With the ocean sloshing at its sides, the 68-foot shrimp boat Nature Boy slid away from Cuba. Alongside both Cuban nationals and convicts the government was looking to offload, a 9-year-old Edel Rodriguez gazed toward the horizon as two Jamaican sailors steered the boat toward Key West.
It was 1980, and this was the Mariel Boatlift exodus.
For Rodriguez and his family, part of the problem was art. Rodriguez’s father loved taking photos. And when the family wasn’t on their daily hunt for food and supplies, he had built a reputation as a skilled lensman with a rare home setup—a backdrop delightfully wallpapered with Western ads. Not only was a young Edel transfixed by these ads, but his home had become a popular place for those in the neighborhood to mark events such as a quinceañera with a photograph. Problem was, private enterprise was banned in the country. And Rodriguez’s father’s enterprise had drawn the eye of the authorities.
Aboard Nature Boy, as Cuba became smaller and smaller and the ocean larger and larger, one wonders if Rodriguez and his family thought they were leaving all of the issues with their government behind for good.
Growing up in Cuba, Rodriguez used to sketch in his aunt’s pharmacy, where rare supplies were abundant. When his family settled in Miami—a world apart from their tiny town of El Gabriel, flanked by its tobacco and sugar cane fields—Rodriguez didn’t speak a word of English. Rather, his language was visual, and it was his initial means of communication. Perhaps this is a vital formative key to how Rodriguez tells such nuanced, detailed stories today as an illustrator using such simple and economic visual means.
Of course, language did soon follow. After only a couple of years stateside, Rodriguez was winning spelling bees. His art skills similarly blossomed, and in high school he entered a cover art competition sponsored by TIME—and won first place.
While majoring in painting at Pratt and Hunter College, Rodriguez interned at the legendary Spy magazine, MTV and other hubs. At one point in his journey, he visited the Society of Illustrators and marveled at the names on the wall—and how none sounded like his. He wondered if he’d have to change his to one day have a presence up there.
But his talent outweighed his name. He joined TIME as a temp, and worked his way up to designer, and then art director—becoming the magazine’s youngest AD of the Canada and Latin America editions. He held the position until 2008, when he left to focus on his illustration and art full time.
He regards what he does pragmatically.
“I come from a family of very hardworking peasants and farmers, so I don’t think office work or drawing is hard labor,” he has said. “I laugh at it sometimes. … It’s nothing compared to what my parents or grandparents have done, so this keeps it all in perspective.”
Over the years, Rodriguez has worked with such shops as The New Yorker; Pepsi; Nike; The New York Times; The New Republic; Esquire; McGraw-Hill; and seemingly every place in between. It’s also worth mentioning that as he has gone about his work, he earned a Gold and Silver Medal for editorial illustration from the hallowed Society of Illustrators.
And then the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election rolled around. And that’s when everything ascended to a new level.
Listening to Donald Trump, observing him, Rodriguez saw shades of Fidel Castro. So he started illustrating magazine covers and other depictions of Trump that he refers to as “warnings.” His now-iconic TIME cover “Meltdown”—representing the disastrous weeks in Trump’s campaign following the Republican National Convention—brilliantly showcase Trump in a state of quite literal melting.
More covers followed—biting, incisive works in the likes of TIME and Der Spiegel, which earned him a place on Ad Age’s 50 Most Creative People list, alongside Prince and Tom Ford. There’s the cover of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty. Trump and Kim Jong Un as babies, atop a nuclear bomb spring rider on a playground. Trump as wrecking ball. Trump as apocalyptic asteroid, mouth agape as he hurtles toward Earth.
(The fact that Rodriguez has launched many of his salvos in TIME also holds significance, in that Trump, known to brag about his TIME covers, even his fake one, likely sees the imagery Rodriguez creates.)
Rodriguez has taken the visual cues from the propaganda of his roots and infused it with the language of the imagery he discovered when he arrived in the United States—and he has now weaponized it against a politician whose rhetoric is not unlike his very own cherrypicked blend of Cuban and American history.
The sum toll of Rodriguez’s recent work has caused Fast Company to dub him “The preeminent illustrator of the Trump era.” When Rodriguez did a mock redesign of the otherwise bland cover to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Michael Bierut dubbed him “the Honoré Daumier of our time.”
Regardless of one’s politics—and you might be surprised to learn that Rodriguez dubs his own “middle of the road”—it’s hard to not admit that the illustrator seems tailor-made for this exact moment in time. If Shepard Fairey defined the Obama era and its culture of hope, Rodriguez, the visual narrator of the Resistance, defines the Trump era and a very different, yet distinct, hope.
If one needs proof of Rodriguez’s destiny, it’s might be as simple as the fact that in his work, he used to have to noodle around a while before finding an image. Now, they emerge fully formed in his mind.
