Amit Shimoni has done the impossible. This Israeli designer-illustrator is making people smile when they see politicians.
Shimoni, 29, is the artist behind Hipstory, an illustrated series that depicts world leaders as hipsters and fashionistas — from Hillary Clinton to Theodor Herzl, Barack Obama to George Washington, David Ben-Gurion to Angela Merkel, Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela to Mao Zedong.
Formal suits and ties are replaced with tank tops, denim, studded vests and Hawaiian shirts.
“Part of the purpose in drawing them like this was to make people look at these leaders and smile,” Shimoni tells ISRAEL21c from his Tel Aviv studio. “I want people to reflect on our leaders, our society and ourselves.”
One of Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren wrote to Shimoni that he loved the way the Israeli designer-illustrator drew his grandfather, sporting a flattop hairstyle and a tropical-print bomber jacket.
“That was cool to hear his family liked it,” Shimoni says. “My Hipstory project is not about making fun of the leaders but rather instigating a conversation about our society.”
His drawings grace the walls of local bars and homes, and appear on coasters, pillowcases, coffee mugs, smartphone skins and keychains.
Shimoni recently added cultural idols – Albert Einstein and Santa Claus, among others — to his portrait series.
In February, Laurence King Publishing released a book of 20 Shimoni postcards accompanied by made-up cheeky bios written by London-based writer Stephen Ellcock, Hipstory: Why be a World Leader When You Could be a Hipster?
“The texts are very funny and they give a new meaning to the illustrations,” Shimoni tells ISRAEL21c.
Herzl’s doppelganger on Facebook
The fun drawings of Vladimir Lenin in a black studded jacket, Margaret Thatcher in a leopard-print strapless bra peeping through a white tank top, and Mahatma Gandhi wearing a tie-dye shirt and Sixties-style shades all came about thanks to a guy who could have been Herzl’s doppelganger.
Shimoni tells ISRAEL21c that he had just uploaded a drawing of David Ben-Gurion to his Facebook page — to see what his friends thought of his idea to base his graduate project on the first Israeli prime minister in modern-day style — when someone who resembled the visionary behind modern Zionism appeared on his Facebook feed.
“I saw someone who looked just like Herzl; it was unbelievable,” he says. “And then I started thinking about a modern Herzl hipster. And from there I moved to Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir. The project eventually turned into 12 Israeli faces.”
Meant to be a final art-school project at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, this was actually the beginning of Shimoni’s career.
Everyone who saw the illustrations of Ben-Gurion in a pink button-down pineapple shirt, Herzl sporting an earring and a wave in his hair, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a colorful bohemian shirt, and Shimon Peres in a yellow hoodie, wanted more.
So, Shimoni decided to dress up other world leaders in an “attempt to create new and altered portraits of iconic figures of the 20th century, by placing them in different time and culture.”
“It’s very exciting. When I started work on the project, I hoped it would get some exposure and people would like it,” he says, noting that if the muse is with him, he can work at his computer from 10am to dawn the next day.
A wave of requests
For International Women’s Day in March 2015, Shimoni released a new version of the series — called Shepstory, a contraction of “she” and “Hipstory” – featuring female world leaders including Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Queen Elizabeth II.
The New York Times commissioned his portrait of Clinton before she announced her US presidential run. “That was an amazing compliment,” he says.
“A wave of other publications” as well as museums, animal-rights organizations, advertising agencies and media outlets have been commissioning Shimoni illustrations.
“It’s amazing to see people connect with my work from all over the world,” Shimoni says.
Starting in Israel
Although starting in a small country with a limited audience can be difficult for new artists, Shimoni says Israel was exactly the right place for him to launch.
“The interaction in Israel is very personal. People want to be friends here, so people told me what they think and I got important feedback,” he says about his early drawings. “It’s a great place to start as an artist because people in Israel like to compliment you.”
Shimoni grew up in Kfar Sirkin, a moshav in central Israel near Petah Tikva, completed his college studies in Jerusalem, and now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and their dog.
He says he draws inspiration from everything, “from a billboard to a woman who drops something, from Facebook to whatever.”
Asked which of his drawings he favors most, Shimoni takes a while before answering.
“They are like my children; it’s hard to choose which I like best,” he says. “I like Ben-Gurion in the Israeli series. The pineapple shirt and yellow background gives off a happy vibe. It’s also because of who he was — an iconic personality. I’m glad I was able to add something to his character and that everyone is happy to see him and put his picture on their wall.”
Shimoni’s latest project depicts the late Princess Diana.
“She proved to be a difficult person to draw. I wanted to give her a tweak from today’s world but she was already a fashion icon when she was alive,” he says.
He chose Princess Diana based on a vote by his Instagram followers. His fan base is growing all the time. “People tag me on Instagram from places I’ve never even heard of,” he reports.
Shimoni says he regularly hears from art museums and design stores about how much people like his illustrations. Many teachers tell him that they use his illustrations in their history classes.
“I’m happy to hear that teachers and kids can connect to these drawings and open a dialogue about these historical people,” he says.