How il­lus­tra­tor Edel Ro­driguez took aim at Trump’s in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric and went vi­ral in the process

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How il­lus­tra­tor Edel Ro­driguez took aim at Trump’s in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric and went vi­ral in the process

Award-win­ning il­lus­tra­tor, artist and cre­ative ac­tivist Edel Ro­driguez came to the US from Cuba as a po­lit­i­cal refugee aged nine. He landed a job at TIME magazine soon af­ter col­lege, and at 26 be­came the youngest art di­rec­tor to work on TIME’s Cana­dian and Latin Amer­i­can edi­tions, be­fore go­ing free­lance in 2008. His clients in­clude The New York Times, The New Yorker and many book pub­lish­ers, and he won the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Magazine Ed­i­tors’ Cover of the Year award for his TIME Trump Melt­down cover. See more at www.il­loz.com/edel.

Is Edel Ro­driguez Don­ald Trump’s most hated artist? That was a ques­tion asked by Hol­ly­wood Re­porter back in Fe­bru­ary 2017 – and the an­swer is most likely yes.

The Cuban-born il­lus­tra­tor has un­leashed a dev­as­tat­ing vis­ual com­men­tary on US pol­i­tics since Trump was elected pres­i­dent. He’s imag­ined Trump melt­ing, as a baby sur­rounded by nu­clear war­heads and burn­ing Amer­i­can flags. But it’s his provoca­tive cov­ers for Ger­man magazine Der Spiegel – Trump dressed in a KKK hood; Trump de­cap­i­tat­ing the Statue of Liberty – that have ig­nited pub­lic out­rage.

Ro­driguez ar­rived in the US as a po­lit­i­cal refugee at the age of nine. He didn’t speak English, so draw­ing be­came a univer­sal lan­guage and over two decades later his abil­ity to tran­scend lan­guage and back­ground through bold, sim­ple graph­ics re­mains a hall­mark of his work.

At Cape Town con­fer­ence De­sign Ind­aba, where we caught up with Ro­driguez, he was de­scribed by Pen­ta­gram part­ner Michael Bierut as “an artist who re­acts in real time to events we see on the news and trans­lates them into in­deli­ble mo­ments of so­cial com­men­tary”. Here, we find out how a small and per­sonal cam­paign of on­line graph­ics spread to the cov­ers of mag­a­zines be­fore end­ing up at protests around the world – and how Ro­driguez be­came part of the story. You’re the most prominent il­lus­tra­tor of the Trump era. What is it about your work that has caught the world’s at­ten­tion? I don’t think the world had ever seen a pres­i­dent quite like Trump, so they didn’t know what to do, what to say, how to con­front it. There was a lot of shock about what was go­ing on. When peo­ple are in shock, they some­times freeze, try­ing to fig­ure out how to re­act. Trump’s ac­tions were a bar­rage, a con­stant, daily at­tack on ev­ery­thing democ­ra­cies were ac­cus­tomed to.

When my vi­su­als started to ap­pear, con­fronting this man, I think there was a re­lease of emo­tion and out­rage. It gave peo­ple some­thing to hold up, to throw back at the cause of their angst. Peo­ple had had enough, and these images gave them the weapons they needed to fight back.

The fact that ma­jor mag­a­zines like TIME and Der Spiegel were pub­lish­ing the images raised it to an­other level. Some peo­ple were prob­a­bly won­der­ing if they were alone, but the mag­a­zines con­firmed their out­rage was rightly placed. What drives you to cre­ate such po­lit­i­cally charged images? What is it that you hope to achieve through your work? I have very im­me­di­ate, gut­tural re­ac­tions to abu­sive be­hav­iour. If I’m walk­ing down the street and see some­one be­ing taken ad­van­tage of, I’ll most likely do some­thing about it. I’ve chased down purse snatch­ers, thieves, things like that. My fa­ther is the same way. I spent a lot of my youth on a tow truck with him, and he taught me a lot about right and wrong. He would talk back to shady char­ac­ters, drug deal­ers, etc, if he didn’t like what was go­ing on.

