After fleeing oppression in Cuba as a child, Edel Rodriguez embarked upon an extraordinary illustration career in the United States that has only grown bolder and more powerful in today’s political climate.
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.
Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief