Los Angeles Street Artist SABO Hits Phoenix for Show of Provocative Conservative Art

SABO stands before the image that made him famous: Ted Cruz as a Max Cady-like badass.
SABO stands before the image that made him famous: Ted Cruz as a Max Cady-like badass.
Stephen Lemons

It's all fun and games till the U.S. Secret Service comes knocking on your door. 

Actually, for controversial, right-wing street artist SABO, that's when the games began. 

The Los Angeles denizen, infamous for his poster of a shirtless, tatted-up, butt-smokin' Ted Cruz, was in Phoenix for the group show "Provocative Art 2016: Dissent in a Political Age," held at the Lotus Contemporary Art gallery on Roosevelt Row.

In an interview with New Times, SABO admitted that he was scared in 2014 when he saw that a Secret Service agent had left a note on his door. The agent had come by while SABO was out, to question the artist about his anti-Obama tweets. 

Though he may have no love for lefties, SABO is no fan of the Donald either.
Though he may have no love for lefties, SABO is no fan of the Donald either.

But instead of lawyering up, he called a Hollywood Reporter scribe he knew to be on hand for the agents' return visit the next day. Then, he papered over his residence with printouts of the name "Oswald" in big black letters and stuck his high-powered rifle in plain view in the corner.

"I learned from my meth[-addict] neighbor that you have a lot more power inside the house while [law enforcement agents] are outside," SABO explained. "So I said [to them] you're going to be interviewing me from outside of the house." 

In the resulting video, shot from a camera set behind SABO's back,  two casually dressed agents ask him about tweets where SABO fantasizes about Lee Harvey Oswald coming back as a zombie, or another, where he makes a curious comment about a fundraiser planned for Obama at Gwyneth Paltrow's house.

From left to right, artists Richard Bledsoe, SABO, and Roman Genn outside Lotus Contemporary Art.
From left to right, artists Richard Bledsoe, SABO, and Roman Genn outside Lotus Contemporary Art.
Stephen Lemons

"It really would be a crying shame if someone called to report a man with a rifle in this area on this night," SABO had tweeted about the shindig, along with a poster of Paltrow, who is depicted as an "Obama drone."

SABO already had plastered prints of the Paltrow image all over her Brentwood neighborhood. He admits that the tweet about the gunman was "on the fence, even for me."

In the video, SABO tells the agents that he was responsible for the tweets, but he had no violent intentions toward the president. 

Roman Genn's take on the Year of the Monkey.
Roman Genn's take on the Year of the Monkey.

"You've really got to think about some of the stuff you're tweeting," said one unnamed agent. "It could be construed in many different ways, you know?"

Which is when SABO reminds the agents of his First Amendment rights. He later shows the agent an art piece he's working on: a toilet seat and lid made to look like Obama's mouth.

It's one of many stories that SABO has about being a speck of Republican red in the ocean of Democratic blue that is Los Angeles.   

Yet the fast-talking Angeleno clearly thrives on the tension. Indeed, it drives his art, which is designed to infuriate lefties and make them pull out their hair in fits of politically correct fury.

Caricaturing black politicians other than the President is something Genn rarely gets away with, he claims.
Caricaturing black politicians other than the President is something Genn rarely gets away with, he claims.

Take his version of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' campaign poster, this one advertising "Free Shit," or his images of flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz carrying "Hillary" signs, or his alterations of advertisements for the HBO series Girls, adding burka-like headpieces to the stars' heads. 

Other pieces descend into Hustler-style parody, like his portrayal of Texas politician Wendy Davis as "Abortion Barbie," for her advocacy of women's abortion rights, or his "Mona Lisa," which shows Obama's head atop a smear of brown that resembles a cruder version of South Park's Mr. Hanky.  

The objects of SABO's scorn are not always Democrats. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump gets the SABO treatment as well, as a fascistic leader he dubs, a little predictably, "Il Douche." There's also a red-and-gold banner for "House Trump," modeled on that of the House Lannister in the HBO series Game of Thrones

Though the Trump banner reads, "Winner is coming," SABO says he still likes Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and believes Cruz will be the GOP nominee, despite recent predictions that Trump will win enough delegates in coming contests to give him the nomination. 

SABO was once tight with the Cruz camp, even to the point of Cruz's selling some of SABO's work on the candidate's website, including the portrayal of Cruz looking like Robert DeNiro's Max Cady character from the 1991 remake of Cape Fear. 

SABO's signs have fooled even the most ardent Bernie supporters.
SABO's signs have fooled even the most ardent Bernie supporters.

But Twitter got SABO in hot water again, when the liberal online talk show The Young Turks took SABO to task for several racially charged tweets, some using the n-word.

The fallout? Cruz dropped SABO's merchandise like a hot brick, and SABO earned further scorn from the left, which denounced him as a racist, a bigot, and a white supremacist, all charges he vehemently denies. 

That doesn't keep him from making statements or art that might challenge that self-assessment in the eyes of some, like a T-shirt showing the outline a white shark's head with the words "White Power." Though on his website, unsavoryagents.com, SABO says he knows the image is "hard edged" and not for everyone, he clearly is playing with dangerous ideas. 

The other artists in the show offered less-incendiary work. Russian-born artist Roman Genn's illustrations have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and National Review. 

Genn told New Times that as a citizen, he actually liked political correctness, because it allows for a more civil society, unlike in Russia, where he claims ethnic and racial slurs are common in public.

Phoenix artist Richard Bledsoe's creepy, nausea-inducing (but in a good way) The Collective.
Phoenix artist Richard Bledsoe's creepy, nausea-inducing (but in a good way) The Collective.

"But as a professional practicing my craft, I of course detest [political correctness]," he said. "I suffer from it every day, because editors are constantly second-guessing what the reader might get pissed off [about]."

A large part of Genn's work consists of caricatures of world leaders and politicians, who often want to buy his originals, though he wryly observes that the check is often from "the committee to re-elect such and such" rather than the politician's own pocket.

Other than Obama, he says it's difficult to "make fun of" anyone who is not white. 

New Times asked Genn if National Review gave him a lot of leeway in his illustrations.

To which he deadpanned: "Again, you can make fun of white people."

The HBO series Girls as re-imagined by SABO.EXPAND
The HBO series Girls as re-imagined by SABO.

Phoenix artist Richard Bledsoe uses symbolism to make less-immediate political statements. His painting of a sickly blue, moon-ish head with many bodies attached to it called The Collective has a horrific, otherworldly feel to it. 

"My art is political by not being political," Bledsoe told New Times. "Because there's such an inclination in the art scene to express a certain viewpoint to get accepted, whereas I look at art as more of a spiritual communication."

Bledsoe says he created The Collective, especially for this show, with the intent of depicting the "zombie-like death" of many individuals controlled by a central intelligence.

Sadly, the show was a one-off. The show's publicist Melissa Dawdy said she and the artists would like to return to Phoenix soon, perhaps for Third Friday, but no dates have been confirmed as of yet.


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