Describing the harsh illustrations that he often produces, he has said, “I believe that this man and his administration are so brutal that you have to be brutal back.” To that brutal end, one is reminded of the Der Spiegel Statue of Liberty cover—and the controversy it subsequently caused.
As Rodriguez told PRI, “It’s pretty hilarious that in 2017, a drawing is making the world go nuts.”
Perhaps it’s an apt way to characterize the absurdity of politics. Or, perhaps it’s a defining statement about the pure enduring power of art today.
Debbie Millman: In April 1980, several hundred Cubans, fed up with a bleak economy, stormed the Peruvian Embassy in Havana demanding asylum. Over the next few days, their numbers grew to over 10,000. In response, Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, and they could as long as they could arrange to be picked up by boat.
Family and friends in the United States quickly organized and sent hundreds of boats from Florida in what became known as the Mariel boatlift. 120,000 people made it out of Cuba. Among them, a nine‑year‑old boy named Edel Rodriguez. This nine year old boy went on to become one of the most celebrated illustrators in the United States.
Today, we're going to talk about that and his extraordinary life. Edel Rodriguez, welcome to "Design Matters."
Edel Rodriguez: Thank you.
Debbie: Edel, yesterday I was having a conversation with the designer, James Victore. When I told him I was interviewing you today, he called you the most dangerous man in the world. [laughs] I was wondering what you might think of that.
Edel: Huh? No, I'm sure there is a lot more dangerous people than me, but I don't mind that reputation. I'm fine with that.
Debbie: Let's talk a little bit about your early origins, and then talk about why you're so dangerous. You grew up in El Gabriel, a small rural town outside Havana, Cuba. Your family had to work to find food and basic supplies every day. You even made your own toys to play with. What was that all like for you?
Edel: It was just life. We never thought we were poor. It was just life. You woke up and you made your toys. You went out into the countryside, cut down some sugarcane and ate it for lunch. It was actually lot of fun. I didn't really think much of it, but my parents were aware of what was going on because they had lived before the revolution, when things were little bit more put together.
There were lot more food, and there wasn't that much spying by the government. They were into getting oppressed. They are the ones that were looking at me and my sister, and trying to figure out what was going to happen to us in the future, so they were trying to look ahead little bit.
They knew that at some point I'd have to go into the military, when I was about 16 or 17. You have to go into the military. At that time, they were sending kids to Angola and to Africa to fight wars in Central America.
My father didn't want me to fight for something that he didn't really believe in. We were already getting indoctrinated in school, doing chants and things like that. At some point, they'd start turning the kids on their parents, and snitching and things like that.
They could tell something was happening. They're the ones that got concerned and wanted to get us out, but, to me, it was just lot of fun. I loved my time in Cuba.
Debbie: What kind of toys were you making?
Edel: We would make guns, which is what boys like to make, [laughs] but guns out of wood. The bullets were bottle caps, slingshots. The one thing is that, at a very young age, I was just working with my hands all the time. My entire life, I've just been making things with my hands.
Debbie: You began to show a talent for drawing, wall sketching at your aunt's pharmacy in Cuba. What motivated you to want to draw there?
Edel: Paper. [laughs] It's where she had paper.
Debbie: Does she have the surprise?
Edel: She had paper and she had pencils. That's the one place where I found them. My parents didn't really had paper at the house, so I would just go there. I guess she wanted to keep me busy in the desk in the back of the pharmacy, so she'd just give me paper and pencils, and I would just start drawing. I remember mostly drawing tanks. I was fascinated by military tanks at the time.
Debbie: What did your family think of your drawing back then?
Edel: I love them. They're wonderful, but they are very funny. You're a kid doing whatever kid thing you're doing. It's different living than in the United States where immediately you see potential in your child, and you want to develop, and send him into art classes or whatever.
No, you're just a child playing around and everyone thinks it's silly. No one really took at that seriously, except for my father. My father was always very encouraging, taking me to all my art shows and things like that.
Debbie: What were you thinking that you wanted to be, at that point in your life, when you got older?
Edel: Yeah, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be many different things ‑‑ policeman, fireman, the typical things that a kids want to be. It's only when I got, maybe, into junior high or high school that I decided I wanted to be an architect. I was very good in math, science, and all that, and art.
Everyone just kept telling me, "Oh, go into architecture. You'd be a very good architect." That was my focus until I got an internship in an architecture firm [laughs] in my senior year of high school.
Debbie: What made you change your mind?
Edel: I just realized it was not for me. It was an awful...Not myself. Even the architects were telling me, "This is awful. You don't want to do this."
Debbie: [laughs] Really?
Edel: Yeah. There's no work. Nothing's predictable.
Debbie: You become an illustrator instead, when there's so much work and everything is predictable.
