SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Two nights before the second Republican presidential debate, I found myself standing shirtless in the rain in the middle of Madera Road outside the Reagan Presidential Library just after midnight. You could hear coyotes in the distance.
The Los Angeles political street artist Sabo, who asked we not use his real name, was putting up a banner he made on a light pole. Then it started sprinkling, which would have been no big deal, except for the fact we were filming him with a camera that couldn’t get wet. We didn’t think to pack an umbrella for our trip to sunny Southern California, so our shirts had to do. Our videographer Rob wrapped the camera in his shirt and I held mine over it and we kept rolling.
Sabo has become notorious for his conservative art. Not only are there few on the right who do what he does, but his work is loud, sometimes offensive, and it pops online, like his toned and tattooed Cruz with a cigarette in his mouth, Hillary Clinton’s face on a parody ad for E!’s “The Royals” and Democrat and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis as “Abortion Barbie.”
I had tried tracking his and other artists’ work in the city before, driving to the bus shelter outside Paramount Studios looking for a parody “Saving Private Ryan” print critical of President Obama I saw online, and texting friends in Brentwood if they’d seen his celebrity drone posters, but to no avail. Photos of his work that were published online were often taken by him, or they surfaced on Twitter without any context. Was it all a hoax, a Photoshop job, or does this type of art just not stay up very long in a liberal city?
I wanted to see it with my own two eyes. And here it was.
On one side of Sabo’s banner was a graphic of a “Rino [Republican in Name Only] Xing” sign with Bush, Trump, Christie, and Kasich’s names on it.
On the other, “Take on the mess liberals have made of the black community.”
As Sabo put the banner up, what looked like a sheriff’s SUV drove past. We were right next to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, and the vehicle flipped a u-turn and drove past again. But Sabo was unfazed, even when the car came back a third time. No one bothered us, though, and the banner went up. A few minutes later, the rain stopped.
Down the road, he had replaced two ads on a bus shelter, and somewhere in L.A., there was a bus that was driving around with Ted Cruz’s face on the back with the words “Ted Cruz won’t take you for a ride. Paid for by the Huffington Post,” with the phone number for a local art gallery.
Of course, it wasn’t paid for by the Huffington Post, it was paid for by fans of Sabo, who he said have sometimes chipped in thousands of dollars to support his work.
His stuff pop ups whenever politicians visit L.A., a frequent occurrence thanks to all the donors who live here. With 15 politicians in town and all eyes on Simi Valley, he was putting up multiple pieces in front of the Reagan Library, where the debate will be held.
“It’s like you’re a tier-one terrorist artist,” he told us earlier in the day at his apartment. “It’s like you’re the Delta Force of f**king art and you have to get your s**t done fast, you gotta get out, it’s gotta read, there are no excuses.”
The walls of his small one-bedroom apartment are decorated with his work. A giant framed Hillary Clinton sits against one wall and an AR-15 against another. “If there’s anything with a trigger, it’s loaded,” he told us. Also, “I don’t like guns, but I understand their purpose.”
Behind his television is a black bird with “f*** peace” written on it he made after 9/11, a design he printed and handed out in New York City. The cops loved it, he said.
It faces another poster on his back wall with derogatory terms for black and gay people, something he heard a man say at a rally against Prop 8. “I’m comfortable with it now, because in the beginning, I literally had to explain it to everyone who walked into the apartment,” he said about the piece.
There’s an industrial-sized printer in his kitchen and a suitcase that says “Hillary’s baggage” and “Hillary for prison 2016” on it. A strap-on dildo is tied to its handle.
“I started doing this because I got tired of the left defining who I was,” he said. “I’m not rich, I’m not racist, I’m not a homophobe, I’m none of those things. Why isn’t there anyone out there setting the story straight? And I just said, screw it. If Shepard (Fairey, the creator of the Obama “Hope” poster) can do it, I can do it.”
Fairey comes up multiple times in our conversations, like a liberal inspiration for what political art can do. Sabo’s Cruz portrait is the closest he’s come to an Obama “Hope” piece, and the Cruz campaign now has a whole Sabo section on its online store and sells the print for $50.
“People think I’m a cheerleader for Ted Cruz. I’m not,” Sabo said. “I do like that he’s consistent, I believe that he’s a very smart person. I don’t see eye to eye with him completely.”
A former Marine, he took his pseudonym from “sabot,” a tank round, but dropped the “t” because he thought people would pronounce it as “say-bot” instead of “say-bow.” He has “S-A-B-O” tattooed across the fingers of his right hand and wears a ring with the Confederate stars and bars.
“When you’re 5-foot 5 and in the Marines, there’s no such thing as quick,” he said. “You’re either used to getting your ass kicked or you fight back. I never got my ass kicked.”
He has a tendency to ramble. He talked about how liberals “circled the wagon” around Bill Clinton when he was accused of rape and how he didn’t understand how black and Jewish people vote Democratic. He sums up his thoughts on the 2016 election with three things:
“Why the hell is Hillary not in jail. Two: Trump’s a joke. Three: I think Ted Cruz is probably the best candidate that this country, the best hope, that we probably have.”
He’s also savvy. He saw how much more attention his work got when he emailed out photos of it to reporters, and tweets from his @unsavoryagents account in all caps because it’s more eye-catching. He wondered out loud what it would be like if, or when, he gets arrested.
“Have you been arrested yet?” Rob asked.
“Not for this,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fun the first time I’m arrested.”
But for a high-profile artist, Sabo maintains a simple studio. He edits his art on his living room TV, prints it in his kitchen, and cuts it with an utility knife on the floor (in the direction of the grain of the wood, only). While we’re there, he prints out the Cruz bus poster and the Rino Xing banner.
“I would hope I could take a message, hone it down, and it may be offensive to some people or whatever, but I would like to think that there’s some craft behind it,” he said.
That night, we meet Sabo and his friend Oswald near the Reagan Library. Oswald wears a reflective vest and hard hat.
People are more likely to ignore someone putting up a sign on a light post in the middle of the night if they’re wearing the vest. They drive by and drop off a ladder at the median, drive off to park the car, and walk back to put the banner up.
After it’s up, I run back to get the car, still shirtless, so Rob can keep the camera dry. When I get back to the median to pick him up, Sabo and Oswald are gone.
The next day I get a text from Sabo. Simi Valley Code Enforcement was out on the scene. They were tinkering with the bus shelter posters but couldn’t take them down.