Armed with an armful of posters, a bucket of glue and more messages than an “I Hate George Bush” voicemail box, Shepard Fairey’s creative guns are blaring. Loud and proud, he’s literally sticking it to the world by launching assaults on capitalist creeps, corruption at our nation’s capitol and giving a capital SCREW YOU to bigots of all kinds. His artistic aim is targeted at those unable to find their ass with both hands in the dark.
From OBEY to OBAMA, Shepard Fairey was born OUTSPOKEN. This punk rock listening, skateboard riding, homemade sticker pasting, unclassifiable artist has ridden to the top of the counterculture elevator, which ironically remains on the ground floor. His red, white and black PROPAGANDA posters are made to stand out amid urban clutter. To Fairey’s followers, his products breed content; to his haters they evoke contempt. The two letters that separate the emotions are beyond EXPLOSIVE. Cops call him a criminal, critics say he’s a copier and cynics think he’s a Communist, but millions of his images have stretched all seven seas to adorn buildings, lampposts and the jean pockets of many good people everywhere.
Raised in South Carolina, the son of a head cheerleader and football team captain, Fairey quickly learned his apple had rolled downhill, far away from its tree, on a cart with greased wheels and the wind at its back. In high school he got into the punk rock and skateboarding scenes. MINDLESS SHEEP get shaved quickly in those cultures, so Shepard’s suspicious nature was nurtured. He began wearing black t-shirts promoting his favorite band The Clash, and credits lead singer Joe Strummer with teaching him that you can be COOL and socially CONSCIOUS at the same time.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS THINKS IT’S COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT, AND THEY’RE REALLY GOING AFTER ME. IT WOULD BANKRUPT ME ENTIRELY IF THEY WON, SO I’M HOPING, FOR THE SAKE OF CREATIVE EXPRESSION AND POLITICAL SPEECH, THAT THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN.—SHEPARD FAIREY
Fairey took that philosophy to the Rhode Island School of Design where he chose INNOVATION over PRESTIGE. He was a student at RISD twenty years ago when he created his now famous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” campaign, and has been manufacturing quality dissent ever since. His black and white sketch of the 7′4″, 520 pound wrestler’s face has become as iconic as Mona Lisa’s smile. Initially, Fairey did most of the tagging himself, pimping out his paper and vinyl stickers and hand-silkscreened posters to naked public property in the Northeast. The image had no obvious meaning or advertisement. It annoyed some viewers, amused others and many even wanted to own it. Fairey called it “an experiment in PHENOMENOLOGY.” He later added the word OBEY to his art, borrowing it from the cult classic “They Live” – a film starring another wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. OBEY quickly turned into an international fad, and the moniker became Shepard Fairey’s calling card.
OBEY GIANT doesn’t seek reverence; it exists to provoke thought about the system we live in… not to flush it down the toilet. “What I’ve found is that people follow the path of least resistance,” Fairey concludes. “But if they are confronted with the idea of having to choose between obeying and disobeying, then maybe they’ll pause and have an inner dialogue and maybe do things the way they think they should be done, rather than the way they’re being told to do them.” Whether it’s graphic design, fine art or his signature clothing line, every Fairey production makes a stimulating statement and is intended to go viral. Many rules of contemporary art get broken along the way, yet work that was covertly attached to train trestles and billboards can now be found proudly hanging in galleries and museums. The FAME that has come along with his crossover success has certainly caught up to Shepard Fairey. His own face is now as recognizable as the ubiquitous likeness of the wrestler he immortalized, which is not a good thing when a majority of what he does is against the law.
The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston hosted a 20 year retrospective of Fairey’s art on February 6, 2009 (quite impressive considering it came just nine days before his 39th birthday). Thousands showed up for opening night, including Fairey wearing an OBEY sweatshirt and carrying a stack of stickers. He was supposed to deejay the event, but didn’t even make it through the front door. Instead, PISSED OFF police were waiting outside with an unwelcome present – handcuffs. Even though he shared smiles with Boston’s mayor earlier in the week, Fairey was hauled off to jail and charged with the vandalism of buildings that he’d tagged much earlier in his career. Apparently the admission to a history of graffiti in the Boston area during the media blitz promoting the ICA show didn’t sit well with law enforcement. It was Fairey’s 15th and most sensational arrest. He’s fought the law before and vows that CENSORSHIP will never win.
“I’ve always gotten a rush from the idea that I’m doing something that you’re not supposed to do,” Fairey says. “I’m communicating with people when usually the corporations and government have all these forms of communication locked down. I still enjoy inspiring people to think they can express themselves any way they want. It’s so fulfilling knowing that anything I put up on the street is going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Also because it’s illegal, I’m saying that I believe enough in what I’m doing to take a risk of getting arrested. The older I get, the more legal outs I have, but I still think it’s just as important to work both inside and outside the system. It’s not like I’ve been absorbed or co-opted, I will forever have the ability to say what I want on the street.”
