LOS ANGELES — The artist who placed Ted Cruz's head on the body of a tattooed and tautly muscled convict is surrounded by his work. Sabo, whose pseudonym (a truncation of "sabot," a term for a round of ammunition) is tattooed on the fingers of his right hand, works out of a home studio tucked innocuously off a quiet road. Art and postcards hang in the curtained windows. Art and a spacious TV screen take up the space inside. A futon sits on top of drawers full of screenprints; a sophisticated printer takes up part of the kitchen, ready to churn out parodies of celebrities or mockeries of Hillary Clinton or tributes to Cruz.
"The ink for that printer is like $2,700," Sabo said. "Now, I can say on Facebook something like, 'Hey, I need a yellow cartridge,' and it shows up on my doorstep, boom, next day."
Sabo is a conservative guerrilla artist, something so new to the broader conservative movement that people used to doubt that he existed. He proved them wrong in the winter, when he flew east for the Conservative Political Action Conference with a case of posters and a speech. The man who'd designed the viral "tattoo body" poster of Cruz, usually accompanied by the slogan "Blacklisted and loving it," was a 5'5'' ex-Marine with art school credentials and a litany of complaints against "circle-jerking" liberal artists.
On camera for the first time, he talked about trolling a fundraiser for Wendy Davis, the unsuccessful 2014 Democratic nominee for governor of Texas, with a poster of her as a brittle, plastic "Abortion Barbie."
"Hell, I didn't even know who she was running against," he remembered from the same CPAC stage that hosted Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson. "I kicked her bigwig Hollywood donors square in the n--s... for $220, I caused that much hell for the Hollywood elite."
Last week, as Republicans gathered for a presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, Calif., Sabo's proudly unwholesome workshop was busier than ever. Cruz's campaign had entered into a deal with Sabo, buying and selling his work in a "Sabo Store" at his campaign site. The biggest order asked for 1,000 versions of the tattoo body poster, pegged to Cruz's campaign against the Iran nuclear deal. Smaller orders had Sabo producing stylized pop culture jokes about the senator — a takeoff on the Converse All-Star logo, a poster with Cruz walking toward a camera and the legend "Straight Outta Congress." Prices start at $25.
"I did 1,000 of those tattoo posters, 100 of the bigger ones, 100 of the 'Straight Outta Congress,' 100 T-shirts, 50 tank tops, 100 caps," said Sabo. "You're looking at someone who learned to survive off canned ravioli. I was five months late on rent. I was literally scraping up quarters coming up with money to buy burgers at McDonald's."
To be clear, Sabo's Internet success predates the Cruz deal. The tie-in with a presidential candidate is just 2015's latest example of a Republican thriving by banishing "political correctness" from his orbit. Sabo is proudly blunt and foul, working in a room that's framed by a "F--- Peace" sign ("after 9/11") and a "F--- Tibet" sign ("from being in college, seeing people with their bags and shirts, not knowing what Tibet was even about"). He travels with a suitcase covered in "Clinton baggage," self-made bumper stickers with references to her scandals. On the day before the debate, that baggage was sitting underneath a strap-on device and next to a loaded gun — across the room from some cans of Vienna sausage that Sabo had relabeled "Planned Parenthood baby d--ks."
The Cruz art is some of the most printable. On one wall, near the portrait of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as a fully headdressed Cherokee ("I bought FauxCohantas.com," said Sabo), are some pictures of classic celebrities' heads spliced onto the bodies of toughs. There's Albert Einstein holding two pistols; there's Bettie Page covered in prison tattoos. The Cruz poster, said Sabo, was inspired by these works from a Venice Beach artist, and after a while Sabo found his own design sort of...lame. Every time Cruz was asked about it, he joked about his "prison body" or how the unrealistic poster portrayed him "smoking," the implication being that everything else was real.
"I thought: I’m gonna just shelve it," said Sabo. "It's kind of lame and old, that’s how I felt about it. Then Donald Trump went and broke out his flamethrower."
Sabo could not stand Trump. "He’s a demagogue, and he’s capitalizing on the rage in the party," he said. Cruz was basically the only politician Sabo could stand. The only positive factor of the Trump race was his disrespect for media norms, something Sabo paid tribute to with some art modeled on the California road signs that warn of undocumented immigrants passing by. A mother and father were pictured trailing four children, each smaller than the last, under the slogan: "Undocumented Democrats say DRUMP TRUMP."
"Allowing CNN to set the tone for our Republican candidates is proof the GOP has their head up their a---es," Sabo explained. "No one seemed to sharpen up their pitchforks when Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a ‘c--t.’ How many times has Bill Clinton been accused of rape? People circle the wagons around them."
Sabo was well aware of how the media might make him a problem for Cruz. He tried to prevent that by avoiding having his picture taken with the senator when both were at CPAC. But the poster/gear deal, the "Sabo Store," was the signal for the Texas Tribune to look at Sabo's work and tweets and beg some questions about whether Cruz endorsed this stuff. Sabo writes in all caps, because "it stands out," and has tweeted unsolicited advice for the Secret Service about how "TAKING A BULLET FOR A T--D IS JUST STUPID."
"The more attention I get, the more these liberal reporters will go back to my Twitter feeds," Sabo said with resignation. "And it’s not really hard to find 'bad' things I said."
His solution: Lead with the chin, and explain himself. He opened his home studio to the IJReview, too, and let the conservative site follow him as he pasted up "ad takeovers" near the debate site. His posters, asking candidates to speak to "the hell Democrats have made of the black community," were taken down, but he obviously stood by the message. He was a Southerner, and proud of that, but not racist.
"I feel uncomfortable when a black man comes up to me and calls me sir," he said. "I’m not a bigot, though I may sound like it."
When he did sound like it, the misunderstanding was all on the left — and probably intentional. Above the futon, Sabo kept a poster that demonstrated his support for individual rights and his hatred of bigotry. He made it for rallies against California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state,
"Someone said to me, 'you know, the gay community supported a black man for president, but the black community supported prop 8,'" he said. It got him thinking. He assembled photos of gay men who'd survived vicious bashings, and of holier-than-thou televangelists, the people who never curse but pose more of a threat to decorum than Sabo does. He put that under another poster, the letters cut out to reveal the images underneath. The letters spelled "F-g: The New N----r."
This, years before a presidential campaign found him, was how Sabo brought people together.