Edel: I figured, if I wasn't going to make any money, I might as well be an artist, which is what I really wanted to do. I was headed to go to architecture school and, then, at the last minute, changed my mind and went into more of a visual arts path.
Debbie: You came to the US at nine years old during the Mariel boatlift exodus, as I mentioned in the introduction. When you learned you were going to move to the United States, how did you feel?
Edel: I didn't know I was going to move to the United States. I was actually not told. [laughs] I was told we were going to go visit my family in the United States. It was a really tense time. There were a lot of things going on.
One of the things that was happening was that kids were telling their teachers that they were going to leave. The teachers would go snitch on the communist party headquarters. The headquarters would go arrest the parents.
There was a lot of tension going on. My parents' main concern was that me or my sister would tell our teachers or tell the people at school, and that the ball would get rolling around town. When that happens, you have squads of people show up at your house that want to beat you up.
Debbie: Or worse.
Edel: Yeah. The government would send people to do all sorts of things, so they didn't tell me. At some point, they just said, "We're going to go visit your uncle and your cousins." I just went along with it.
Debbie: In order to get here, your aunt chartered a 68‑foot shrimp boat called the Nature Boy. A photojournalist was aboard the ship, as were convicts that the Cuban government forced your family to take out of the country. Years later, you found a photo of yourself arriving in the United States in the "TIME" magazine archive. How you vividly do you remember the experience?
Edel: We were in a camp for about a week's time. We were taken from our house on a military jeep. They confiscated our house. They took us in a jeep into, basically, this field where we were held for about a week. There were a lot of things that happened there.
Debbie: Were you scared?
Edel: Yeah. It was the first time I saw military dogs, German shepherds.
Debbie: You thought you were going to visit family, right?
Edel: At some point, I realized, "Wait, where's my family?"
Edel: Yeah, there were a lot of military with bayonets, dogs getting sicced on prisoners in the middle of the night. It's the first time I saw my mom naked because, when we went through the search, they took her clothes off to search her completely.
Lately, I've been interviewing my family about all this to try to match my memories with what they know because I'm writing a book about all of these.
At that time, we went to a camp for about a week. The issue was that, once you were in this camp, you were in limbo. You could be taken out of the camp at any moment and sent back to your town. You wouldn't have a house anymore, or a job, or anything.
It was why my father was so tense there, because they were taking fathers out, beating them up, bringing them back into the camp. Finally, one day they called our name. By that time, I had set up a baseball team in the camp, so I didn't want to leave.
Edel: We had regular fun games.
Debbie: Always the creator, huh?
Edel: I was like, "I don't want to leave. I got my friends here." My dad's like, "You're crazy. Get out of here. Let's go." Then we were taken on a bus onto the ship. Once we were in a ship, that's when we saw our cousins, finally.
Debbie: Do you recall landing in Key West?
Edel: Yeah. They loaded the boat with prisoners. The boat took off around 10:00 PM. We sailed all night. I slept all night. Then, in the morning, around 6:00 or 7:00, I was awakened by the sunlight. I remember seeing the Keys. The smaller Keys started appearing and then we landed. They pulled us off the boat.
We were welcomed by the US Immigration and put into a refugee center there where we were fed and given clothes and lots of toys. I remember that there were piles and piles of toys that were donated, piles of sold‑out food, all sorts of things. That's the one thing I remember the most, how everything was just gleaming, everything was bright, and so much of everything.
Debbie: When you first arrived in Florida, you didn't speak any English. You've said that your art was your way of communicating. At that point, what kinds of things were you drawing?
Edel: There were times where you would get picked on at lunch. I remember kids would steal my lunch for some reason. I didn't know what to say. If I needed help from another kid, I would sketch out, "The boy hit me."
Edel: It was just basic communication done through drawing cartoons to try to explain to the teacher, to the kids what happened. That was that summer. That was a summer school. It was all with English‑speaking kids for the most part.
The next fall, this entire population that arrived in Miami, we were all put together in two classes. My third grade class was refugees that had just arrived from Cuba. We were third graders placed into a junior high. [laughs]
Edel: They had empty classrooms where we were taking our classes. We were, all of a sudden, mixed up with older kids as a third grader. That was what they had to do at the time.
Debbie: In some ways, do you see your art as communication as essential in the development of your ability?
Edel: Yeah. I think that is basically what I've always done from that point forward. It's a communication tool. I see most of everything that I do is communicating and the art is sometimes secondary. Strange. [laughs]
Debbie: After two short years living in the United States, having come to this country, not being able to speak a word of English, you became an English language spelling bee champion. How on earth did you accomplish that?
Edel: I have no idea. I think it was just that I had a very visual memory. I would get these lists and I would just memorize words. It was like a photographic memory. Yeah, I beat every kid in my class. [laughs] I even beat every kid in the school...actually, not in the school. In the school, I remember Peter beat me. I still remember him. Me and him went into the county...
