'My calling, my work is to speak about things I see that are injustices. It’s the artist’s responsibility to keep making art that is authentic and honest.'
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You may not know his name, writes Cathleen Falsani, but you probably recognize Edel Rodriguez’s work—bold, satirical posters, magazine covers and illustrations tackling injustices and lampooning political figures (most notably the 45th President of the United States) that have earned him the nickname, ‘America’s Illustrator-In-Chief.’
Many of Rodriguez’s images of Donald Trump, whom he depicts without facial features save for a gaping mouth on a flame-orange head topped by bright yellow hair, have gone viral worldwide—perhaps most famously his cover for Der Spiegel with Trump in a Ku Klux Klan hood and his cover of Time magazine (where he once served as international art director) showing the shouting president with his hair a towering inferno of flames.
Rodriguez brought that same keen-eyed artistic and political sensibility to the more than 40 illustrations he’s created for the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour.
Born in Havana, Cuba, Rodriguez immigrated to the United States with his parents and sister in the Mariel boatlift of 1980 when he was nine years old. (Years later he discovered that a Newsweek photographer, Mario Ruiz, had been on the same boat. In the photographs above Edel is the boy in the red jacket and green and white striped sweater, his sister in the blue sweater, his mother has blonde hair and his father is the man with glasses and moustache.) He says U2 had a significant influence in shaping his nascent political and artistic identity as a teenager.
‘I had a bootleg [cassette] tape copy of ‘War’,’ Rodriguez said in an interview from his home in New York. ‘Here was this band that was singing about politics and war and all these issues. The reason I left Cuba was all of these politics, so I connected with the band about those kinds of things that I wasn’t hearing in a lot of rock ‘n’ roll back then. I just listened to them all the time when I was working and painting. And here we are, 30 years later.’
Rodriguez’s work on the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour came about after he met the band’s stage designer and frequent creative collaborator Es Devlin earlier this year in Cape Town, South Africa at the Design Indaba conference where they both were presenters.
‘We hit it off and spent like every lunch and dinner chatting and goofing off. And through talking I said, ‘I’d like to do something with you, but I don’t know what.’ And she says, ‘Do you want to work with U2?’ I was like, ‘What? Are you insane?’’ Devlin forwarded images of some of his work to Willie Williams, who showed them to the band.
‘Bono was aware of my work,’ Rodriguez said. ‘Right away we started talking about what I could do for the show. It was still being developed at the time. Whenever Bono has an idea, I’ve just been sending him things…I’m just available for whenever they need me. ‘You’re like one of us,’ Bono told me. ‘You see things and you react.’
Rodriguez’s artwork is used throughout the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE show, and is particularly prominent during the pre-show and during the second act arc between ‘Staring At The Sun’ and ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’. His vibrant illustrations in red, white, and black incorporate text from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution—' When the government becomes destructive it is the right of the people to abolish it’, ‘Inalienable rights—The Want, Will, and Hopes of the People’, and ‘Let facts be submitted to a candid world’—and slogans from (RED) and the ONE Campaign including ‘Poverty Is Sexist,’ ‘Educate a girl, empower a community.’ They also cover pressing social issues such as immigration, gun violence, and free speech with protest signs that read, ‘Refugees Welcome,’ ‘ENGLISH, MATH, SCIENCE, GUNS’, and ‘Fight Back!’
After ‘Staring At The Sun’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, which feature video footage of white supremacists and tiki-torch-bearing neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and elsewhere, Bono wanted him to create an image that would bring people together, Rodriguez said. That led to the huge white-on-red banner that says, ‘We the People’.
If Rodriguez has to choose a favorite among the more than three dozen images he’s made for the tour, he says it’s the face of the Statue of Liberty in red on a white background with the words ‘Life, Liberty + the Pursuit of Happiness’ in black letters.
‘Coming from Cuba, where statues have important spiritual meaning, the Statue of Liberty is kind of like a saint for immigrants,’ he said. ‘And the way it’s being treated now feels like it’s being defiled somehow. In the U.S. it’s sort of looked at as a tourist thing, but to Latin Americans it really is like a religious icon in many ways. It means a lot to me as an immigrant, it means a lot to a lot of people, and it’s being desecrated.’
These are dangerous times and his artwork gets people ‘riled up’ for better and for worse. ‘A lot of people warn me: You should be careful. You should stop. Does Bono stop singing about this? No. It’s just what you do…Art in itself is a fight against other forces. My calling, my work is to speak about things I see that are injustices,’ he said. It’s the artist’s responsibility to keep making art that is authentic and honest. ‘People have to pay attention. You can’t avoid an image. They have to look at it. They have to see it.’
Rodriguez and his 80-year-old father, Tato, visited with Bono during sound check before the first show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden earlier this month. He had that 30-year-old bootleg cassette of ‘War’ with him and showed the lead vocalist. ‘I wanted him to know what it meant to me,’ he said.
‘I’ll keep going just like U2 will keep going,’ he said. ‘That’s what’s important about making art and music, that people can look back and see—document and protest and let the chips fall where they may. I’m not going to stay silent. I can’t believe people even think that’s a choice.’