I’ve wit­nessed a lot of wrong things in the United States over the last two years: the mock­ing of a veteran, John McCain, and of a hand­i­capped jour­nal­ist, in­sults aimed at the par­ents of a dead sol­dier, dis­gust­ing lan­guage about women, and I’m just re­act­ing to it in the same way.

My main goals are to in­form peo­ple who might not fol­low the news as keenly as oth­ers, en­cour­age those who want to fight against what’s go­ing on, and to stop this pres­i­dent’s be­hav­iour from becoming nor­malised. In your view, which of your il­lus­tra­tions has been the most pow­er­ful or provoca­tive? The Amer­ica First cover for Der Spiegel, which shows Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty. When the Mus­lim ban was an­nounced I was out­raged. Ban­ning peo­ple from en­ter­ing the coun­try

based on their re­li­gion, while they were trav­el­ling – as the planes were in the air – is the be­hav­iour of a dic­ta­tor, of a tyrant. It’s not what Amer­ica should ever do, es­pe­cially with the coun­try’s long his­tory of wel­com­ing peo­ple who have been per­se­cuted be­cause of their re­li­gion.

I had a prior im­age that I’d done of a ter­ror­ist with a knife, beheading him­self, a comment on ISIS’s level of vi­o­lence. As a re­ac­tion to the Mus­lim ban, I took the ex­ist­ing ter­ror­ist im­age and pasted Trump’s head on it, along with the be­headed statue on one hand, and the pre­ex­ist­ing knife on the other. I was com­par­ing him to an ex­trem­ist, who had killed the Amer­i­can Dream.

I posted it on­line and it re­ceived a lot of at­ten­tion. A few days later, Der Spiegel called to give me a cover as­sign­ment on the Mus­lim ban. I did a num­ber of sketches but none were quite there. They saw the beheading im­age I’d posted and said they wanted to run it on their cover. I made some mi­nor re­vi­sions and they went ahead and pub­lished it.

Be­fore the magazine was on the news­stands, peo­ple be­gan down­load­ing it from their Twit­ter feed and print­ing gi­ant posters of the im­age. It ap­peared at air­port protests that night and the next morn­ing, and led to a lot of news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and tele­vi­sion cov­er­age.

The big­gest chal­lenge was deal­ing with film crews, ra­dio sta­tions and jour­nal­ist re­quests, all of that. Plus deal­ing with all the an­gry mes­sages and ha­tred from peo­ple that dis­agreed with the cover. Free­dom of speech doesn’t ex­ist ev­ery­where. With hor­rific events like the Charlie Hebdo at­tack in re­cent me­mory, what would you say is the big­gest risk you face in your daily work? I don’t dis­cuss risks or threats. Un­der­stood. How much of your work is driven by a de­sire to show that the US is still a place where peo­ple can speak their minds? Most of my po­lit­i­cal work about the coun­try is driven by this mo­ti­va­tion. I believe in the ideals of this coun­try, and I’m thank­ful for all the free­doms here. I want the world to see what is pos­si­ble here: the idea that one per­son can di­rectly con­front the pres­i­dent, can comment freely on what’s hap­pen­ing, and isn’t im­pris­oned for it. This isn’t pos­si­ble in many coun­tries around the world. At a craft level, how do you make images that all peo­ple – no mat­ter their ed­u­ca­tion, back­ground or lan­guage – can quickly un­der­stand and re­late to? I don’t have a spe­cific process; it varies ac­cord­ing to the topic and the as­sign­ment. Some­times the idea ar­rives out of thin air, fully formed; other times I end up do­ing nu­mer­ous pen­cil sketches un­til I find the right di­rec­tion.

I do want my images to com­mu­ni­cate to ev­ery­one, re­gard­less of their vis­ual ed­u­ca­tion level. Some­times I feel that de­sign­ers are mak­ing things to be seen or ap­pre­ci­ated by other de­sign­ers. The vis­ual lan­guage be­comes very ab­stract, or multi-lay­ered, and the point – or the com­mu­ni­ca­tion – is of­ten lost.

