getting to hang out with his hero. In a gun shop.
What do you think of the film?
I actually haven't seen it yet, but it was a blast making it, and I want to make another road movie. I was just in the Philippines, and I'd like to put together a team of street artists who are really fun, not just great artists, but really fun people, bring them over there, fuck the place up, and make an hour-long documentary about it.
Like you mentioned the Date Farmers. Those guys are a lot of fun. They got us thrown out of a bar at one point: we all met them for beers, but by then they were already doing shot after shot. After a while, they decided to go back into the kitchen to help them cook. Seemed like a good idea at the time! That's the kind of thing that makes me think we should do a road movie.
The great thing about the road is, it has a beginning and an end. Like, the guy who made Popaganda, he was in it for five years, really just waiting for me to get arrested. I had to say, well that's not how it's going to end, because I'm not going to get fucking arrested for your film. And his storyboards were like, this guy just keeps doing this and he never gets in trouble! How is this going to end? So it was hard for him to pull the ending together. A road movie doesn't have that problem.
Interview by Jeremy Hatch. jeremyhatch.com
More on Ron English at www.popaganda.com
Abraham Obama will debut this Sunday, February 15, 2009 at The Roxie Theatre in San Francisco at 12:3pm. We'll see you there.