The presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has launched a business partnership with a street artist with a lengthy history of controversial statements on social media, including rooting for the assassination of President Barack Obama, cheering on the beheading of journalists by ISIS and using racial epithets.
The artist, who goes by Sabo, first gained notoriety in 2014, when he put up posters around Los Angeles portraying Cruz’s head atop a shirtless, muscular, tattooed torso, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The image quickly spread online and supporters began bringing it to campaign events.
Earlier this month, Cruz launched a “Sabo Gear” section to his presidential campaign website, featuring a variation of that original poster on sale for $50, as well as buttons, a T-shirt, tank top, and hat designed by the artist. Sabo told the Tribune that Cruz’s campaign bought his works at a discount and is selling them on the campaign website at a higher price.
“I honestly still don't believe my name is on that site,” Sabo said in an email. “I've been a political junky[sic] all of my life and to see this is like being included in the Super Bowl.”
While Sabo has caught attention for provocative, often sexualized artworks that mock liberal politicians and celebrities, his comments on social media over the last two years offer a more uncensored version of his views. Sabo said he was still surprised that Cruz had been willing to associate with him and “my own, non-PC, dirty mouth.”
A search through Sabo’s tweets and Facebook posts shows repeated references to the assassination of Obama. From last month:
IMAGINE IF EVERY SECRET SERVICE AGENT JUST UP AND LEFT THEIR JOBS TOMORROW, THAT WOULD BE BRAVE. TAKING A BULLET FOR A TURD IS JUST STUPID.
Last year, the Secret Service questioned Sabo about some of those comments, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Several other online postings from Sabo reflect his opinions about racial and ethnic groups. One example — and not by any means the most inflammatory one he has published — appeared just last week on Facebook:
IT'S A GOOD THING BLACKS DON'T WANT TO WORK BECAUSE WITH ALL THE NEW MEXICANS AND SYRIANS IN THE COUNTRY THEY WONT STAND A CHANCE IN HELL TO GET A JOB IF THEY WANTED ONE.
On August 19, 2014, as footage spread of ISIS’ beheading of journalist James Foley, Sabo tweeted:
ISIS BEHEADS JOURNALIST ... IT'S COOL, HE WASN'T USING IT. HE'S A FUCKEN REPORTER!!! 99.999% OF THEM ARE COMMIES ... EASY TO REPLACE.
After being presented with those and other samples of Sabo's past comments, Cruz’s campaign declined to comment, but Sabo said he didn’t believe it was fair for anyone to tie his statements on social media to the candidate.
“I stand behind every word,” Sabo said. “Mr. Cruz doesn't stand over my [shoulder] approving the things I say so I'd appreciate it if you didn't try hanging my statements around his neck. He's a good man trying to help this country.”
Yet even before the Cruz campaign launched a formal relationship with Sabo, the artist acknowledged wondering if his comments might taint Cruz’s campaign. He recalled having those concerns when he met Cruz at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year.
“I refused to take photos with him because I didn't need any media hyenas using them to smeer[sic] him cause of the overly colorful, non-PC way I communicate in my social media,” Sabo said via email.
Sabo said the idea for the original tattooed image of Cruz came to him when he was trying to come up with a way to mark an upcoming visit by Cruz to Los Angeles. Other activists he had been working with were “lukewarm” to the concept so he decided to put it together on his own.
“$125 in black and white copies later I had twenty-five poster and the rest is history,” he said.
From the start, Cruz has spoken admiringly of Sabo’s depiction of him. On the campaign trail, he periodically alludes to the posters, joking that there’s one “glaring error” in Sabo’s portrayal of him: He doesn’t smoke. The riff reliably draws laughter, and Cruz usually brings it up while discussing the need for politicians not to take themselves too seriously.
Four days after launching his presidential bid in March, Cruz recalled to a crowd of young activists in New Hampshire how his campaign dealt with Sabo’s work upon first encountering it in California.
"Now we had nothing to do with these,” Cruz said of the posters. "This is a local street artist in LA who started putting these up. But again, we decided to have some fun with it. So we put it up on Facebook, a story about it, and we said, ‘For whatever reason, these posters have begun appearing all over Hollywood.’"
"That’s what y’all can do. You can connect. You can make people laugh, you can tell stories, you can motivate,” Cruz continued. "You know, when it comes to constitutional liberties, when it comes to the Bill of Rights, it’s your future that’s at stake.”
Sabo said he had a theory as to why the campaign decided to more formally embrace his work: this summer’s rise of Donald Trump.
“Its my opinion that had it not been for Trump's firebrand approach and how it forced the other GOP contenders to readjust their message to something a bit more spicey[sic] I would have never been called back,” Sabo said.
Sabo said the Cruz campaign has been more welcoming of his distinctive style than the Super PACs supporting his campaign.
“His Super PACS were very cool until they started seeing me as a threat,” Sabo said. “Their lawyers later instructed everyone in the Super PACs to not communicate with me.”
Kellyanne Conway, president of Keep the Promise I, which is part of a cluster of super PACs supporting Cruz, disputed Sabo’s account.
"Everyone at Keep the Promise I are huge Sabo fans, even though we have never spoke to him,” Conway said in a statement. “Sabo has never been a topic of conversation with our attorney. We wish him well and hope he continues to deploy his considerable talents."