Debbie: The championship?
Edel: Yeah. That's when I realized it was much harder. [laughs]
Debbie: It's extraordinary. In Cuba, your father was a photographer in addition to a restaurant manager and a taxi driver. Those are just a few of his jobs. He had a lot of jobs. Early on in the US, he had a trucking company. He'd tell you that you had to study or you'd end up like him, which influenced your passion and your drive. Did it bother you that he didn't want you to be like him?
Edel: No, no. He would say that every day. He usually would say it when it was the worst time of the day [laughs] so that it really made an impact. We were on the side of a road, in a ditch, trying to pull something out. It wouldn't come out and he'd be there for an hour. He was like, "Go to school so you don't have to do this garbage." It stayed with me.
He's always looking for something better. He's the crazy one that would just go on a limb to do something. It was really his idea to leave Cuba because we were...As bad as things were, things were OK. My mom was very comfortable.
I asked my mom later, "What made you get on a boat?" It was really my father just constantly going after her and saying, "We have to leave. We have to leave." He's always been the one. Even when I wanted to leave Miami to come to New York, he's the one that took me to the airport.
Debbie: Your mom wouldn't even go, right?
Edel: My mom would not go to the airport.
Debbie: She went from Cuba to the United States, but she wouldn't take the trip to the airport.
Edel: She holds a grudge.
Debbie: She didn't want you to leave?
Edel: No. He took me to the airport. He gave me cash when I got on the plane. He's always like that, a bit of a dreamer and to go for things.
Debbie: That was your first plane ride, I believe, right?
Edel: Yeah. It was the first time. I was 18. I took a plane ride to New York City for the first time, first time on a plane.
Debbie: Going back to high school for a minute, you entered a cover art scholarship competition that was sponsored by TIME magazine. You not only won first place, you also nabbed a free subscription, which was your first magazine subscription ever, from what I understand.
Edel: You know everything.
Debbie: I try, I try.
Debbie: Tell us about the cover. Where can we see this image?
Edel: I have a photograph of it at home. There was this competition. My parents hadn't saved anything for college. I started, in high school, looking for anything, any opportunities where I could get money for college. One of them was this scholarship competition from TIME magazine that my art teacher handed to me.
I created a cover concept which was about the environment. There's a nice image of a beautiful landscape and there's a hand coming down, tearing it apart. Behind it are nuclear plants and things like that. I sent it to the competition. I heard back that I won. I got some scholarship money from TIME magazine.
Debbie: That's amazing.
Edel: At the same time ‑‑ it was 11th grade, probably ‑‑ I got an automatic subscription to Time. I started getting it every week. We didn't have any magazines at my house. That was the only magazine that I would ever look at, was TIME magazine.
I loved it. I became obsessed with TIME, the graphics in it, the illustrations, and all of that. What's funny is I have this weird connection, constant connection to TIME magazine, because I won that. Then years later, when I started working at TIME magazine, I mentioned it to my art director at the time. He's like, "Well, I was the judge on that." [laughs]
Debbie: Oh, wow.
Edel: I brought him the...He's like, "Oh, I remember your image, yeah."
Debbie: We'll have to make it available for our listeners to be able to see what it looked like.
Edel: Sure, yeah.
Debbie: After graduating high school, you turned down a full ride at the University of Miami to attend Pratt. Why?
Edel: I got a full scholarship to go to the University of Miami for art, and I was set to go. Then my high school art teacher, who had a lot of influence over where I went and what I did, she brought me literally to the Portfolio Day. She drove me there. She took care of me. I was really the most talented kid in her class. She wanted me to do something with it.
She arranged for me to meet a former student of hers that was a Pratt student. He came back to high school. He spoke to me and told me everything about Pratt. He told me that I should come visit. That was the first trip.
I went and visited Pratt during a spring weekend. I stayed with him. He showed me New York City. He took me to the Guggenheim, the Met. I was just going crazy. I couldn't believe what New York City was. Once I had been here for a weekend, I just said, "I'm not going to Miami." [laughs] "I'm not going to the University of Miami. I have to figure out a way to get up there."
I started just harassing the financial aid person at Pratt every week. I always just said, "I really want to go there, but I have a full scholarship to the University of Miami. What can you guys do?" I became a hustler with my admissions people. I negotiated it down from...I think it was 25,000 that I would have to pay.
At the end of the day, they said, "OK, fine. We've worked out a deal with all your grants and all you have to pay is $1,000 each semester." I hadn't told anything to my parents. Finally, when I had it down to $1,000, I went and talked to my parents. They said, "Are you crazy? We don't have that money."
Edel: I don't know what...
