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On the morning of the presidential inauguration, Silver Spring artist and merchandiser Jim Siemer unveils his latest bit of D.C. whimsy for a group of regulars at Comet Liquors in Adams Morgan. The print, a nod to Hans Christian Andersen’s instructive tale of nudity and politics, titled The Bush Has No Clothes, depicts a nude Dubya parading down the street flanked by a band of bobbleheaded flunkies, Condi and Rummy among them. Siemer considers this piece a grave, if humorous, bit of political art, but it hasn’t been unveiled for 10 minutes before it also proves to be a potentially profitable one.
“You selling those?” a customer calls out.
The voice belongs to Mike Rogers, local gay activist and editor of blogACTIVE, the Web site best known for allegedly outing United States Rep. Edward L. Schrock (R-Va.). “I could drive you some major customers,” Rogers says. “I get 20,000 hits a day, and it’s all the lefty crowd online.” He takes in Siemer’s design up close. “This is great; this is hot.”
Rogers suggests they mark the prints up from $10 to $25 through his site, and also offers to send a lo-rez image of Bush-sans-culottes out to thousands of right-wingers’ e-mail addresses, just for kicks. The two swap contact info.
The bespectacled Siemer—aglow with the business proposition—is encouraged enough as he leaves the store to stop a gaggle of college-age women on Calvert Street NW and solicit their opinions on his design. His “whadd’ya think?” induces little more than confused stares from this crew, but he’ll get stronger feedback on his piece from the throngs of protesters downtown in about an hour.
“I’m not bashful,” says the 45-year-old Ohio native.
For Siemer, this bit of anti-Bush agitprop marks both a departure and a return. As president and co-founder of TouristArt.com, he spends the bulk of his time working to get bright renderings of federal D.C. onto kitschy, apolitical prints, mugs, and T-shirts, many of which eventually find their way into the most transient city’s most transient nooks—airport kiosks and museum gift shops. But he launched his merchandising career with a political gag back in the ’90s, when he put Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, onto a white baggie informing the city’s visitors that “Socks Rules the White House.”
He’d brainstormed the idea shortly after Clinton’s first inauguration, where he met a vendor who managed to sell about 20,000 buttons with a picture of Socks on them: “The guy said, ‘Socks is hot.’” So Siemer launched an entire feline-themed line of merchandise and sold 5,000 shirts featuring Socks sniffing cherry blossoms beneath the words “Socks Inhales.”
Siemer says the satirical bite in his new Bush print is partly hereditary: His uncle, Tom Siemer, a radical nuclear-arms protester, earned a bit of notoriety—and six months’ home detention—when, in December 2003, he threw a jar of red paint at the Enola Gay, on display at the National Air and Space Museum (Show & Tell, 6/25/04). “He’s a character,” says the younger Siemer.
Through his soon-to-be-launched Politicalwit.com, Siemer says he’ll be selling politically neutral works alongside his edgier partisan attacks. (Careful not to offend his more buttoned-down TouristArt.com clients, such as the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Siemer says the two companies are in no way affiliated. “Obviously this is a more controversial design,” he says of the Bush print.)
Although it’s clearly outgunned by the “Fuck Bush” signs downtown, Siemer’s print is sharp enough to elicit some catcalls and applause from the lefties on Pennsylvania Avenue NW during the inauguration, as well as some questions from national reporters.
Not one to miss a sales opportunity, Siemer also takes a few moments to pass out some press releases. But he insists he’s more a war protester today than a businessman. “I’m an old radical,” he says. “This isn’t just to make money.”—Dave Jamieson