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Sauk Rapids, Minn., man throws art into political ring

SAUK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Dan McCall has perhaps the shortest commute imaginable. He rises each morning in an upstairs bedroom in a modest, yellow-brick home in the middle of Sauk Rapids and walks through a doorway a few feet away.

Dan McCall
Dan McCall creates designs for products for Libertymaniacs. com in his Sauk Rapids, Minn., home Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/St. Cloud Times, Dave Schwarz)

SAUK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Dan McCall has perhaps the shortest commute imaginable. He rises each morning in an upstairs bedroom in a modest, yellow-brick home in the middle of Sauk Rapids and walks through a doorway a few feet away.

There, surrounded by posters, prints, hats, mugs and other knickknacks adorned with his artwork, he sits down at a wide desk, adjusts the track lighting and perhaps some music to suit his mood, and begins to draw. Using a stylus on an advanced computer setup that cost "several thousands of dollars," he continues to live a dream, making a living through art, politics and humor.

McCall, 37, is principal and creative director for Libertymaniacs.com, a Web-based business that thrives on whatever he can make of news and events from the campaign trail. For example, a recent Republican presidential debate included a candidate saying, "My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration." Within hours, McCall had designed a bumper sticker based on the quip.

A 2001 graduate of St. Cloud State University with a degree in political science and emphasis on economics and philosophy, McCall came up with the idea of selling such items online nine years ago. But it is only in the past two years that he's been able to make it a full-time job.

"I just wanted to make the stuff that I thought was cool and, from a business perspective, there was a need," McCall said. "No one was filling this void. Now, it's the best job I could ask for."

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2012 should be a big year, as Republicans decide who to send up against President Barack Obama in the November election.

Living from lines

Above his desk is a large poster showing Obama. It leverages his "Yes We Can" line from 2008, reading "Yes We Can" with "Stimulate Tyranny" and "Change is Mandatory" underneath. The images appear on everything from apparel and shoes to skateboards and hats, mugs and stationery to blankets and drink wear.

Libertymaniacs.com is on pace to generate $1 million in sales this year and has three other employees -- including McCall's wife, Mandy, whose responsibilities also include keeping the couple's three boys (ages 5, 3 and 11 months) out of trouble. Co-investor Scott Woodbury, who lives in Burnsville, Minn,, is the company's chief financial officer and marketing director. And Greg Bonahoom, who lives in Lakeville, Minn., is the Web developer.

"It got to the point where, if we were going to get from Point A to Point C, I was wearing too many hats," McCall said. "Fortunately, we can do just about everything through a virtual office."

Bonahoom, whose full-time job is in technology systems with 3M, has known McCall since they went to high school and college together.

"Dan's always been one of the outstanding artists I've known personally," Bonahoom said. "I've tried to push him to express his art. He started small and bought the domain name and it has progressed, getting bigger and bigger every year. He'll take shots at anybody. His philosophy is that politics is pretty dry and boring. If he can bring humor and levity to the situation, so much the better."

On demand

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McCall doesn't have to keep inventory because items mostly are printed on demand through companies such as CafePress and Zazzle. The latter recruited him and flew him to California to sign an agreement to be one of its independent artists. He posts his items for sale in a shop on those companies' websites, in addition to his own. Customers order items and McCall gets at least 10 percent of the proceeds without having to do much more than create the design.

To gauge interest, he'll come up with a quick idea and share it with friends on Facebook or other social media. If it generates a buzz, he'll push forward to make it become reality. His designs are almost universally irreverent. All make a point, many highlight retro art and a few have adult language.

Naturally, some of his staunchest customers are political junkies. Such as Froston Back, 29, a political consultant from Muskogee, Okla. Back calls himself a long-term political activist -- since he campaigned as an eighth-grader for Bob Dole.

"I think Dan's a fantastic artist and businessman," Back said. "His art is classic Americana. His messages are subtle but witty and intelligent. That's what hooked me."

Libertarian views

McCall has identified himself with the Libertarian movement and even was asked to contribute artwork for Ron Paul's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I think, beyond his obvious talent, (McCall) really caters to the liberty movement in a way no one else does," Back said. "A lot of the T-shirts and other things out there that spring up like this are usually pretty cheesy and crappy. I like to collect political memorabilia and I'm excited that a young entrepreneur like him is doing this."

Earlier this fall, Paul was the leading candidate with regard to Zazzle sales. He accounted for almost twice as much as Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. That doesn't mean Paul will win, but it's likely Libertymaniacs will be very relevant as the campaign kicks into high gear in the weeks and months ahead.

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"I was Googling Ron Paul T-shirts and I came across (McCall's) store," said Melissa Chattaraj, a homemaker from Connecticut. "I wound up going through the whole thing and I liked what I saw. He has artwork that represents Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. You don't see that in mainstream merchandise."

Eagle to vulture

Chattaraj said her favorite McCall image is of the Federal Reserve eagle altered to look like a vulture.

"You look at his stuff and it starts conversation," Chattaraj said. "When you're out with people, one thing Libertarians like to do is start conversations and discussions."

That, McCall can do. His story has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, a copy of which is framed on his office wall. Recently, he was interviewed by a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde. But most people around town have no idea this is what he does, or that he's come a long way from his previous job at Highway 10 Liquor.

"It was super-scary when we decided to really jump into this," McCall said. "Everyone is freaking out in this economy, and my wife and I kept having babies ... it's craziness sometimes. One minute I'll be bouncing one of the kids on my knees, and the next, I'm locking the double gates on the stairway to try and get away from them for a while."

The people behind Libertymaniacs hope to expand through the coming election cycle, perhaps even getting some items in department stores. For now, McCall has more than 360 products -- though that's sure to expand.

"People ask if I ever run out of ideas," said McCall, who routinely watches all debates, mines podcasts for bits and finds some of his best ideas strike him in the shower. "I'm like, 'No.' All I have to do is open the newspaper and someone is doing something new and stupid every day, whether it's Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan or Michele Bachmann and the corn dog she ate at the Iowa State Fair. Those things are comedy gold."

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