Debbie: You had the TIME magazine scholarship money...
Edel: Yeah. I think I actually took a loan for just $1,000 or something. It just became a big problem at my house, arguing with my mother. They just didn't want me to leave. They really felt like we had left Cuba and that was a big deal. To have me leave the family again was not what my mom wanted, basically. I said, "Well, I will be back in three years. I'll do it quickly."
Debbie: How many years ago was that?
Edel: I don't know, 28 or something.
Debbie: They're OK now with it?
Edel: My father doesn't care, but my mother, she's very dramatic in a funny way.
Debbie: I read that you once visited the Society of Illustrators and looked at all of the names on the wall and figured you'd have to change yours. Change your name to fit the anglicized mold of the names that were there. When did you start feeling that way?
Edel: I don't know. I guess when my name started appearing, [laughs] the wall solution thing. I think there's something. When you are young, you're always looking for people that are like you, that are doing what you want to do. At the time, I was like, "What would I be? ER Alonzo or what would I...?" [laughs] That was the thinking. I just have a very funny sounding name.
Debbie: You now teach at School of Visual Arts, and I know you take quite an interest in young illustrators today. Do you feel like the diversity of the field is beginning to change?
Edel: Yeah. I think it's already changing. A long time ago, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it started changing quite a bit for a lot of different reasons. I think the Internet changed that because you have, all of a sudden, artists and illustrators from other countries could start working in the American market. The names and the diversity started happening a lot more. It's definitely changed, I think.
Debbie: You started working at TIME magazine as a temp. You started as a temp and then you worked your way up to becoming a designer. How did you first get the opportunity to temp?
Edel: When I was at Pratt Institute, I was studying and my last year of school my English teacher there said, "You guys that are graduating, if you need a job when you get out, my husband works at TIME magazine. You should give him a call." I remembered those words and I just went, TIME magazine. [laughs]
Debbie: Right. Of course. [laughs]
Edel: That's where my goal was at and I was like, "I can't believe that someone's telling me this." Weeks went by, months went by and I had been applying to a lot of different kinds of jobs and not getting anything. I think I'd called about 60 magazines.
Edel: Yeah. Everything. "Details," "Village Voice," this, that. I was applying and trying to get into magazines anywhere, but my portfolio wasn't quite there. It was basically a portfolio from my college newspaper because I had studied painting. I hadn't studied business.
Debbie: You also got a master's in Fine Arts.
Edel: Yeah, it was right around at the same time. More in the fine art realm, but I needed a job. I was looking for a design job because it's what I knew at the time. After being very frustrated, it popped back into my head again the TIME...this thing that my teacher had said.
I went to the masthead and I looked up her last name to see if it matched someone on the list, and it was Conley. There was someone on the masthead named Steve Conley. I just randomly called TIME magazine and asked for Steve Conley and told him the story that his wife had mentioned, if you were looking for a job we can call him.
I said, "I'm looking for a job." He said, "Oh, come by tomorrow, let me look at your work." I showed up and I had a suit. [laughs] I remember him making fun of me for wearing a suit. Then it's like, "Well, we don't have anything right now for design, but we have someone that delivers copies around the office. He's going on jury duty you could do his job for a couple weeks."
I, "Sure," and I took it. Did that for a couple weeks. Then, while I was doing that, showed that I could do some design and we kept haranguing people to [laughs] hire me as a designer. They liked me and they just kept me on there doing minor design tweaks and things. I got hired permanently about nine months later.
Debbie: 1994. You maintained a successful freelance career as well.
Debbie: You hold the distinction of being the magazine's youngest art director for the Canada and Latin America editions. You said this, "I come from a family of very hard‑working peasants and farmers, so I don't think office work or drawing is hard labor. I laugh at it sometimes. It's nothing compared to what my parents or grandparents have done, so this keeps it all in perspective."
What does it mean now, to your parents, to see you reach this kind of success in your career?
Edel: I think they're very happy, and proud, and occasionally confused.
Debbie: What are they confused by?
Edel: Just the things that I do, sometimes. The graphics and the visuals that I create.
Debbie: How provocative they are or...?
Edel: Yeah. Why do I do this? My father is crazy. My father is up for anything, but my mom's concerned sometimes, so she'll call me and is like, "Well, don't go that far. What are you doing?"
When you've lived in a place like that there's always something in the back of your mind that someone's watching you and someone's keeping a record of everything that you're doing and that it'll..."You have a good life, why are you doing this?" That kind of stuff.
I've had a few arguments with her just explaining that I follow my gut in what I want to do. I don't really think about repercussions. I just do what I want to do.
Debbie: I guess that's why James Victoria considers you the most dangerous man in the world right now.
Edel: Oh. [laughs]
Debbie: Let's talk about some of your covers. Your cover for "Newsweek," "What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women," that issue won a National Magazine Award and it also stirred up a fair amount of controversy.
