Barack Obama "Joker" poster

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United States President Barack Obama depicted as the Joker, a comic book supervillain, based on the portrayal by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

The Barack Obama "Joker" poster is a digitally manipulated image of former United States President Barack Obama, designed by Firas Alkhateeb in January 2009, that was adopted by some critics of the Obama administration and described as the most famous anti-Obama image.[1][2][3] The image portrays Obama as comic book supervillain Joker, based on the portrayal by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008).[4] Alkhateeb has said the image was not intended to make a political statement.[5] He uploaded the image to the photo-sharing website Flickr, from where it was downloaded by an unknown individual who added the caption "socialism".[6][7]

Described by The Guardian as the "American right's first successful use of street art", since April 2009, the poster was frequently used by anti-Obama protesters.[8][9][10]


The first known use of Obama's image being "Jokerized" was published on Myspace by a user listed as Ross Brummet in August 2008. The image was of a smiling Barack Obama, his face painted over with Joker-style makeup, and the quote "The U.S. deserves a better class of war criminal, and I'm going to give it to them."[11] A second instance, and the first to receive media coverage, occurred at a rally for Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden at Florida State University on November 2, 2008.[12] Two members of the FSU College Republicans created the poster from an Obama "Hope" poster they had purchased from the school's College Democrats club, and used it to demonstrate outside the Biden event. This design featured the caption "Why So Socialist?", a parody of The Dark Knight's "Why So Serious" tagline.[13] The students dismissed criticism of the poster, explaining that it was simply a pop culture reference designed to "get the attention of a college audience".[14]

The version of the image that was eventually popularized was created by Alkhateeb, a 20-year-old Palestinian American history student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.[6][15] He digitally manipulated the Obama photograph from the October 2006 Time magazine cover, using Adobe Photoshop. His version did not contain the "socialism" label. Alkhateeb was influenced by artist Shepard Fairey, designer of the Obama "Hope" poster, and wanted to practice a "Jokerize" technique he learned in class.[2][15] He digitally added the Joker face paint over the Obama image and uploaded it to Flickr on January 18, 2009.[15] Alkhateeb is said to have had no ill-will towards Obama, but was simply bored.[16]


Media coverage[edit]

The image went largely unnoticed until an unknown person began placing posters of the image, with the added label "socialism," throughout downtown Los Angeles, California.[17][18] In April 2009, Bedlam magazine became the first media outlet to report on Obama "Joker" signs being spotted in Los Angeles.[19][20] During the summer months, Obama "Joker" posters were distributed in Florida and Atlanta, Georgia.[21] In August 2009, the posters became a viral phenomenon online. The poster quickly became the center of an international "media typhoon" widely covered by news outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and the Drudge Report.[4][7]

Media coverage ranged from praise for the image's artistic value to critics labeling the poster racist.[4][7] Culture critic Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post described the poster as a "subtly coded, highly effective racial and political argument".[22] Thomas Lifson, editor of The American Thinker, described it as "open mockery of Barack Obama, as disillusionment sets in with the man", and The First Post suggested the image marked "a turning of the tide of public opinion against a president who promised so much".[23][24] Film critic Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian described the poster as "the single most chilling—and brilliant—piece of poisonous political propaganda I think I have ever seen."[25]

Copyright and free speech controversy[edit]

The media coverage resulted in Flickr removing all copies of the image, citing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice, and deleting forum threads discussing the image.[26][27] The takedown was met with much backlash from the Flickr community and caused Flickr to change their DMCA takedown policy.[28][29] The new policy provides for a page to remain if a takedown notice is filed against it, but for the image to be replaced with one that reads: "This image has been removed due to a claim of copyright infringement."[28] A spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, defended Alkhateeb's image citing fair use protection.[30] As a result of Flickr removing the Obama "Joker" image, some online communities viewed Alkhateeb as the most visible representative, in August 2009, of free speech on the Internet.[9][29]

Protest symbol[edit]

The image was adopted by some of Obama's critics and used for posters, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other merchandise.[1][25][31] The image is considered by some a symbol of the Tea Party protest movement.[32][33] During the September 12, 2009, Taxpayer March on Washington, the largest demonstration against the Obama Administration's policies to date,[34] protesters denouncing deficit spending and the America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, dubbed "Obamacare" by critics, carried Obama "Joker" signs captioned the doctor will see you now.[35][36][37][38]


Some Democrats have called the image racist, suggesting a similarity to blackface makeup that was used during minstrel show performances.[23][39] Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said, "Depicting the president as demonic and a socialist goes beyond political spoofery. It is mean-spirited and dangerous. We have issued a public challenge to the person or group that put up the poster to come forth and publicly tell why they have used this offensive depiction to ridicule President Obama."[23]

Ray Tampa, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in St. Petersburg, Florida, had a differing opinion: "I see it as the Joker, and being that I see it as the Joker I will have to say that it's fair game".[40]

