Meet the Artist behind Der Spiegel’s Viral Trump Covers
“I thought you were North Korea calling,” said artist Edel Rodriguez, half-joking, answering the phone this afternoon. He’d just received word that another satirical cover he designed for German magazine Der Spiegel had been published.
It features an illustration of U.S. President Donald Trump with the body of a baby. His playmate, tottering next to him atop a primitive nuclear bomb-cum-kiddie ride—similar in design to the one the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II—is none other than the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un.
The cover boldly rebukes the growing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. The Kim regime tested two nuclear devices in 2016. It has also significantly increased the frequency of its missile tests, two of which have failed in the past month, one during celebrations for the Day of the Sun, the state’s most important holiday. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has begun walking back America’s policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea’s provocations, with Trump having sent an armada into the sea of Japan last week—albeit a few days after he said he had.
“These two world leaders are like babies playing with knives. We’re all scared of what they’re going to do next, and I wanted to acknowledge that,” Rodriguez said.
While this is Rodriguez’s first published illustration of Kim, the New York-based artist is no stranger to forging scathing illustrations of Trump, which have been published in Der Spiegel, TIME, and Politico. His first drawings of the current president cropped up during the campaign, when Rodriguez, a Cuban immigrant, was offended and angered by then-candidate Trump’s exclusionary, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
When Rodriguez left Communist Cuba for the U.S. in 1980 at the age of eight, he believed he was heading towards “the greatest country in the world,” where, he recalls his father telling him, “I’d be free to do whatever I want, go wherever I want, and say whatever I want.” Over the course of his 36 years in the U.S., his expectations had been largely met. Now, however, he says the freedoms he so valued are under threat.
Rodriguez says he couldn’t stand it when many of his fellow citizens failed to take Trump’s stump speech promises, or bid for presidency, seriously. “So I started making outrageous images to spark people’s attention—to rile them up,” he said. “I wanted to communicate that, to me, Trump was like a comet heading towards Earth.”
When Trump was elected president, news outlets around the world responded with big, bold headlines. But it was Der Spiegel that hit the presses with a cover that stood out from the rest. The single compositionally simple illustration on the German magazine’s cover captured the international shockwave of uncertainty and fear that Trump’s election had set in motion. In it, an orange-faced, yellow-maned comet hurtles towards Earth, mouth wide open as if ready to swallow the planet whole.
The artist behind the image was Rodriguez; the comet was Trump. And while Der Spiegel is a German-language magazine (it hosts an English-language version on its website), Rodriguez’s November 12th cover was shared around the world. The power of the image transcended language barriers and national borders.
The reaction to Rodriguez’s post-election cover paled in comparison to the international ruckus provoked by a second collaboration between Der Spiegel and the illustrator published on February 4th, just after news of the Trump administration’s first travel ban broke. It showed Rodriguez’s now signature caricature of Trump wielding a bloody knife in one hand, and the severed head of the Statue of Liberty in the other. The illustration was flanked by a short, direct headline: “America First.”
Der Spiegel had asked Rodriguez to pitch another illustration that would communicate the vehement resistance to the travel ban and other isolationist measures, by many Americans, in the form of protests and country-wide organizing. He first proposed several ideas, one of which showed a hand whose middle finger was erect and resembled Trump. The magazine didn’t bite. But they did see an image on Rodriguez’s Twitter feed—an early version of the Statue of Liberty beheading—that intrigued them.
“I was shocked when they said they wanted to publish it. I knew I’d crossed a line,” Rodriguez said. “But I’d become so frustrated with people, even friends, telling me to temper my views of Trump when we were around Trump supporters.”
To him, the shushing smacked of his early years in Cuba, when he was routinely told “what not to do and what not to say” for fear that he’d be persecuted by Fidel Castro’s government. “I felt like I had to push the boundaries,” he said. “Otherwise what’s the purpose of having left my country and my family if I can’t express myself?” The anger in Rodriguez’s illustration was palpable. And that’s precisely what attracted Der Spiegel to the image.
“Edel has the rare talent to interpret and analyze complex topics in a way that is at the same time intelligent, funny, sharp, full of knowledge, and easy to understand,” said Klaus Brinkbäumer, Der Spiegel’s editor-in-chief.
Every week, the magazine chooses from four to five cover ideas and “Edel’s cover was the favorite from the start and an easy choice,” he said. But while both Rodriguez and the magazine expected the illustration to stir up some controversy, they weren’t quite prepared for the wildly passionate, polarized response it received.
“It was both enthusiastic and angry; there was no middle ground,” said Brinkbäumer. “A lot of our readers seemed to love it, some felt obviously offended; and the same is true with the international public.” But the editor says he “would not change a thing.”
“The cover’s meaning is President Trump threatening democracy and freedom—and this threat is real.”
The image of the beheading spread further, and was shared more widely than Rodriguez’s first cover collaboration with Der Spiegel. It also inspired threats. While Rodriguez’s work had, in the past, been subject to negative comments from internet trolls, for the first time, he started to receive menacing emails.
“They said all sorts of horrible things: ‘You should have drowned on the boat when you came over. You don’t deserve to be in this country. Go back to Cuba. You’re a closet Communist,’” Rodriguez recounted. “They even insulted my mother! I’ve never been compelled to send insults about anyone’s mother.”
But this controversy only further stoked Rodriguez’s motivation to speak out through his work. “I’ve become an artist known for expressing these wide-ranging political views, but it’s actually a really personal process for me,” he said.
“Given my personal history as an immigrant, I feel like I don’t have a choice but to express my opinions. And luckily, I have a platform for that.”
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.