Vol. 5 Num 41 Wed. July 07, 2004  

American dissent: Ricardo Cortes
Ricardo Cortes is the founder of New York-based Magic Propaganda Mill. He is a political activist, drug-law reformer, anti-war activist and all-round creative personality. His art has always been genre-bending, but his recent series of political T-shirts have taken the message to a new level. From "Anyone but Bush" to "Out of Iraq" and "I Love Iraq" (using that familiar I Love NY look), his T-shirts carry a direct message and call to action. In the midst of planning his next project, Ricardo took a break to answer a few questions from his Brooklyn neighbour, Naeem Mohaiemen, New York correspondent for

The Daily Star (DS): Rico, tell us about the anti-war T-shirt project. What designs have you made? How do you distribute them? What's your main intention here?

Ricardo Cortes (RC): My intention is to use my company and our design skills to engage the cultural dialogue with a bit more relevance and immediacy in light of the political climate. That is to say, we are a pop culture vehicle: Magic Propaganda Mill makes skateboards and creates record covers like countless other firms that are part of the US youth movement. However, I recognise that power and influence and hope to use our appeal to spread information and political thought along with our visual aesthetic.

The "anti-war" T-shirts contain strong political messages that I'm happy to say have found an audience of enthusiasm in the U.S. and abroad. We began by subverting Milton Glaser's ubiquitous "I Love NY" logo with "Iraq" shortly before the initial invasion, to express our solidarity with the people of Iraq. The responses were extreme -- both in support and in anger. It was an interesting indication of the real motives of many pro-war people -- that they expressed such hatred to a message of love (and a message of love toward the people that they wanted to "liberate," at that).

We periodically release a new image whenever we he have an idea to offer. As you mention, our latest is "Out of Iraq," a play on the Robert Redford film "Out of Africa" from which we took the font for the slogan. Our shirts are available in some shops in New York and on our website,

DS: I notice that one of your designs is "I Defend Iraq," with an image of a broken machine gun underneath. That's pretty intense, have you actually given that to anyone?

In fact, you've slightly misread a shirt that was intentionally confusing. The "After-War Party" (I Defend Iraq) T-shirt is actually a combination of two separate designs. The first is the "I Love Iraq" design and the second is "Defend Westchester." Westchester is an affluent suburb of New York, and we made a T-shirt about it in response to a "Defend Brooklyn" T-shirt that explored gentrification issues in Brooklyn. By combining these two designs I made a shirt that mixed the images of "Love," "Defend," "Westchester," "Iraq," and guns beyond recognition.

The T-shirt is very confusing, and it seemed to fit, as it mirrored our very unclear mission in Iraq. The shirt's distorted message also made some people who wore it more comfortable, as it was in some ways a muted and safer way of advertising their discontent (many people have expressed fear of wearing the simple "I Love Iraq" shirt in mixed company, the After War Party shirt often elicited confusion rather than anger and gave the wearer a better opportunity to articulate their politics).

DS: Tell me about your other projects. What is Peace With Police all about? What are your views on the drug war and what drug-law campaigns are you involved with?

RC: Working to end the Drug War is a priority of my work. The War is a long, drawn out failure that has done nothing but to hurt our communities (offering prisons, police harassment, and intolerance) without helping their real problems with "drugs" at all. The War has also been used as a justification by the U.S. government to increase its military presence around the globe. I am not a fan of the carnage it has perpetuated, and I'm endlessly frustrated that mainstream media has allowed it to continue for so long. Fortunately, more and more people are speaking out against the war, and with some surprises amongst the ranks.

Peace With Police is my effort to work with police officers who oppose the drug war. It is a refuge for those within and without the law enforcement community who want to end a war that has failed the citizenry, depleted our police force and most importantly, stretched the risk to cops lives to a breaking point. In addition to the Peace With Police work, I'm currently finishing production on a children's book about marijuana, "It's Just a Plant." The book is for parents who wants to speak honestly and frankly about the dangers and benefits of marijuana. Its aim is to help parents educate their children about marijuana in an honest and responsible way, and the book gives parents an alternative to politically influenced misinformation about the drug that permeates mainstream resources. You can see more about this project at the book's website,

DS: As an American, what is your overall view on "Pax Americana" and the present push by the neo-cons in Bush White House to create a new form of Global Empire?

RC: I am one of millions who love this country and the ideals and opportunities that it sets forth for its citizens. That said, I am also one of many million Americans who know that George Bush is a gangster, and that he is not a noble one. His business and religious interests have been used to hijack the prospects of democracy and freedom that the United States should represent.

DS: Are you optimistic about the November elections? What do you think will happen? What are you up to, in terms of election campaigning?

RC: I am optimistic. I think there is a much, much greater force of dissent against the Bush administration than is being reported in mainstream media. It will be a wicked and likely corrupt election (it is widely acknowledged that Bush didn't "win" the last election, but stole it through political connections and dirty tricks), but I am hopeful that the masses of the American public, the true patriots of freedom, will speak their votes in an onslaught that cannot be covered up, to rid our Presidency of the administration that currently rules. It will then be up to Mr. John Kerry to pick up the slack and not be a rubberstamp for the same type of agenda.

DS: Any other thoughts on any other fronts?

RC: How about a quote I like? "The establishment clause forbids a state to hide behind the application of a formally neutral criteria and remain studiously oblivious to the effects of its actions." That's from a Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Supreme Court ruling.