In early 2016, the Cuban artist and illustrator Edel Rodriguez started posting political, stirring images he’d created of Donald Trump online–of Trump dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, of Trump burning American flags. It was primary season, back when the thought of a Trump presidency was the butt of cocktail party jokes and the Huffington Post posted news about his run in the entertainment section.
Now, Rodriguez has emerged as the preeminent illustrator of the Trump era. His drawings frequently appear on the covers of Time–where he previously worked as the international art director–and Der Spiegel. And his penchant for creating simple images that perfectly sum up the political moment has led to many of them going viral. The best part? He’s sure Trump himself has seen them.
“He loves Time magazine,” Rodriguez says. “That’s my main pleasure, knowing that these people are looking at it and it’s ruining their day.”
You probably recognize his work, which last week adorned the covers of both Time and Der Spiegel, both showcasing Rodriguez’s signature style of depicting the president with no facial features except for a gaping mouth and raging orange hair. For the Time cover, it almost looks like Trump’s hair is on fire–the inferno exploding out of his head takes up most of the magazine’s cover, with the words “Year One” on the page’s bottom right. The image was inspired by Rodriguez’s recent speculative redesign of the controversial tell-all book by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury, which had a notoriously terrible cover, and encapsulates the chaos in the Trump White House that the book exposes.
And then there’s his most recent cover for Der Spiegel, which uses the iconic image of the evolution of man as its basis. In Rodriguez’s version, man is devolving, going from a tall upright silhouette of a man to a more primitive Neanderthal to an upright ape to Trump, slouched down so low his characteristic red tie nearly scrapes the ground.
The image is a perfect reaction to Trump’s recent racist remarks, in which he questioned why immigrants from “shithole” countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and parts of Africa were allowed to come to the United States. Rodriguez actually dreamed it up nine months ago, thinking at the time it was too extreme to publish. But in the endlessly churning news cycles of the Trump presidency, too extreme eventually became devastatingly relevant.
“The timing was kind of perfect,” Rodriguez says. “That’s what’s funny about the news–sometimes I start them in one way and the news catches up.”
It’s happened before. Rodriguez says he created the image of Trump as a Klan member during the primaries and posted it online for his followers. At the time, he felt it was too far for the cover of a national magazine. But after Trump’s racist response to Charlottesville, it was suddenly appropriate. In August of 2018, a version of the image appeared on the cover of Der Spiegel.
— TIME (@TIME) October 13, 2016
Rodriguez was born in Cuba in 1971, and came to the U.S. as a political refugee at the age of nine. After growing up in Miami, where his father ran a trucking business, Rodriguez attended Pratt Institute in New York. He entered a scholarship to design a cover for Time, won, and landed a job at the magazine soon after school. By age 26, he was the magazine’s youngest art director to work on international editions for Canada and Latin America, but left the magazine in 2008 to focus on his art and illustration full-time.
Rodriguez’s background is a point of pride for him. “My background is that of an immigrant, someone that came from a country where we experienced tyranny and a dictatorship–in Cuba,” he says. “I know what I’m talking about. No one can come to me and say, what do you know about dictatorships. It’s affected my entire life. We had to leave our homeland because of the dictatorship. I don’t want to have to leave another country. I’m fighting because I don’t want to have to leave here.”
Rodriguez says that he’s been a political and news junkie since high school and believes his voracious consumption of the news, mostly through online newspapers and websites, deeply informs his work. He has established relationships with Time and Der Spiegel and works with them frequently. For the recent cover for Der Spiegel, the magazine requested a work from him, and he presented between 10 and 15 ideas. But he highlighted the devolution of man concept–and the editors loved it. But he says he doesn’t have a process for the illustrations–each is inspired by different things.
He’s now depicted Trump as an orange tsunami wave overwhelming Washington, D.C.; Trump as a puddle of orange sludge; Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un as babies riding atop a nuclear warhead; and Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty–the last being his favorite work. “It was my strongest comment and turned him into an extremist, which is who he is,” Rodriguez says.
But unlike some cartoonist’s imagery of Trump, none of Rodriguez’s illustrations are funny–nor are they meant to be.
“To me everything is very deadly serious. Other people grew up with this stuff, they just think this is really funny,” Rodriguez says. “I grew up in a dictatorship. I see how something can easily flip from being funny to being dark very fast.”
He also doesn’t make fun of Trump’s physical features, another strategy of other illustrators. Instead, he purposely keeps Trump’s face and body very simple, almost graphic, rarely showing the presidents’ eyes or the details of his face. “I wanted to create a simple branding strategy about this character so every time it pops up you feel like you need to pay attention. It’s like a running storyline,” Rodriguez says. “I think the problem we have in this country is we get quickly distracted by something else and we forget. Most people don’t pay that much attention to what’s happening in Washington. I wanted to create some sort of visual where every time it pops up in the news or online, you should recognize that something’s happening, something’s important.”
There are other design principles at work as well. Rodriguez’s illustrations are simple enough that you can grasp what he’s trying to say almost immediately, even if you’re not following the news cycle. Rodriguez says he wanted to create images that the people he grew up with in Cuba, who don’t speak English and who don’t work at a computer all day, could understand. “Those are the kind of people that I want to speak to, to see that image and recognize what it is,” he says. “My father gets it right away when I make an image.”
Rodriguez views his work as a way of fighting back–and several of his images have found their way onto political posters, showing up at protests against the various transgressions of the Trump administration. “I think it does rally people to their cause and to stay engaged in what’s going on,” he says. “There’s this idea that you’re not alone in thinking this is outrageous. People see my images and say, that was exactly what I was thinking, but I couldn’t draw it.”
Does he ever get tired of drawing Trump? This week, yes–he’s done four covers this week alone, and dislikes having to rush so much. But in general, Rodriguez loves his work and loves how engaged people are with it: Tweets that share his work regularly get hundreds of retweets. (Of course, there are online haters, and to them he says: “If you’re angry with them, go have a conversation with the art.”) But in an ideal world, he’d rather not have to draw Trump again. Like many of us, he wishes “we didn’t have to deal with him anymore.”
But as the Trump presidency enters its second year, Rodriguez is ready to continue making his art. “Making images that mark moments and show people what happened at a certain time in history is important,” he says. “We don’t know what this country will be like 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Even if everything gets great and rosy and we get past this, it’s still good to have these images so people can look back and say, that’s how bad it got.”