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, Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.
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 says from his Tel Aviv studio. “I want people to reflect on our leaders, our society and ourselves.” Hipstory “is not about making fun of the leaders but rather instigating a conversation about our society.”
Shimoni’s drawings grace the walls of Tel Aviv bars and homes, and appear on coasters, pillowcases, coffee mugs, smartphone covers, even key chains.
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 says.
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 ’60s-style shades all came about thanks to a guy who could have been Herzl’s doppelganger.
Shimoni says 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 art-school 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. From there I moved to Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir. The project eventually turned into 12 Israeli faces.”
Meant to be a final project at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, this was actually the beginning of Shimoni’s career.
People who saw the illustrations of Ben-Gurion in a pink button-down pineapple shirt, Herzl sporting an earring and a wave in his hair, 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 a different time and culture.”
When he started 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 10 a.m. until dawn the next day.
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 prominent women such as Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Queen Elizabeth II.
The New York Times commissioned his portrait of Clinton before she announced her U.S. presidential run. “A wave of other publications” as well as museums, animal-rights organizations, and advertising agencies have also commissioned illustrations.
Although starting in a small country with a limited audience can be difficult for new artists, Shimoni says Israel was 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” on his early drawings.
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.
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.”
Shimoni says he regularly hears from art museums and design stores about how much people like his illustrations, and that teachers tell him 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.