Alkhateeb, in response to the usage of his image, said, "To accuse [Obama] of being a socialist is really ... immature. First of all, who said being a socialist is evil?"[15] He also stated "socialism is an idea thats time has come and passed. It’s basically like calling someone a loyalist to the British crown".[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Foreign, Our (August 18, 2009). "Creator of Barack Obama 'Joker' image was bored student". The Daily Telegraph, London. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Good, Oliver (September 1, 2009). "The joke's on who?". The National. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  3. ^ Spillius, Alex (September 17, 2009). "Critics' attacks on Obama are fuelled by racism, says Carter". Irish Independent. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c George, Justin (August 9, 2009). "Portrayal of President Barack Obama as Joker stirs roiling debate". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  5. ^ Moses, Asher (August 21, 2009). "Obama as Joker parody sparks censorship storm". The Age. Melbourne: Retrieved September 27, 2009.
  6. ^ a b "Palestinian-American behind 'socialist-joker' Obama poster". Haaretz. August 20, 2009. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Borrelli, Christopher (August 19, 2009). "Talking to the Chicago college student who may be behind Obama-as-Joker poster". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on August 25, 2009. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  8. ^ Wong, Danielle (August 30, 2009). "'Freedom lover' behind 'Obama Joker' posters". Toronto Star. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  9. ^ a b Milian, Mark (August 21, 2009). "Aftermath: Unmasked Obama Joker artist confronts fame firsthand". Los Angeles Times, Retrieved September 26, 2009.
  10. ^ Walters, Ben (August 5, 2009). "Why the Obama as Joker poster leaves a bad taste in the mouth". The Guardian. London: Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  11. ^ Brummet, Ross (August, 2008) Obama photo, ( Retrieved December 25, 2012
  12. ^ Corsaro, Ryan (November 2, 2008). "Biden Jabs Anti-Obama Protesters At Fla. Rally". CBS. Retrieved August 7, 2010.
  13. ^ Jaffe, Matt (November 2, 2008). "Biden's Florida Rally Disrupted by Protesters". ABC. Retrieved August 7, 2010.
  14. ^ Hertz, Rebecca (December 2010). "Obama Jokerface is an FSU Original". The Yeti. Retrieved December 19, 2010.
  15. ^ a b c d Hechtkopf, Kevin (August 18, 2009). "Artist Behind Obama "Joker" Picture Revealed". CBS News. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  16. ^ Booth, Jenny (August 18, 2009). "Author of 'shocking, racist' Obama Joker image unveiled - as a bored history student". The Times. London: Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  17. ^ Milian, Mark (August 17, 2009). "Obama Joker artist unmasked: A fellow Chicagoan". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  18. ^ Kennedy, Helen (August 6, 2009). "Shepard Fairey-designed Obama portrait on cover of Rolling Stone deifies, questions President". Daily News. Retrieved September 27, 2009.
  19. ^ Jerald, Jonathan (April 25, 2009). "Mystery Obama/Joker Poster Appears in L.A." Bedlam Magazine. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  20. ^ Courrielche, Patrick (August 7, 2009). "The Artist Formerly Known as Dissident". Reason. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  21. ^ "Obama on Estonia airport 'trash cans'". Press TV. September 8, 2009. Archived from the original on September 20, 2012. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  22. ^ Kennicott, Philip (August 6, 2009). "Obama as The Joker: Racial Fear's Ugly Face". The Washington Post. pp. C01. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  23. ^ a b c Harnden, Toby (August 4, 2009). "Barack Obama Joker socialism poster denounced as racist". The Daily Telegraph. London: Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  24. ^ Edwards, Tim (August 4, 2009). "Barack Obama Joker poster lifts conservatives". The First Post. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  25. ^ a b Bradshaw, Peter (August 19, 2009). "Did they make Barack Obama the Joker because he blows up a hospital?". The Guardian. London: Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  26. ^ Arrington, Michael (August 21, 2009). "Flickr v. Free Speech. Where Is Their Courage?". TechCrunch. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  27. ^ Popkin, Helen A.S. (August 28, 2009). "Hey Flickr ... why so censorious?". NBC News. NBC News. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  28. ^ a b Milian, Mark (September 2, 2009). "After 'Obama Joker' debacle, Flickr changes takedown policy". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  29. ^ a b Shankland, Stephen (September 2, 2009). "Flickr treads more lightly in copyright matter". CNET News. Retrieved September 26, 2009.
  30. ^ Milian, Mark (August 20, 2009). "Flickr says 'Obama Joker' image removal complied with takedown request". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 27, 2009.
  31. ^ Giridharadas, Anand (September 25, 2009). "Edging Out Congress and the Public". The New York Times. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  32. ^ Mascaro, Lisa (September 14, 2009). "'You lie' outburst signal of chilly times". Las Vegas Sun. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  33. ^ Zaitchik, Alexander (September 16, 2009). "Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck's life". Salon. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  34. ^ Zeleny, Jeff (September 12, 2009). "Thousands Rally in Capital to Protest Big Government". The New York Times. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  35. ^ Brown, Emma; Hohmann, James; Bacon Jr., Perry (September 13, 2009). "Lashing Out at the Capitol: Tens of Thousands Protest Obama Initiatives and Government Spending". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  36. ^ Wolf, Carol (September 14, 2009). "Demonstrators attack Obama's 'socialist' reforms". Bloomberg News. Melbourne: Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  37. ^ Goldman, Russell (September 12, 2009). "Tea Party Protesters March on Washington". ABC News. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  38. ^ Wood, Gaby (November 29, 2009). "Glenn Beck: the renegade running the opposition to Obama". The Observer. London: p. 4. Retrieved November 30, 2009.
  39. ^ Zeleny, Jeff; Rutenberg, Jim (September 16, 2009). "As Race Debate Grows, Obama Steers Clear of It". The New York Times. pp. A1. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  40. ^ Smith, Adam C. (August 5, 2009). "Pinellas GOP denies link to Facebook page with image of Obama as Joker". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved September 20, 2009.

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