Prior to that, your work appeared on the cover of "Communication Arts." It showed Che Guevara with a Nike swoosh on his hat and Apple earbuds, which is a bit like blasphemy to the people in Cuba.
Of course, there's your amazing Trump covers for TIME which landed you on "Ad Age's" 50 "Most Creative People of the Year" list in 2016 alongside Frank Ocean, Prince, Tom Ford, David Bowie and BeyoncÈ.
Edel: How ridiculous is that, right? [laughs]
Debbie: I think it's amazing. [laughs] How do you feel about all this press?
Edel: I'm just always shocked by all of it. I'm surprised by anything that happens in my life on a regular basis. I'm always telling friends or asking someone like, "Is this really happening? Am I on this list with these people? Am I doing this?" because it's really strange to me. It's exciting and it's fun.
Actually, what I've learned is how, sometimes, simple it is to get to places where you never dreamed you'd be at if you just work, and show it, and be open, not be scared, speak your mind, confront problems, confront people that you think are not good for society.
When you're honest people just get a vibe off of it and they just want to be near that or be close to that, and that's what I try to do with my work.
Debbie: Let's talk about the TIME magazine cover from 2016, the 'Meltdown' cover. It showed an illustrated Trump literally melting. How did you come up with the idea?
Edel: I've been doing these kinds of images where the face or something is falling down or falling apart. I have been doing it a few times. I actually did it with a portrait of Gaddafi for Newsweek after they killed him and it was very similar, this graphic of things melting down.
The art director of Time, D.W. Pine, called me and said, "Hey, I have an idea." [laughs] It's actually his idea with my stuff. The way I work with D.W. is that he knows my vocabulary, he knows my things. He's like, "We have a headline. It's called Meltdown. We want a face of him melting down. It was not that complicated. I just followed along and we worked on it together.
The trick was to making it work because you can do a face that has a bunch of details. I really wanted it to just focus on his mouth. It was all about him screaming and that's really what got him in trouble all the time was this. He can't stop talking. I did the image. I actually thought when I turned it in that it would just never be published, which happens very much at TIME magazine.
Edel: At the time, it was in the middle of the election and there's always a sense of being conservative around time of election and being neutral or whatever.
Trump had gone so far and said so many awful things that even TIME magazine had turned on him. [laughs] Not turned on him, but just wanted to really show what was going on. It was so out there. It was at the time that he was making fun or mocking the family of the Muslim soldier.
Debbie: Gold Star family? Yeah.
Edel: Yeah, the [indecipherable 27:16] . I always turn my work in, and I just detach, and I see what happens. Then I started hearing that it was published on the Internet and like, "Oh, wow, they published it." I actually never heard back from the art director.
Debbie: It was the cover that was heard around the world and I think it ushered in a really new phase of illustration work on magazine covers ‑‑ much stronger, much more direct, much more brutal.
Edel: Yeah. That's the right word, brutal. [laughs] The danger that we were facing and that we are occasionally still facing in this country is this neutrality. This, "Oh, both sides have their own point of view. We need to listen to both sides." That kind of thing, which liberals practice very well. [laughs]
It's this very thing of, "Oh, let's just listen. They have concerns, let's listen to that," or, "He said this, let's listen to it and take into account." It got to a point where I felt you needed to confront this. It was basically fascism in the United States, and you don't appease fascists. You really do confront it as strongly as possible, and that's what I want to do with that cover.
Making him orange is a very strong visual. It's taking what he kind of looks like and then tweak it even more. I wanted that strength. It was just nice to have the backing of the magazine because, once that TIME magazine does that, then everybody else is like, "OK, we can do it, too." [laughs] "We can confront this in the same way."
What I had been doing for about six months before was to do this stuff on my own, do these graphics on my own and put them out there. I have been doing things on Twitter and Facebook, and all these art directors at these magazines follow my work.
I was trying to change the mentality and create a brand of Trump as this, as what he really was. I was just waiting from [laughs] magazines or clients to catch up, or waiting for a moment where I could stick it into the sketch phase, or send it to a client, and it happened. It started happening about six months or a year after I was working. I was doing this kind of stuff during the primaries.
Debbie: You were doing it. You were self‑generating the work and then it gathered a lot of attention?
Edel: Yeah. That was the idea. About two years earlier, I had done a similar campaign on ISIS where I felt what was happening with ISIS was so strong and nobody was really covering it with strength. I started doing this work about ISIS and being very strong, mostly on the Internet.
At some point, I started getting hired to do this ISIS work for "The New York Times" and for a bunch of other places. I've been working with these publications for such a long time. You do your sketches, you get to your point and they're like, "Whoa, whoa. That's too much, that's too strong," and it gets dialed back. I was trying to find a way to subvert that process.