It’s influence that drives Shepard Fairey, much more than the projection of his image. His music posters praise revolutionaries and inspire people to LISTEN! Instead of promoting pretty sunsets, Fairey demands that we WAKE-UP to climate change. His message about Iraq: “Next time there’s a war for sale, it’s alright to say, ‘No thank you!’” Attacking politics as usual is usually what Fairey does, but in 2008, he saw HOPE on the horizon and created what became an iconic piece of art that had as much meat in the presidential election as a heaping pot of Oprah Winfrey’s chat stew.
One of the reasons “YES WE CAN” turned into “YES WE DID” elect our nation’s first African American president was Fairey’s Obama poster series. The red, white and blue images appeared on countless home windows, computer screens, billboards and street signs across the country. They became portraits of CHANGE, symbols of HOPE and PROGRESS reports on America’s dying prejudices. Voters associated the posters, and more importantly, Obama’s message, with strength, courage and leadership. In the end, Barack Obama, “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant,” stood before 1.8 million people on a frigid January afternoon and took our country’s most sacred oath.
Far less significant, but stunning in its own right, is the ride that street art took during the election. An often overlooked and marginalized subset of creative minds suddenly became RELEVANT and INFLUENTIAL to our mainstream culture. Fairey was already an urban LEGEND. He had been creating anti-Bush posters for years, and was no stranger to political art. But this election was different. Instead of REBELLING against government, he helped lead a REVOLUTION that believed in its potential. By definition Fairey’s Obama images were still propaganda, but because the thinking behind them was spun 180 degrees, they launched him and his genre into the artistic stratosphere. Fairey’s art made the front page of the New York Times,Esquire put one of his Obama images on its cover and Time commissioned its own version for the magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue. Fairey made GQ’s “2008 Men of the Year” list along with Obama, Michael Phelps, Sean Penn, the Boston Celtics and others. Then, the true indicator of Fairey’s success – a booking on “The Colbert Report.”
For as entertaining as his appearance on Comedy Central was, the connection between Obama and Fairey is even more amusing. That’s because Shepard’s rap sheet is nearly as many pages as the president’s economic stimulus package. While their methods may be different, the common bond that links the artist and politician is community ACTIVISM. Obama rallied for laid off factory workers in Chicago’s South Side and helped Bill Clinton carry Illinois in 1992 by registering 150,000 new voters. Fairey has donated his work, time and money to gay rights, animal adoption and energy efficiency causes, and his poster campaign, complete with video postcards, bumper stickers, t-shirts and other merchandise is credited with helping Obama reach The White House.
The union between mug shot man and poster boy was unlike any we’ve seen in the history of presidential politics. Fairey created the original OBAMA HOPE image shortly after Obama won the Iowa Caucus, but initially wasn’t sure the campaign would want his artistic endorsement. He didn’t really care either. His only goal was to support a candidate he believed in and produce a piece of art that would encourage others to go see for themselves. The portrait was as cool as it was captivating, equally fit for a college dorm room and a political rally. Fairey stuck poster versions all over Los Angeles and set-up links to his Obama art on-line. Supporters attached the free downloads to their e-mail headers and screen savers, even making it their Facebook image. The PHENOMENON had begun. “Once someone is inspired by a piece of art, whether they would have been predisposed to support a candidate or not, they’re going to try to validate that inspiration by looking further into the candidate,” Fairey says. “It’s those things that art can do that are intangible and intellectual that allow it to function differently than a slogan, logo or text on a website about policy positions. Once that art is out there and is functioning as a symbol, people want to share it, and it becomes more and more pervasive. It just builds momentum exponentially.”
News sites and bloggers started giving the underground movement coverage, and as the hoopla grew, Obama staffers tracked Fairey down and asked him to do an endorsed version of his illustration. He agreed, and together they launched an unprecedented GUERRILLA marketing campaign. All the merchandising profits went towards getting out the vote, as Fairey’s self-funded grassroots effort alone produced one million stickers and posters. “Mainstream politics has been very safe,” Fairey says. “To go into art, where it can be perceived as image manipulation slash propaganda, is something a lot of more fearful candidates wouldn’t have been in to. But I think Obama understood that it was really an important way to reach youth.” By all accounts, Obama ran a 21st century campaign bringing out new and young voters in droves. The modern efforts paid off at the ballot box. Two weeks after winning 13 states on Super Tuesday, Obama wrote this letter to Shepard Fairey: “I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can help change the status-quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I am privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support. I wish you continued success and creativity.”
Sadly, the nice note did not come with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. In late August, Obama was getting ready to accept his party’s official nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Fairey used the occasion to spruce up downtown by wheat-pasting a few posters to the sides of buildings. It was midnight when cops in full riot gear strolled down an alleyway near 16th and Sherman. Fairey, along with a group of documentary filmmakers, tried to make a run for it, but were quickly surrounded. Police tackled, zip-tied, arrested and charged them with “INTERFERENCE” and “posting unauthorized posters.” It was Fairey’s 14th trip to jail. He passed the time by hanging out with largely Republican anarchists, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and playing paper football. After sixteen hours in the slammer, $171 in court fees and fines and a sentence of six months probation, Shepard was released in time to watch Obama’s historic speech at Invesco Field.
