Attendees at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) were treated to the usual speeches by right-wing luminaries, seminars, legendary parties, and, if you happened to linger a few minutes after Sen. Ted Cruz’s appearance in the main ballroom, a program called the “Activism Boot Camp.” Part of this program, which was intended to inspire and instruct the Republican grassroots efforts, was Sabo, an inflammatory guerrilla artist who takes the GOP’s most extreme messages to the streets, illustrating them in ways that, in many cases, have led to charges of bigotry, homophobia, and worse.
Perhaps ironically, one of Sabo’s better-known pieces features a heavily muscled, tattooed image of Cruz, cigarette dangling from his lip. While the Texas senator has not officially endorsed the homage, he certainly doesn’t seem to mind it, quipping to The Washington Post, “My wife calls it my prison body.” He’s signed one of them. The piece is, by far, one of Sabo’s mildest.
It would be easy to cast Sabo in the vein of, say, Shepard Fairey, whose famous “Hope” posters appeared during the Obama campaign. Indeed, Sabo acknowledges that Fairey was one of his inspirations when, frustrated with what he felt was a lack of Republican voices, he started creating political art using his background in graphic design and advertising.
“I just said, ‘You know, man, this isn’t that hard. If Shepard can do it, I can do it,” Sabo, who preferred not to give his real name, told me by phone. He was quick to point out, however, that while Fairey was his political catalyst, that’s where the comparison ended.
“Some people would say, ‘Oh, you’re a Shepard Fairey clone,’” he said, referring to his technique of using Photoshop to bring a message to life. “And it’s like, dude, I would have done it this way if Shep never existed.”
Of course, Shepard Fairey also never dived into the waters of alleged misogyny and racism to get his points across.
That’s one of the starkest differences between the two artists: Sabo is angry. Really angry. And while this rage fuels his artistic style, it also boils over, leading to things like personal attacks on reporters who publish stories he doesn’t like. He lives on the far fringe of the right-wing movement, existing under the belief that the majority of the world is being held hostage by a liberal establishment conspiracy extending beyond government and into the educational system and media, bent on keeping the populace under its sway.
Their brainwashing starts with children, he says, using Saturday morning cartoons.
“Scooby-Doo tells you these are the good guys, the guys with the goatees and the T-shirts, and they look like they smoke dope,” Sabo explained. “The guys with their suits smoking cigars, those are the bad guys. They run evil companies, and Scooby-Doo is gonna make sure they don’t pour toxic shit in the water. And you’re told that shit from the day you sat down in front of a television to the day you leave college.”
One of the main points of all that, he maintains, is to subvert the creative class, to make sure that “everyone that has a creative voice, everyone that can tell a story, is all telling it the same way.” He sees himself as the antidote to such things.
Some of his creations, such as a vinyl-wrapped toilet seat with President Obama’s face on it, skew to the sort of kitschy gift shop swag you may find in an NRA gift shop. Others make a more controversial statement, such as a poster called “I’m Here to Help,” depicting the Rev. Al Sharpton holding a gas can in front of a wall of fire, or Wendy Davis reimagined as “Abortion Barbie” with a white baby shown in her stomach and another off to the side with scissors, appearing as though she’s about to cut the child’s head off.
A question about these images—if Sabo recognizes their racist undertones—ignites a spark that fuels a conspiracy theory-filled rant against black culture.
“I’m not at all racist,” he said. “The Democratic Party with Planned Parenthood has killed more black people than the Klan ever possibly could or has. I mean, it takes a lot of balls to come to that point, that realization. You’re just never told that. You don’t think of it. I lived in Louisiana. I’ve seen shotgun shacks. I almost want to cry when I see how these people live. And I can see, ‘These people? What the hell does he mean by that?’ No, I mean Southern blacks. All I can say is, for fuck’s sake, man, will you put down that joint? Will you learn how to speak properly? Will you learn how to read? Make yourself marketable. Please develop some skills…That’s the only thing that’s gonna pull you out of this hole, man. Listening to these fucking Democrats say ‘Woe is you’ is not gonna help you. Listening to all these hip-hop people telling you to ‘shake your ass’ and ‘bitch slap your ho’ and ‘get some bling bling’ isn’t gonna fucking help you. Cheap, fast, free money slinging rock ain’t gonna help you. And I challenge anyone, anyone, to tell me I’m wrong. I’m not a racist. I’m looking at what’s ugly and I’m calling it out. And people just don’t do that. And I’m being called a racist for doing it, which is twice as evil.”
Another of his posters, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and the words “Obama Drone,” got him featured on TV—and interviewed by the Secret Service after a series of inflammatory tweets he posted while the president was in town with the actress.
“I had wallpapered my entire apartment with huge words that just said ‘Oswald,’ and I had my AR perched up against one of those walls,” Sabo said, laughing in the retelling of his interview with the agents. “Are they still after me? Yeah, probably. I think the next time they come knocking on my door, they’re not gonna be very nice.”
