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Obama's Image Becomes Pop Culture Icon

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Obama's Image Becomes Pop Culture Icon

Sandra Freeman says her Obama shirt elicits postive responses. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

Nearly everyone is getting used to seeing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s official message on TV. But some people are seeing him on unofficial wares. Obama’s face is emblazoned on thousands of graphic T-shirts sold online, on street corners and in chain stores. For some, the icon is all about Obama’s message, for others it’s simply a hip fashion statement.

There’s Barack Obama copied in the likeness of Che Guevara. There’s a picture of Obama’s pensive face striped in African nationalist colors, a la Bob Marley. Designers even intermingle Obama with Jesus.

Messages on Obama T-shirts are often cheeky, campy or clever. “Barack the Vote.” “Barack and Roll.” “Hot Mama for Obama.” “Obamalicious.”

Sandra Freeman, of Chicago, wears her Obama shirt three times a week.

FREEMAN: Everybody usually, if they’re in a distance from me and they see it. They cheer and say, ‘Yeah, Obama and raise they hand up.’

Freeman’s shirt has pictures of the black trinity: Mandela, Malcolm and Martin. It reads ‘we still have the dream’ with Obama’s face in the foreground.

FREEMAN: I wear to my dance classes, at church and they love it. I wear it to my writing class, they love it.

Columbia College fashion design professor Virginia Heaven says Obama t-shirts are about branding.

HEAVEN: He’s good looking, he’s youthful, he’s completely current. He’s a celebrity. And you belong essentially to an in crowd. It’s like a fashion statement as much as it’s a political statement, it is a fashion statement.

ambi: 47th Street

On East 47th Street in Chicago, Miss Sue’s Boutique sells Obama shirts because the owners support him. Eckertson Lewis pulls them out of boxes. They have the candidate in a Washington, D.C. backdrop.

LEWIS: Yeah, this is the only style we have right now. Probably five dozen in box. Starting selling two months ago. We do five a day. In this economy that’s not too bad.

The Obama campaign says it isn’t bothered that his image is bootlegged or pilfered for commerce. It’s unclear how much is being made. As long as nothing is offensive, Obama’s camp says the shirts as proof that his message is resonating with voters.

But at least one communication expert says there could be a downside for Obama. Dann Pierce teaches at the University of Portland. And he says the shirts as of now are part of the underground media. And that’s fine. But...

PIERCE: The kind of attention sort of obscures the political process rather than encouraging participation in.

ambi: Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters is a haven for hipsters. The clothing store is selling pithy Obama t-shirts in its stores around the country.

Sales associate Shane Schoolman says it only takes a few weeks for Obama shirts to sell out. Gag shirts are trendy, too, like this one that says: Obama Says Knock You Out.

SCHOOLMAN: I’ll be Ba-rack. Like the Terminator.

Some of the Obama t-shirts at Urban Outfitters and on the Web have the aesthetic quality of an Andy Warhol painting. His art merged pop culture and public figures.

The only difference is that Obama is enjoying much more than 15 minutes of fame. He could last as long as it takes for a T-shirt to fade.

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