For me, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key, com­mu­ni­cat­ing to ev­ery­one di­rectly. The art is in the ser­vice of the idea. This is why the images are so graph­i­cally sim­ple, why some el­e­ments re­peat from one im­age

to an­other. I’ve now cre­ated a fa­mil­iar­ity within the vis­ual lan­guage, and want to get to the idea as di­rectly as pos­si­ble. Tell us about your al­ter­na­tive cover for Fire and Fury… When the book came out, the cover vi­su­als were very flat. I started get­ting mes­sages from peo­ple say­ing I should have been asked to do it, or won­der­ing what I would have done with the cover. I don’t like to have ques­tions hang­ing out there – I won­dered what I would have done with it my­self.

So I made a book cover de­sign from an idea I had af­ter the neo-Nazi torch march in Char­lottesville. The orig­i­nal sketch had a large Trump fire com­ing from the tiki torches, which I re­moved and re­placed with a land­scape of Wash­ing­ton DC. I posted it on my Twit­ter ac­count, ex­pect­ing a small re­ac­tion.

In­stead it’s the most shared im­age I’ve made – more than the magazine cov­ers. Many peo­ple down­loaded the im­age and pasted it on their books be­cause [they] didn’t want to look at the ex­ist­ing one. Fire is a re­cur­ring theme in your Trump il­lus­tra­tions. What does it sym­bol­ise for you? He’s like a wild­fire: un­pre­dictable, jump­ing from one place to an­other, dan­ger­ous to the coun­try. I’ve used fire in a lot of my work go­ing back many years. I grew up in Mi­ami around race cars, pin striped flames, paint and body shops, and so on. My fam­ily was in the used car and junk­yard busi­ness, and I loved hot rod races. I think that has some­thing to do with the vis­ual. How does work­ing in such a po­lit­i­cally and so­cially charged en­vi­ron­ment af­fect your men­tal health or out­look? Do the neg­a­tive com­ments bother you? I have a fairly even keeled and con­tent per­son­al­ity. Not much af­fects me or brings me down. I have an abil­ity to stay calm through­out all of this; it’s my na­ture, I guess. I also value free speech greatly and re­spect an­other per­son’s right to have an opin­ion, even when it’s full of vul­gar­i­ties or in­sults.

I’ve never been in­volved in an on­go­ing project where I felt [like] I was on the right side of his­tory more than I do now. I have no doubt about it. This is about what is right and just. When you have jus­tice on your side, noth­ing af­fects you. You just move for­ward. What ad­vice would you give to some­one who wants to get into cre­ative ac­tivism and has real pas­sion to en­cour­age change, but doesn’t know where to start? If you feel a call­ing to speak up about top­ics that move you, then just go for it. Don’t ask for per­mis­sion; don’t wait. Put it out there and see what hap­pens. Have em­pa­thy for oth­ers and speak for those who can’t. Make work at the ser­vice of oth­ers. You may be sur­prised at how many peo­ple will con­nect with it.

Right: Af­ter cre­at­ing TIME’s Melt­down cover, Ro­driguez up­dated the im­age for a new is­sue of the magazine, To­tal Melt­down, which de­picted Trump’s face as a pud­dle.

Above: Edel Ro­driguez’s al­ter­na­tive Fire and Fury cover; the artist’s fiery Trump im­agery has ap­peared on cov­ers around the world, in­clud­ing Brazil’s Epoca.

Left: Fol­low­ing the Char­lottesville tragedy, Ro­driguez de­picted Don­ald Trump wear­ing a KKK hood for Der Spiegel magazine.

Above: Ro­driguez’ Newsweek cover on sex­ism in Sil­i­con Val­ley had peo­ple tweet­ing in shock; while Hate In Amer­ica, for TIME, cap­tures the after­math of the Char­lottesville tragedy.

An illustration for a New York Times ar­ti­cle on gun con­trol and gun vi­o­lence in the US ti­tled Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?

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