21st Century Poster Art Movement


Driving to work today I saw an ad on the back of a bus that said “my produce section is my community garden.” I had a flash of WWII victory gardens and political posters that said “Uncle Sam Wants You!”

Posters are part of our art and politics fabric. With organic urban gardens and the Obamas’ call to service, posters again define a time in history.

Art Nouveau in the 1890’s was dubbed the “Golden Age of the Poster” led by Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha, spreading decorative poster art and Art Nouveau style to Europe and America. Soviet Propaganda Posters in the 1920’s featuring famous artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Aristarkh Lentulov and Alexander Rodchenko were meant to coerce and persuade. Posters helped define the WWI era, the Art Deco movements and the psychedelic era of the 1960’s.

Art posters today exhibit American altruism as a counterpoint to the Wall Street Meltdown. Through their art, designers help elect presidents, rescue disaster victims, and organize people around an idea. Rather than competing with new media, the Internet launched and nurtured this movement, raising thousands of dollars not for the artist but for their causes.

The use of the art poster for change isn’t new.(1) What’s new is that the Internet turned up the volume quickly, spreading the posters’ messages while putting fine art into the hands of thousands of people. It’s hard to say when any movement starts, especially in art. My discovery, as it did for many, began with the Obama presidential campaign.

The Obama Campaign

During the Obama campaign, three things happened. First, the Obama campaign gave explicit approval for posters by “Artists for Obama.” This includes not just Shepard Fairey but also a strong list of top artists. Secondly, Fairey rose from wanted street artist to the National Portrait Gallery partly because of Obama but mostly because he is an artistic rock star who gives back. Lastly, sanctioned or not, artists created a space to express all of their Obama poster ideas, wanting badly to contribute, to affect the effort and be part of a community.

Shepard Fairey

Fairey, who started as a street artist with political content, wanted to do something positive for the Obama campaign and reached out through publicist Yosi Sergant. The Campaign granted permission just before Super Tuesday (February 5, 2008). Fairey created the first design in one day with the familiar stylized face with “Progress” and his “Obey” star symbol integrated into it.(2) This quickly sold out. Then the Obama campaign expressed that they wanted a message of “Hope” so the poster we all know today was created along with the “Change” poster, without the “obey” logo.

By October 2008, thousands of posters were both sold and given away, and other merchandise including stickers and clothing were sold, all for the benefit of the Campaign. Fairey’s success opened the door for more artists, including the “Artists for Obama” that followed him.

Shepard Fairey’s iconic portrait quickly went viral and was imitated, repeated, used on magazine covers (Time and Rolling Stone), inspired spin-offs and spoofs, including a website where you can “obamacize” your own portrait.(3) As proof of its stature, the Smithsonian Institute acquired Fairey’s mixed media stenciled portrait version of the image for its National Portrait Gallery.

“Artists for Obama”

The one common element along all of the artists sanctioned by Obama is that they contributed their art and all sales went directly to the Obama Campaign. This wasn’t pocket change either, but reached in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the artists contributing were Robert Indiana, famous for his “love” graphics and part of a prior generation, Lance Wyman, Gui Borchert, Scott Hansen, Jonathan Heofler, Antar Dayal, Rafael Lopez and Shepard Fairey. The idea of the Obama poster was born, and became official on Obama’s website. In May 2008, Scott Hansen’s (aka ISO50) 23 x 40 lithograph was an edition of 5000 that sold for $70 each and sold out.


Antar Dayal’s etched “Yes we can” poster of Obama is another commission for the site. He printed an edition of 4800 for $70 in June 2008 and these all sold out. Do the math.


Rafael Lopez with the help from Josh Higgins, marketed his Obama poster, Voz Unida, with all the proceeds going to the Obama campaign, raising $60,000 and awareness with his work.


Design For Obama

The “official” Artists for Obama and their art spawned a more populist movement and many artists began making posters for Obama on an unofficial site, Design for Obama. New art arrived on the site daily that you could download for free to help spread the work of the campaign.

Created by Aaron Perry-Zucker and built by Adam Meyer, both seniors studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Design for Obama was inspired and supported by Design Observer. The site went beyond supporting the Obama for America campaign by using grassroots style organizing and collaboration to create a virtual community. Art publisher, Taschen Books is documenting this extraordinary experience into Design for Obama – Posters for Change: A Grassroots Anthology featuring essays by Perry-Zucker, filmmaker Spike Lee and design historian and author Steven Heller to be released this November.

So Cal Fire Poster Project June 2008

Designer Josh Higgins (see below) wanted to do something about the devastation in San Diego after the 2007 wildfires. Higgins and Robert Palmer, both artists from the San Diego area contacted Leif Steiner who ran the Hurricane Poster project. They hoped that artists would come to the site they built and donate their work. Shepard Fairey, Rafael Lopez, Wink Inc., Srojo, Bernie Tiano, Michael Osborne, Terry Marks, Don Clark, Modern Dog, Paul Frank, Steve Barretto, Ed Templeton, Grant Brittain and others donated their work with the proceeds going to the Salvation Army. Josh Higgins was also on the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), San Diego and had good connections to other artists.


I discovered the So Cal Fire Poster site in the typical cobweb connection of the Internet.  I started following Shepard Fairey during the Obama campaign,  and by researching him, I flinked back to prior projects and hit a link that said “HELP ANTAR DAYAL!” I recalled Dayal was one of the Artists for Obama, so I hit that link, and learned about DAyal’s studio’s demise in the fires, followed another link to the relief poster site, and was moved enough to purchase one of Rafael Lopez’s posters (shown below). Thus, Fairey, Dayal, Lopez and other Obama artists had already come together as a community before the campaign to help others but were not widely known until then.  Following these links showed me the depth of the movement and it’s altruistic bent.


The relief posters were intricate, well designed and beautifully printed. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Work to Date, designed a beautiful poster with a finished size of 24″ X 36″.


Hurricane Poster Project

The Hurricane Poster Project, organized by Leif Steiner of Moxie Sozo in the early hours after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, quickly became a massive undertaking. Twenty-four hours after conceiving the idea, the Project received emails from around the world. Artists and designers donated 180 posters to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The posters were designed, produced and sold online, raising more than $50,000 for the Red Cross in the 22 months the site was open.

The movement continues and is connecting with new artists every day dealing with issues ranging from Tibet and immigration to renewable energy.  Posters continue to facinate as the New York Times Book Review just covered the publication of three new poster art books.  Rich and thick and led by Shepard Fairey, this art form is out to save the world with your help.

adavis-32Allison A. Davis is a poet, novelist , essayist and lawyer. She has written extensively on San Francisco performance/multimedia art in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. She just finished her first novel and is working on her second. She lives in both San Francisco and New Orleans.

6 responses to “21st Century Poster Art Movement”

  1. great article – thanks!

  2. Chris says:

    Nice work Allison! Having seen the posters you display in your home, it’s cool to be able to understand them in a larger context. And I like how you placed the clickable links in the body of the article to show the other posters.


  3. micheleramirez says:

    Terrific article, Allison. Thanks so much for your return to art criticism! And why on earth did you ever leave?

  4. micheleramirez says:

    Terrific article, Allison. Thanks so much for your return to art criticism! And why on earth did you ever leave?

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