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Freelance artist Ray Noland, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, puts up one of his posters of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, at a gallery on Madison Street in Chicago, February 4, 2008. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
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The posters and stenciled graffiti appeared one night out of nowhere, slapped by unseen hands on street corners and boarded buildings around the city. Each poster bore the image of a determined-looking Barack Obama - painted in warm hues and ringed with sun rays. “It stopped me in my tracks,” said John Stoops, 34, a collector of street art who spotted one poster on a construction barrier. “I thought, `Who’s doing this?’”


A small but colorful part of Obama iconography, the mysterious posters first appeared this summer in Chicago and have since ended up on streets as far away as Detroit, New York and California. The only clue to their source appeared at the bottom right corner of each print, where the artist’s street name, “CRO,” is printed in tiny lettering.


A Google search for CRO turns up 16 million hits. But a hunt through the Internet morass eventually leads to a Web site (gotellmama.org), which leads to an e-mail address, which eventually leads to a guy named Ray.


Ray turns out to be Ray Noland, a reed-thin 35-year-old Chicago freelance graphic artist, who has launched an unpaid, unauthorized one-man street art campaign on behalf of Obama. Over the last year and a half, Noland has designed and distributed hundreds of posters out of his Pilsen apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up packed with his Obama-inspired paintings, prints and T-shirts.


Noland is part of a recent boom in Obama Art, works that depict the candidate in every medium from oil on canvas to paper mache. The acclaimed poster artist Shepard Fairey last month released a limited-edition Obama print. In April, a Chicago art student created a stir with an Obama-as-messiah statue, made of paper and glue. And last Sunday, supporters at a rally in Los Angeles waved huge Obama signs designed in the stark, colorful style of Andy Warhol.


Political art is a phenomenon that “goes back to Jefferson and probably Washington too,” noted Larry Bird, political curator at the National Museum of American History. Today, campaigns work vigorously to control the message, often refusing to allow supporters to bring their own signs and instead mass producing placards that look “homemade.” Such a heavily-orchestrated political environment can make original images even more striking. “In this day and age, when everything is focus-grouped tested and gone over, it’s refreshing when you do stumble upon a sign that was made by the person carrying it.”


So far, Noland’s underground campaign remains a shoe-string operation. He has sold only one design to the official Obama campaign, a poster to publicize a New York City rally, he says. Otherwise, he remains a guerrilla street marketer of sorts, who survives on the occasional freelance gig as a commercial artist.


His posters are not your typically stodgy red-white-and-blue “change you can believe in” placards. Instead, Noland’s designs are sharp and irreverent, drawn with an urban hip-hop sensibility. One poster shows Obama as a basketball player shooting hoops on the White House lawn. Another features Obama as Robin Hood delivering a bundle labeled “health care” to the needy. Another paints Obama as a boxer vying for the heavyweight championship.


He hopes the posters will give the senator from Illinois a boost, associating the candidate with pop culture in a way that will attract young voters. Art can work in powerful and subliminal ways, he argues. “I want to get into people’s heads,” he said.


The idea for a poster campaign came to Noland in the summer of 2006, when he was home recuperating from a serious bicycle accident. He had been pedaling through an intersection near Malcolm X College, when a turning car broadsided him. Noland woke the next day in the hospital with tubes in his arms, a broken cheek bone, two missing teeth and a dislocated shoulder. Recovering in bed for six weeks, he started thinking about what he wanted to do with his life. “I wanted to do something to make an impact. After the accident, I felt like, `Man, this is another chance at life. You better make it good,’” he said.


A graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Noland worked as a graphic designer at a T-shirt company, a small magazine and for a motion-graphics studio. By the time of the accident, he had been a freelance artist, working with corporate clients.


A longtime Obama admirer, Noland sat down at his computer and began designing a digital portrait of the candidate, trying to create an image that would capture the excitement and promise that, to Noland, seemed to define the campaign. “I wanted him to look like this cool, iconic figure,” Noland said. Working with an old Time magazine cover, he created a striking four-color portrait of Obama - gazing straight ahead, looking handsome and determined - over the words “THE DREAM.”


When Noland e-mailed the image to friends, the response was immediate. “This is awesome!” declared Erica Salaman, 33. Friends began asking for copies and circulating the images via e-mail. Noland played with the composition and came up with two dozen designs. Using donations to pay for paint and other production costs, he printed 10 posters at first, then 30 posters, then 50 posters, and eventually - as demand grew - 1,000 posters. Requests came from Kansas, Iowa and Seattle; Noland began selling the posters for $20-$50 each and shipping them across the country. He plowed his profits back into the project.


This spring and summer, his Obama posters became a common sight around Chicago. Noland remains vague about who plastered his art around town, referring only to a “friend.” (This can be a touchy issue for street artists, who often post at night to avoid arrest.) Now, with the help of his friend Rebecca Berdel, he has made six short animated campaign commercials.


He does not list his name on his work or the Go Tell Mama site, because he says he wants the focus on Obama. Also, he notes, intrigue helps generate buzz. When it comes to both artists and presidential candidates, Noland says: “People like mystique. They don’t want a regular guy. They want a persona.”


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Freelance artist Ray Noland, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, holds one of his posters of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, at a gallery on Madison Street in Chicago, February 4, 2008. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)


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