The way I found was to get ahead of it. Put things out myself, have fan base or people on the Internet sharing, commenting and when it becomes so big, all of a sudden, clients want a part of that, which is what I found over the last two years, roughly, is a different way of working.
Debbie: Did you go to TIME with the "Total Meltdown" follow‑up or did they come to you and ask you to do it?
Edel: No. [laughs]
Debbie: That made it even more brilliant.
Edel: No. That was also them. It was at a point where it was a funny week. The Hollywood reporter...Hollywood, I forgot.
Debbie: "Access Hollywood."
Edel: Access Hollywood tape had come out.
Edel: I got another call from the art director, D.W., and he said, "Hey, we want you to do similar thing but do the GOP logo melting down." I was like that's weird just repeating it as a GP logo. I tried it. I sent it to them. They held onto it. I never heard back until Wednesday morning at 10:00, which is their publication day.
D.W. calls, "Hey, [laughs] we've decided. We've gone through everything. We want to do a Total Meltdown cover. Take your image and just splash it all the way down." I was like, "OK. When's the deadline?" "At noon." It was two‑hour deadline to create this new piece of art.
I started frantically sketching and trying to figure out how to do that. For me it was difficult to do that compression and do it well. I think I sent that around 11:45 or something and then he's like, "Well, let's rework here." I'm like, "We have no time."
Edel: They were treating it like a regular assignment where we tweak things. Then, finally, I was able to resolve it and it came out the next day. TIME definitely gets a lot of credit for writing their headlines and working with me on these things.
Debbie: I read that you'd much rather not be creating work about Trump.
Debbie: How do you manage to look at that face as much as you have to look at it?
Edel: I don't really look at him. I don't really look at pictures of him. It's like all just symbols and graphics in my head. I usually spend 10 minutes, 15 minutes on something. If it's a cover or...
Debbie: 10 or 15 minutes?
Edel: Yeah, on a daily thing. Something I might put on the Internet, it's very fast, actually. If it's a cover then definitely I'll spend more time tweaking it and things like that. I can maybe do something in three or four hours.
Part of the reason there's no visual cues in it, the thing is I don't want to draw his eyes, and his nose, and getting involved in all this stuff. I have friends that have painted him in [indecipherable 32:57] .
Debbie: Yeah, [indecipherable 32:57] could do that.
Edel: I'm like, "How could you sit there and render his face. I just can't do it. I wouldn't do it." For me, it's more of an object and a brand. I've created this branding and this brand of him, and I can now tweak it and change it. It's not even him that I'm doing, it's more about...It's anti branding. It's creating a brand and then doing everything to destroy it, basically.
Debbie: Let's talk about your "Der Spiegel" cover because as intense and riveting as the Meltdown in Total Meltdown covers are and were, your Der Spiegel cover went even further. You created an image of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty.
Debbie: It went viral. You actually said that it was pretty hilarious that a drawing was making the world go nuts. How did you come up with that idea? How did Der Spiegel first respond to the drawing with their trepidation, and what's happened in the aftermath?
Edel: It's definitely been the one image that has created the most controversy, most coverage. It went on for like two months of press coming to my studio, interviews. It's still happening about a year later.
Debbie: That's a heart‑stopping illustration.
Edel: Good. [laughs] It's what I wanted. The storyline is that I had created a series of illustrations, probably about 10, taking ISIS to the max. I felt that they were doing so many awful things that they were killing themselves.
I created this image that was an ISIS terrorist with his arms up. He has a knife in one hand and his own head in the other, and he has no head. He had cut off his own head. I did that in 2014. Then I was watching the news and the Muslim ban happened overnight.
As planes were still in the air, you had planes trying to land. There were kids that were sent by themselves. They were at the airport and they couldn't get out because they didn't have the permit to come into the country. Grandmothers that were coming in to have operations.
I was thrown back into when I came to the country when I was nine years old, a kid trying to come in. At that time, I was welcomed with open arms brought in by Immigration, Fed.
Debbie: Toys Galore.
Edel: Yeah. I remembered that. I was like, "What's happened to my country?" This is the country...This is our dream country. The Statue of Liberty was something that we always talked about in my family. It was like a saint. It was America. All these things were just popping into my head as I was watching TV. I was disgusted by it because to me that's something that Castro would do. Something that a fake...
Debbie: You compared Trump to Castro.
Edel: Yeah. That's how Castro and the Communists in Cuba treated us when we wanted to leave the country. We were put in this pen for a week. We were held, and anything could happen. It was this idea of toying with people's lives and emotions that really angered me.
Out of just anger, I took the ISIS terrorist and it was the same figure, the same exact image and I just put Trump's head on it and put a Statue of Liberty on his arm and it was the same knife that the terrorist was holding. I was making a direct correlation that the real terrorist was Donald Trump.
