Yosi Sergant and the Art of Change: The Publicist Behind Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope Posters
Yosi Sergant is not the type of publicist one sees on TV. The 32-year-old environmentalist rides his bike everywhere — he gave up his Mitsubishi clunker a few years back. And he makes a point to wear no logos. “I’m nobody’s billboard,” he says.
With each decision, he intends to reflect, as his favorite presidential candidate puts it, “the extreme urgency of now.”
Sure, he’s worked on publicity and marketing campaigns for car companies and fashion designers, but since 2006, he has also been applying his lifestyle-marketing savvy to the candidacy of Barack Obama, specifically among those he calls “the creative community.” In the early days, when he’d talk to people, he says maybe one in every 50 even knew who Obama was.
Dressed in a pair of $4 vintage sunglasses and faded shorts he’s had since college, the bearded and bespectacled Sergant is seated at a coffeehouse in his Echo Park neighborhood, talking shop. “Barack Obama is a figurehead of a movement, I would call it the progressive movement. My goal is to get Obama elected. I use the mechanisms I know, which are basically artistic. Look how important the grass roots are. Look at the effect they can have. I drank the Kool-Aid. I am alive with it, I believe — an Obama saying — ‘we are the change we have been waiting for.’”
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With a degree from UCLA in World Arts and Culture, Sergant had an early career marked by a curious combination of working with both the former prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, and controversial filmmaker Larry Clark. For six months he and the company he works for, Jennifer Gross’ Evolutionary Media Group, served as media consultants to the Obama campaign. But then he ran into street artist and guerrilla marketer Shepard Fairey at a party in February. Sergant engaged Fairey in a discussion about the upcoming election. And when he found out that the artist was an Obama enthusiast, Sergant asked Fairey if he was doing anything to help the candidate get elected. The next day Fairey called, wondering if he thought the Obama camp would mind if he made a poster. Sergant immediately realized the power an iconic image by Fairey could have and decided that he and Evolutionary Media Group could be more effective if they worked outside the confines of the official Obama campaign and teamed up with Fairey instead.
Since then, Fairey has printed and distributed some 250,000 “Hope” and “Progress” posters across America. The Obama campaign ended up commissioning Fairey to launch an Artists for Obama program with a run of 5,000 “Change”Obama posters. And Fairey, who reinvests all the proceeds in the HOPE media campaign, made the image file available for free downloads, so it’s impossible to say exactly how many reproductions of his work are currently out there.
Sergant also sparked 14 national Obama poster campaigns by artists, including Ron English’s “Abraham Obama” traveling mural. And, he created an Obama bicycle-spoke card with an image by artist Margaret Coble specifically for the Portland, Oregon, primaries. “Everyone [in Portland] rides a bike,” Sergant says. “It was a small investment, and it made an impact in the indie-hipster world, ending up in Paper and Bicycle magazines and on countless blogs, with no promotion.”
“I basically gave Yosi the okay to do whatever he wanted to with the design,” Coble writes on her Art by Mags! blog, “knowing that whatever he cooked up, it was going to benefit the campaign and likely had a chance to get some pretty good exposure.”
“The artists all want to lend their voice for a variety of reasons,” Sergant says. “I think people saw what happened with Shepard, not only developing their voice as a commodity but also the ability to effect tangible change. Our leadership has no transparency and has corrupted itself. There is a freshness and uniqueness to the dialogue that is coming out of the progressive movement leadership, and that’s the Obama camp. I think people are attracted to that. I think the country is ready to be talked to as adults. I am passionate, and that’s why I’m a good publicist. I realized I can’t wait for someone to give me an opportunity — I have to create my own.”
That’s exactly what he, along with Fairey and friends from Evolutionary, did in Denver during the Democratic National Convention. Together, they produced and curated the Manifest Hope Gallery, a temporary space displaying Obama-inspired art by some of the country’s best street artists.
The four-day art show and its related Unconventional ’08 concert, which featured the bands Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Cold War Kids, Nada Surf and performances by Jenny Lewis, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and Zooey Deschanel, attracted some 8,000 people.
San Francisco mayor — and possible California gubernatorial candidate — Gavin Newsom spoke, and guests included Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, Spike Lee, Angela Bassett, Danny Glover and local teachers and their elementary school students.
“Yosi has been the strategist and facilitator for aspects of the [Obama HOPE] campaign, ranging from getting the go-ahead for me to do my Obama portrait and putting the posters in the hands of grass-roots volunteers to organizing the Manifest Hope gallery during the DNC,” Fairey says via e-mail when asked about Sergant. “Many of us have worked hard to support the HOPE campaign, but the convergence and collaboration of so many great people was primarily organized by Yosi.”
A few days after returning from Denver, a tired Sergant talks about his DNC experience via phone. “There really wasn’t much of a grass-roots presence at the Democratic National Convention,” he says. “[Unconventional ’08] was truly a different voice from any other event. People responded to the intensity. The art was beautiful, powerful, diverse and inviting. A hundred artists participated, and there were 124 pieces of art.”
Fairey, who was arrested in Denver for plastering his images around the city, also made a one-of-a-kind 10-by-14-foot canvas that incorporated his HOPE imagery. Sergant says it sold to a private collector for an undisclosed amount. About the arrest, Sergant is unapologetic. “Shepard is who he is. He has never claimed to be anything other. He didn’t become famous because he sat by idly and watched others doing the work for him. He is an active participant, and, as such, he was out with some locals and they got busted. I don’t know that many details ’cause I was scraping paint off of the floor [in the gallery] when it happened.”
Sergant says one of his favorite pieces in the show was by David Choe, who, along with four others, including Sam Flores and the Date Farmers, created on-site work. “David Choe’s mural was one of the most breathtaking and jaw-dropping,” Sergant says. “It was intense and personal. He painted with fervor; paint was flying. He ended up with as much paint on him as on the mural. He used everything and anything he could get his hands on: stencils, paintbrushes, pencil, pen and a mop.”
Besides bringing in high-profile artists, Sergant also partnered with MoveOn.org to create a contest for artists across America to submit works for inclusion in the gallery. “In the first two days we got more than 1,000 submissions,” he says. “The idea is, even though we will only show five winners, we have created thousands of pieces of [progressive-themed] art.”
The only problem was that Sergant was so busy planning the event, he arrived in Denver with no passes to the actual convention. But he was able to haggle his way into some of the speeches, including Hillary Clinton’s.
“Like Sundance,” he says, “you horse-trade introductions and tickets from one event to another.”
On the last day of the gallery show, Sergant says, he had to turn people away — he and the other volunteers, including his parents, who flew in from Culver City, needed to leave to catch Obama’s speech at Invesco Field. “We tore out of there,” he says. “We made the point clear we were going to Obama. I have workedreally, really hard for a really long time and to hear him say those words, ‘I accept the nomination.’ I had goosebumps. It was a very intense feeling to be there among supporters who had traveled from all across America, it felt pretty good.”
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