Like many artists before him, Shepard Fairey owes his success to a 7-foot-4 1980s pro wrestler.
“I pretty quickly realized that the image had this unique, do-it-yourself vibe mixed with [a] Rorschach test: Some people saw it as sinister, other people saw it as goofy, but it couldn’t be easily pigeonholed, so there’s a lot of latitude for interpretation,” the street artist tells SFR about his foray into viral marketing.
In what he calls “a nice happy accident,” his image of André the Giant—which he plastered on overpasses and stop signs far and wide—would later become the stylized OBEY icon.
“As a point of departure, it was really valuable,” Fairey explains, “but I think that I was very diligent about evolving it in a way that actually was more about my ideas of control, and do-it-yourself punk rock agitation, and things that really had nothing to do with wrestling culture or André the Giant.”
“To me, it means whatever your art form is—art, music, writing—that you’re not just doing something that’s for your own personal therapy, or to escape the problems of the world, but that you’re making something that can confront what’s going on in the world,” Fairey says of the lecture’s title. “That’s what’s so great about art, I think: that when people view it, if it gives them some sort of an emotional response—whether that’s soothing and positive, or confounding and a little bit irritating—it functions in a way that’s completely different from most social interaction.”
During his jaunt, he also carved out space in his tight schedule to paint a 15-by-20-foot mural on SFUAD’s grounds.
Students ooh and ahh as they see Fairey at work. Accoutrements—from Hardcore brand spray cans to X-Acto knives on their last leg and a box of hand warmers—are scattered throughout the fenced-in space.
Completed in under 24 hours, the Santa Fe mural is emblazoned with the message “Make art not war”; is flanked by two behemoth, long-handle paintbrushes; and features a cream, black and bright-red palette, as well as Fairey’s signature propagandist style. In subsequent days, he painted a facsimile in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood.“If you can’t hit somebody in the gut with the image first, they’re not gonna care what the message is,” the self-described “populist artist” says. “People always ask me, ‘Would you consider yourself an activist first or an artist first?’ Always artist first, because I start with the picture. There are times when I do activist things—you know, go to rallies or make donations—that don’t have anything to do with a specific picture, but usually they do. Usually, it’s all part of my art process.”
Taking a breather from the mural, Fairey sits inside a conference room, where, between sips of Diet Coke, he reflects on the businessman-versus-artist dichotomy.
“I hate dealing with business,” he confesses. “I have only gotten good enough at it to just make sure that I could succeed to the level of being able to facilitate the things that really matter to me.”
Things, he says, like making stickers and painting murals that, while not “money-makers,” fulfill him creatively.
Stamping his mark on everything from Lance Armstrong’s “Tour of California” team bicycles to his biggest coup, 2008’s litigious Barack Obama “Hope” poster, Fairey has come a long way from his struggling artist days at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“A lot of times, I would have to make choices: I can either pay my rent and my electricity, or I can go on this trip to go put posters up in some city, but I can’t do both,” he reminisces, though he’ll be the first to deny any nostalgia for that period of his life.
“I don’t need to romanticize it. It’s miserable, it’s brutal and it’s not about not having certain comforts,” he says. “The stress of thinking that your dream is gonna evaporate at any moment, because you’re gonna have to get a square job, and that stress of, like, giving up on the thing that gave meaning to my life—I’d never want to go back to that. I don’t miss it at all.”
Of course, not everyone is a fan. After hitting the mainstream, Fairey became an easy target for those who consider him a sellout. Last summer, after completing a mural in Copenhagen, Fairey suffered a black eye and a bruised rib, and his work was tagged with the message, “Go home Yankee hipster.”
“I’m used to my work being defaced,” he muses. “It’s funny, because it used to be only defaced by property owners or the authorities. Now, it’s being defaced by my peers because I’m seen as too successful, so I have to be torn down because I’m not counter-culture enough anymore.”
He considers it “really ironic” that he now gets it from both ends.
“Doing street art for me was never about being precious; it was about the idea of doing something that was visible to the public—that they didn’t have to go to a gallery or a museum to see—and really saying through the presentation of the piece that, if you have the will to make it, if it lasts five days or five years, people are gonna see it,” he says.
