There's an image of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that seemed to be everywhere at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference: the senator shirtless, buff and tattooed, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
The image was featured on cards available at the table run by the senator's super PAC Stand for Principle, although the group says they had nothing to do with its production or distribution ("We applaud the enthusiasm of artists" said Stand for Principle director Maria Zack, but "we did not orchestrate this at all.") The image, which has been in circulation for nearly a year and was visible around the necks of swarms of Cruz supporters at CPAC, was created last year by a Los Angeles street artist -- a right-wing Shepard Fairey of sorts.
The artist, who calls himself Sabo, made the image after learning that Cruz was going to be attending an event in the city. Sabo says he felt as though his right-leaning views were under attack in Los Angeles, and was intrigued by Cruz. Inspired by a friend who superimposed tattoos onto depictions of Marilyn Monroe's body, he created the image and plastered it around his city.
"I heard Ted Cruz was coming to town, and he’s always someone that kind of pissed off the establishment in Washington and I thought 'he’s kind of a badass..." Sabo said. "He doesn’t look it, but it’s like, I kind of like this guy. And it’s not like me to like a politician."
Instead, the artist said he would prefer to "punch politicians than to praise them."
Despite this self-described predilection, Sabo has gotten a warm reception from elected representatives. Cruz embraced the image last year, and mentioned it during two sets of remarks at the conference Thursday. He pointed out the "eight pack" that Sabo gave him, and said the only thing was wrong with the picture is that he doesn't smoke.
"Washington, DC 'Blacklisted & Loving It' All American Tour," reads the image, with "Ted Cruz 2016" written on what looks like some sort of institutional wall behind Cruz. Sabo would not say whose body he had superimposed Cruz's head onto.
"I’m not gonna say whose body that is because I’m just shocked that I haven’t been sued yet," he said.
Sabo said he had originally turned down an invitation from another street art team to attend the conference, before reversing course following a speaking invitation from CPAC organizers. He said a CPAC official chided him for wearing a T-shirt reading "Muhammed is a homo" after a photo of him wearing that shirt made the rounds on Twitter. And Sabo said others haven't wanted to work with him, because they've found his other art offensive.
Friday he stood behind a table in the main conference hall, selling copies of the Cruz image on a T-shirt and poster.
"You selling those Ted Cruz shirts?" a young man asked. Sabo said yes, and that they were $35.
"The market forces are telling me not to buy it," the man said. "I'm a broke college student."
The artist had other images for sale, including some depicting Hillary Clinton supporters as flying monkeys (the images were removed from L.A.'s Brentwood neighborhood last year) and another of Gwyneth Paltrow that also featured the words the words 'Obama' and 'Drone.' Sabo made those when Obama attended a fundraiser at her L.A. home last year; he said he was questioned by the Secret Service after tweeting that he hoped Lee Harvey Oswald would come back as a zombie and mentioning a rifle near Paltrow's house. Sabo said it was a joke. The Secret Service did not return an email asking to confirm that they were, or are, investigating him.
Whatever you do, don't call Sabo a conservative.
"I’m not a conservative. I trip when people call me a conservative. I worked in the porn industry for four years," he said, adding, "I mean the tasteful porn industry."
He does not like the idea of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush running for president because in America "we don't have monarchies." Sabo made a YouTube video showing him shaving off some of his pubic hair as part of a "No Bush 2016" campaign, which he wants to go viral. He said he'd vote for Cruz, or maybe Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Sabo has his own name tattooed on his knuckles, and a friend once told him that he'd never get invited to a state dinner with the body art. He met Cruz at CPAC, and says there's just one thing he wishes he'd asked: "I wish I would have told him, 'dude, if you get elected will you make sure that I get into a state dinner, man?'" he said.