One might expect that his particular perspective and the publicity and vehemence his methods inspire would have won Sabo some friends in the far-right media.
He claims this isn’t the case.
“A Fox News reporter is the one that pretty much turned me in [to the Secret Service], so so much for that idea,” he said when asked about what ties he may have with the network. “Fox has never helped me out.”
He has also called out Breitbart.com—for which he once did a campaign featuring Nancy Pelosi’s face on a twerking Miley Cyrus’s body—for its complete lack of coverage of his run-in with the feds. This led to something resembling a declaration of war against the late pundit’s website.
African Americans aren’t the only ones to feel his wrath.
Another of his campaigns is called “Burka the Bitch,” and it involves spray-painting Muslim headwear on movie posters around Los Angeles. He says it’s his response to what he describes as a cultural imbalance in accepting Islam while being happy to look away when other religions are disparaged.
“For decades you’ve been telling me Christians are knuckle-dragging retards, and now I’m supposed to embrace this religion?” Sabo said. He sounds incredulous. “Excuse me, inconsistency here! Well, you want me to embrace the Muslim face, fine. I’ll embrace the Muslim face. I’m going to put nijabs or burqas on the starlets’ faces in Hollywood.”
In addition to the street art, a T-shirt with the words “Muhammad is a Homo” emblazoned across the chest is featured in his store. It comes with an optional trickle of red “blood” at the neckline.
“They’re dangerous shirts, I’m well aware of that,” he admitted. “It takes a lot for a person to actually want to buy one.”
Randomly, another passionate subject of Sabo’s is gay marriage, which, despite the right’s general opposition, he seems to support.
“I don’t care who you sleep with, I don’t care who you love,” he said. “At 47 years old, if I learned anything, finding someone you truly love and who loves you back is probably one of the hardest things you can find in this life. And who am I to tell you who that person is, or should be? I don’t think the state, the church, or anyone else has any say in that matter.”
Sabo’s approach to vocalizing that support, however, is no less inflammatory or crude. He’s posted the the statement “F--, The New N-----” as graffiti in public. He maintains that the manner in which he came across the slogan makes it OK to use.
“There were these two gay guys making protest signs during a Prop 8 rally,” Sabo explained. “One looked over at the other and said, ‘We f--- are the new n------,’ and it just blew my hair back…I asked him just to clarify. He said, ‘Well, the gay community supported a black man for president, but the black community doesn’t support the gay community in the fight against Prop 8.’”
The public reaction to this slogan has been, not surprisingly, less than enthusiastic. Conservative entertainer Glenn Beck seemed unfazed by it, although he declined to repeat it word for word on the air.
Sabo takes this, like all criticism, in stride, attributing it to the myriad forces aligned against his worldview.
“Because I’m a Republican, people just want to grab that and throw that in my face and say I’m a bigot,” he said. “Bill Maher and Jon Stewart can say the most heinous things in the world and get away with it. If a Republican tries, they crucify you.’”
This “us against them” mentality is prevalent throughout our conversation, and one can see it clearly informing his opinions. He says he’s not alone in his artistic endeavors and has even trained a separate crew of guerrilla GOP street artists.
“I taught them, and they started doing this shit, and they got quite proficient at it,” he says proudly. “And every now and then I’d see something on the news, and someone would come up and ask me, ‘Hey, did you do that?’ They’re very proficient, and they’re going to make quite an influence in the next election.”
As always in politics, it comes down to elections.
It remains to be seen just how much of the coming presidential election will be fought on the walls of our cities and how long cities will tolerate their public spaces being vandalized, art or no. And though it doesn’t take long for a few offensive posters to be torn down, Sabo notes that ultimately it doesn’t matter, so long as they live long enough to make it to the Internet.
“I just decided to put out five or six [posters] in really key places that give me the best photograph that I can do,” he said. “Because the walls that I’m trying to hit are cyber walls. And once those are up, you can’t tear ’em down.”
These past few years have been a litmus test, of sorts, for Sabo. He has amassed a small following online, yea-sayers who respond to his all-caps social media declarations and extreme right-wing rhetoric with enthusiasm, and who readily rush to defend him against the threat of criticism. Some say they’ll “fuck up their message boards with TRUTH” should a story (in this case, the one you’re reading now) not paint him in a glowing enough light.
The ultimate validation, however, was being granted that speaking position at the year’s marquee conservative event, on a stage shared with GOP presidential hopefuls.
“I wanted to prove my worth for the midterms, which I think I did. I figured if I could do a splash during the midterms then I could really do some damage during the elections,” he says.
Ultimately, however, it’s not just about advancing the message. He admits he’d like to be seen as an art icon, like his nemesis Shepard Fairey or Banksy, rather than just a bullhorn for the lunatic fringe.
“The story that I’m trying to create for myself, just through my life, is I want to be the granddaddy of mean right-wing street art, guerrilla art. I want people to say five or 10 years from now, ‘Yeah, that guy Sabo, he really influenced me,’” he said. He sounds a little wistful. “I just want to cement that for myself.”