ON THE STREET, PEOPLE AREN’T BASHFUL. THEY WILL SAY IF THEY LIKE SOMETHING OR IF THEY THINK IT SUCKS.—SHEPARD FAIREY
The Obama express went on to roll to a victory in November, and Fairey had a front row seat to the swearing-in of our 44th president. Fairey designed the official inaugural poster expanding on his original portrait by adding an image of The White House, throngs of adoring fans and the message: “BE THE CHANGE.” The new artwork was printed on posters, buttons, lapel pins, t-shirts and stickers and could be seen in virtually every cutaway shot during TV coverage of the event. All the money raised from those sales went to help pay for the inaugural celebrations. In addition, Fairey did the graphics for the Youth Ball, and his work was part of an exhibition called Manifest Hope at the DC Gallery honoring the role art played in Obama’s election. To top it all off, the National Portrait Gallery acquired Fairey’s original mixed-media collage OBAMA HOPE for its permanent collection. Fame yes, but fortune no. While Shepard Fairey became a household name in 2008, he refused to pad his pockets with a single penny from the Obama image. “My reward is that America has a new president,” he says. “There’s a sincerity that you see in Obama that comes across when he speaks that can be translated into an illustration. Very few candidates have that quality. So what the iconic image I created hopefully achieved was an immediate association with Obama the real human being, and clearly that’s a good association that seemed to work.”
The Obama image did come with its share of CONTROVERSY. Fairey’s bashers claim that he stole and then repurposed other artist’s work and ideas for his own gain – a stigma that has dogged him over the years. Months after the election and long after the OBAMA HOPE image became a lasting cultural icon, the Associated Press threatened to sue Fairey seeking credit and compensation. Fairey freely admits his portrait was based on a photograph taken by the AP’s Manny Garcia, but argues that his version’s authenticity is protected under “fair use” law. Rather than get bullied by the media giant, Fairey sued it. He’s asking a judge to rule that he did not infringe on a copyright because the nature and meaning of the photograph were dramatically changed. A landmark legal battle is now pending. Fairey also acknowledges that to create the Obama portrait he borrowed from themes Emory Douglas explored in The Black Panther Newspaper during the civil right’s struggles of the 1960’s. Some cite it as another example of thievery; others call it a clear indicator that Fairey supports domestic terrorism. He thinks the criticism is crazy citing a newfound appropriateness to the REVOLUTIONARY power of the Black Panther art and the relevant symbolism of the group’s “do it yourself” mentality.
In plain English, Shepard Fairey was simply doing what he does. The main objectives of his art are to be visually arresting, have a point of view and be seen. The Obama image did all three. Fairey’s work has always been like a Lil Wayne mix tape – a series of reconfigured samples that make STRONG statements. They are designed to trigger a response from the masses. Whether it’s a call to action or a wakeup call, the idea is to get as many people as possible to ANSWER. Rules and regulations are roadblocks that Fairey often avoids. He shoves art’s limitations aside like John Baldessari who told ARTWORKS in Winter 2007, “There are plenty of images out there; why make my own when finding what I want to say is already out there?” While Baldessari has far less legal headaches than Fairey, both artists are in the business of recycled imagery. They take pictures apart and put them back together to create brand new storylines, and in each case, the public has found them interesting. However, commercial success and street art have never been bed buddies. So as Fairey’s popularity grows, his number of enemies does, too.
In 2007, twenty of the twenty-two public art pieces Fairey had done in New York City had been defaced. The vandal squad who covered his art with splotches of house paint was dubbed “The Splasher.” The group of jealous wannabes attached manifestos to its taggings claiming Fairey and his successful peers Swoon, Faile and others were contributing to the GENTRIFICATION of New York neighborhoods. After months of splashings, they came to an end when James Cooper and Zach Dempster were arrested after trying to light a stink bomb at a Fairey gallery opening in Brooklyn. “The HATERS, DETRACTERS and SMALL-MINDED people who tell you what you’re doing can’t make a difference do it because they want to justify their own APATHY. So what they’re really saying is, ‘I don’t want to have to try to make a difference.’ Without all that I wouldn’t have anything to push back against, and the pushback is very motivating for me. So I would say to all those people, ‘You don’t make my life easier, but you make the successes all that much more rewarding.’”
Two decades after it began, OBEY GIANT has become an industry JUGGERNAUT. His art transitioned from a fun anecdote about our culture to a vehicle for legitimate social change. “I’m not a hater, just for the sake of being a hater,” Fairey explains. “My work exists to inspire people to think for themselves. I came from a $4 an hour skate shop job making paper Xerox stickers to having a gallery, a studio, a clothing line and making the official inaugural poster for a president. It may sound like a really crazy journey, but at the same time, my tenacity and my steady persistence and evolution of a lot of very basic ideas – shows what you can do if you have the drive and patience.” Fairey’s work will continue to hold those that abuse power accountable, give a voice to the unheard and, most importantly, demand that we QUESTION EVERYTHING. His method and means will not change; only intensify. He has no choice but to OBEY his calling, and that’s the reason Barack Obama may just want to give Shepard Fairey that pardon now.