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Artist of Obama as Joker is unmasked

The University of Illinois student says he was playing around with Adobe Photoshop software and a Time magazine cover picture of the president and posted the results on Flickr. He didn't expect such a response.

August 19, 2009|Mark Milian

When cryptic posters portraying President Obama as the Joker from "The Dark Knight" began popping up around Los Angeles and other cities, the question many asked was: Who is behind the image?

Was it an ultra-conservative grass-roots 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 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 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 Oct. 23, 2008, Time magazine cover of Obama and began work.

Four or five hours later, he happily had his product.

On Jan. 18, Alkhateeb uploaded the image to the photo-sharing site Flickr. Over two months, he amassed just a couple thousand hits, he said.

Then the counter exploded after a still-anonymous rogue 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 Flickr page surpassed 20,000 views. By Friday, it had been taken down. On Alkhateeb's page, a manipulated image condemning White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (captioned "epic fail") was mixed with parodies of the Guitar Hero game franchises and Napoleon on a motorcycle.

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 lie low. He initially had concerns about connecting his name with anything critical of the president. "After Obama was elected, you had all of these people who basically saw him as the second coming of Christ," he said. "From my perspective, there wasn't much substance to him."

Alkhateeb, of Palestinian descent, follows Middle Eastern politics closely and says that although his views on foreign relations align with the Democrats, he prefers Republican ideals on domestic issues.

Someday, Alkhateeb hopes to be a history teacher and high school football coach. He's honored by Shepard Fairey's assessment of his Joker picture ("The artwork is great in that it gets a point across really quickly," Fairey said), but disagrees with some of his comments criticizing the socialism poster.

"He made a picture of Bush as a vampire," Alkhateeb said of Fairey. "That's kind of speaking with two faces."

Regardless, Alkhateeb, who says he was making no political statement with his work, does agree with the Obama "Hope" artist about "socialism" being the wrong caption. "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?"

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mark.milian@latimes.com

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