“Part of that spirit of defiance and generosity that goes with it is imbued in the work, and hopefully, it’s maybe inspiring to at least some people, even if it’s ireing to others.”
Shepard’s musings on his creative process
“Well, I…it works a couple different ways: I like to surround myself with things I’m inspired by—whether it’s art books or album packages or, you know, regular old books—and then I try to keep up on current events. So sometimes, seeing something happening in the news or something on the Internet will inspire me, and then I’ll try to figure out how I’m gonna find references; sometimes I photograph my wife [or] I find old imagery from books or magazines to illustrate.
Other times I’ll have an idea that’s stimulated by an image I see that will tie into something going on…something that I want to address and I’ll set about trying to make/build something. I juggle to a lot of different creative projects, and the cool thing is that, when I’m working on, say, an album page for Led Zeppelin or Bad Brains or something, it might actually trigger an idea that I’ve used somewhere else in my practice for Obey, or vice versa.”
On his enfant terrible days at RISD
“I’ve been arrested 16 times, and…you know, I like being mischievous. I mean there’s something about when you’re being mischievous, to me it’s just one facet of saying, ‘I won’t just fall in line. You see it your way, I see it my way,’ you know? You might have the authority, but I’ve got the courage. I still feel that way, but I’m on probation right now, so I have to be more careful, but for me to quote Joe Strummer, ‘Authority has no inherent wisdom.’ Authority is designed to protect someone’s interests, not necessarily the public’s, but I also am not a rebel just to be a rebel.”
On what he'd tell a younger him
“Don’t get hung up on a particular conception of ‘how to make it as an artist,’ because there’s a lot of different ways to make it as an artist and I spent about four years working at this screen printer, thinking that I was gonna create my own version of Warhol’s Factory, and it failed. I probably should have acknowledged that after about a year or two—and I would have lifted myself out of absolute destitute poverty maybe a little sooner if I had been willing to come to terms with that—but on the other hand, I think my stubbornness has served me well in a lot of other instances. Knowing when to be and when not to be stubborn maybe, is what I wish I could tell myself, like, keep that in mind.”
On other artists defacing his work
“Sometimes it’s frustrating, because what I think to myself is, ‘I’m on your side.’ Graffiti is a contentious competitive sub-culture, so I know there’s always a bit of that, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta shake the gorilla out of the top of the tree or whatever and take his place,’ and that’s very—even you could say that putting stickers everywhere is like peeing on fire hydrants, but there’s a sort of primitive territorial aspect to it. If there’s anybody that’s making their life more difficult, it’s the people from Wall Street, or the politicians that don’t listen to them, and pander to big business, etc. and yet they’re wasting their time messin’ with me? I’ve just realized, you know over these years that micro squabbles about micro differences within the subculture I hold sacred are far less important than squabbles about bigger systemic problems.”
On his definition of “fair use”
“It’s very easy. I believe in copyright—but I believe it in the sense of, if you make a verbatim copy of what someone else is doing, just to usurp that value— that’s copyright infringement. If you make something that uses some of something preexisting as raw material, but you do it in a transformative way that creates new meaning, new value, even if you can clearly see the lineage, that’s fair use. Warhol’s Marilyn: fair use; Warhol’s soup can: fair use. I might think that some of it’s lazy and I might not like it, but I think most of what Jeff Koons does is fair use. I think that Jeff Koons should have won the string of puppies lawsuit because, the person who’s gonna buy the kitsch postcard of the puppies, is not gonna but the sculpture that Jeff Koons made.
Fair use has been interpreted by a lot of people that aren’t sophisticated in terms of visual culture to side with, you know, the economic interests, frequently when it comes to things like my lawsuit with the AP. You know, we settled, I didn’t lose the lawsuit, but I could see that the judge, when the AP said, ‘News gathering and capitalism as we know it will crumble if someone’s allowed to make an illustration from a news photo without paying for it,’ you could see that the judge was very concerned with the idea of news gathering and capitalism crumbling;
But on the other hand, a lot of people don’t seem to understand that the entire evolution of culture has been based on building upon what came before, and not just visual culture, but language, architecture, government structure, everything. I do think that people shouldn’t just take something because they’re unwilling to create something new, but I do think that there are a lot of times when something pre existing is not only important to the concept, it’s essential to the concept.