The real person that's affecting lives at that time was Donald Trump. Since it was related to the Muslim ban that was the connection. "Yes, he is an ISIS terrorist," basically, was the concept. I posted it on Twitter, on Facebook, and all my media channels and it went nuts. That was my image. I just put it on there.
Then, about a day or two later, Der Spiegel called me was like, "Hey, we are doing a cover on the Muslim ban, can you send us some ideas?" I was like, "All right." I did a bunch of the sketches. I don't know where they are now. I sent it to them and didn't hear back.
The next day they said, "Oh, nothing's really quite working from this batch. Can you go back to it again and think of some other ideas?" I was like, "All right." All of a sudden, the next morning, the art director from Der Spiegel calls me goes, "Hey, we've been looking through your Twitter feed..."
Edel: "...and there's this image, Trump as an ISIS guy. Has that been published anywhere?" "No." "Can we publish that?" I was just like, "Are you guys crazy? You seriously want to publish this on the cover?" [laughs] "Yeah, we really like it." They said, "Well, can you just..." It had a tunic on. "Can you change that to a Trump suit so that it looks more like Trump?"
I remember telling some friends, "I think something's gonna come out tomorrow that's gonna cause a big deal. I hadn't done that about any other prior covers, and I was right. As soon as it came out, it created a big splash.
The cover wasn't even out and next morning, it was already at protests at the airports. People had just printed it off the Internet. I have a bunch of pictures of people holding up...
Debbie: Hold up. You give people the permission to do that, right, with printed comments on it?
Edel: Not at that time. At that time, I hadn't even thought of that. At that time, it was just people downloaded it off Twitter and created huge posters to bring to airports and all this stuff. It started just a lot of direct messages, a lot of emails, insults and all sorts of things, calling me a communist. Every insult that you can think of, basically.
I think it's really important to not normalize a lot of this stuff because it's coming at you so fast and so much that it can easily just change, and we are seeing it. "Fox News," which is just basically spouting lies on a constant basis. We know these things aren't happening. [laughs] It's like an entire country that's just trying to be gaslighted all the time.
I think what I do with my work and what people, many times, react to is they go, "Wow, I'm not crazy. Someone else sees what I saw," [laughs] "made an image about it."
We are all recognizing this reality because we are constantly told by the president and by many other people that that didn't happen, that's not true. That's happened in Venezuela, in Cuba, in Russia, in many other countries. We can't let it happen here, and it can.
Debbie: "Fast Company" has dubbed you, "The preeminent illustrator of the Trump era." Do you look forward to the day you can stop illustrating him when this is all over?
Edel: Yeah, sketchbooks and a bunch of other things that I want to be painting. As I wake up every day, I'm like, "I gotta say something about this." My favorite thing is to be in my studio painting and making things that make no sense.
Debbie: You've been involved in illustrating children's books now for almost two decades and have written and illustrated two of your own, focused on your penguin character, Sergio.
You've said that one of your career highlights came when you heard one of your kids, then four, reading the book aloud to herself. Late last year, you told "PRINT Magazine" you were working on a kid's biography about Jimi Hendrix.
I am wondering where that stands and also your own personal illustrated memoir about your life and immigrating to the United States.
Edel: They've taken like a little bit of a pause right now. I'm still working on the Jimi Hendrix book. I'm definitely working on this memoir that's a graphic novel, graphic memoir kind of book. A lot of what we've talked about today, trying to figure out the structure for it and how much of it is about Cuba, about coming here, about being a refugee in America.
Now, because of who I am and what's happening now, it just raised it up even more. I have to finish it, basically. [laughs] My agent is mad at me. [laughs]
Debbie: Edel, my last question is about returning to Cuba. In 2014, you went back to Cuba for an exhibition of your own work, which was also the first time your children visited the country. What was it like to return, especially for an exhibition of what you've achieved since leaving, and what did your children think?
Edel: I've told the curator and the people in Havana that it's my favorite show. It's the best show of my life basically. It meant that much to me. It's really where my heart is always. It's in Cuba where a lot of my influences, the music that I listen to, and everything that I miss is Cuba all the time.
I was able to go back. My family from my hometown, my friends were able to come out and see my work for the first time. To be on that earth, having that show, it was a big deal. It was wonderful to take my kids and have them see the town that I grew up in, coming to my house and all of that. It was a very powerful show.
Debbie: Edel, thank you so much for being on Design Matters today. Thank you so much for putting so much important work out into the world and motivating us to make a difference.
Edel: Thank you.
Debbie: To see more of Edel Rodriguez's work, you can see his work on Instagram @edelrodriguez or on Twitter @edelstudios.
This is the 14th year I have been recording Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.