June 16, 2007

By Cody Goodfellow

Create enigmas, not explanations.
-Robert Smithson

To effect the quality of the day is no small achievement.
-fortune cookie

He watches from STOP signs and lamp posts, the backs of bus benches, the ceilings of public restrooms. The monolithic gargoyle-image of obey giant is an omnipresent feature on the underbelly of San Diego, an almost microscopic message from an imaginary underground. While sticker-bombing as guerilla PR and youth pranksterism is nothing new, the Andre campaign takes it to new heights. The Giant project isn’t a sales pitch, it’s an experiment in phenomenology, prodding the collective psyche with something inexplicable, creating an illusion of a secret society like the Church Of The Subgenius or the Tristero conclave in Pynchon’s Crying Of Lot 49. Virtually invisible at first, once you see one, they’re everywhere. Many have probed to the heart of the Giant enigma to find its creator; some have even waged counter-campaigns to “out” him and dispel the mystery. But Giant floats free of even the creator’s rationalizations; even knowing his name and his face doesn’t destroy the self-perpetuating mystery at the core of what he’s created and sown across San Diego- and, through an army of volunteers, the rest of North America. I think it was only for this reason that he agreed to meet with me.

Shepard Fairey sits at his computer console in his office at Black Market, a design firm which he founded along with Dave Kinsey in 1997. Black Market doesn’t need to slap stickers all over town to attract business; having done CD artwork for the likes of DJ Spooky and the Specials, and with clients ranging from BC Ethic to Mountain Dew, Black Market is more concerned with keeping tabs on their imitators than with lack of exposure. The signature Black Market style introduces the razor-sharp visual dynamic of totalitarian propaganda to psychedelic rock graphics and street grafitti, and corporate America has begun to catch on. Airwalk and Urban Outfitters have grabbed at Fairey’s vision, and come away with empty, vapid ads, totally missing the sardonic wit that keeps Black Market an independent contractor instead of a sell-out.

Fairey looks like the grown-up skater that he is, but his toothbrush and deodorant sit beside his keyboard, and it’s been a long time since he’s been outside, let alone skating. If you saw him on the street, you wouldn’t take him for the kind of person who would use the image of a latterday sideshow freak to wage a shadowy propaganda war. Not unless you happened to notice his hands, furtively shuffling stickers, or his tendency to brush against any public property in his path, and so leave the mark of the Giant. Staring fixedly into a murky photograph of surf-punk old masters Agent Orange, he whittles with deft gestures of his mouse and slowly chisels each face out of the shadows. The image will be digitally prepped, but manually traced onto a rubylith sheet to make a stencil- a mix of old and new school design tactics that makes the ad look like a grafitti artist’s impromptu masterpiece.

Black Market puts food on Fairey’s table, but his passion is the Giant Project, which is waged solely for the pure pleasure of fucking with your head. While studying illustration at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), Fairey came across the Andre image in a newspaper, and so began a decade-long quest to make Andre’s Posse into the Freemasons of the 21st century. “I was running this skateboard shop at the time, and all the cool skate kids would hang out there. I enjoyed it because I was kind of the leader because I ran the shop, but I thought a lot of the posturing, like the appropriation of black hip-hop lingo, which was just coming into vogue at the time -seemed really affected. But I did it too, I thought it was funny.

“So this obey giant Posse thing was like the inside joke, skate crew thing, making fun of what it’s condemning, making fun of having a crew, but being one, making fun of the language. Wrestling was the most uncool thing to uberhip skaters, but to associate yourself with it was funny, it was a paradox. I made the stickers, and decided to stick them around almost as an annoyance, a thorn in the side of the people I hung out with. I’d go to a party, and stick one in the medicine cabinet.”

Fairey’s inside joke leaked out to the public at large and spread like an epidemic, as reactions and rumors revealed more about human nature than about the subject. “I would overhear it from all these different places, and I felt this power: ‘I’m the anonymous puppet-master, here. I can’t believe they’re getting so uptight or ecstatic about it, that it’s creating such a reaction from such a variety of people.’ Some embraced Andre to jump on the bandwagon, while others reviled him, and still others claimed insider status, spinning elaborate lies about underground bands and secret handshakes. “So it was just a fortunate accident from the start, but I have to take credit for noticing what was going on, and deciding to exploit it.” Fairey discovered a secret that has been closely guarded by every religious, political and mercantile authority from the Catholic Church to Coca Cola: mind control is easy and fun, not to mention profitable.

With the Andre stickers, Fairey had created what behavioral scientists call a meme, a basic unit of belief that spreads from person to person like a virus. A meme can be anything from celebrity gossip to a fad diet to a religious faith, anything that captures the imagination and drives you to tell others about it. Fairey’s meme only needed a little spreading before the Andre hot zone spread across the nation. “I told a friend, ‘I’ve been getting such a kick out of putting these Andre stickers up, you should try it.’ It happened so fast in Providence, and he lived in Athens, Georgia, it’ll happen just as fast there. It’s a college town, everybody knows each other, things pass by word of mouth very quickly. So, sure enough, same thing. All of a sudden, there’s a punk rock zine with Andre printed on the corner of every page, for no reason, some person just put it in there. And my friend came to stay with me for a summer, and we would drive to New York and Boston, and put stickers up.”

Back in Providence, the Giant Project entered a new phase, as Andre’s Gallic good looks continued to bloom like the advancing symptoms of some undiagnosable disease. [REPLACE THIS WHOLE PARAGRAPH WITH PICTURE OF BILLBOARD, IF SHEPARD’S GOT ONE.] “I had this project for school where I had to illustrate a fortune cookie insert, and my message said, ‘To effect the quality of the day is no small achievement.’ It could be anything. Then I see this billboard for this guy, Buddy Cianci, running for mayor, right at the bottom of the hill by the school, and he’s standing there waving, and it says, Cianci: He Never Stopped Caring About Providence,’ and I found out that the reason he never stopped caring was that he had been mayor before I moved there, he was kicked out of office for beating up his ex-wife’s lover, and the cops had to hold him down. So I thought it was hillarious, and I had to do something to that billboard. I made this eight-foot Andre head, and stuck it over him, and I thought, ‘this’ll be fun, I’ll get to do this prank, and I’ll just document it, and turn it in for my illustration project.’ And it would make people who’d never noticed the small stickers, go, ‘what is this thing?’ It was on the radio, the news, the newspapers, everywhere. It took me five minutes to measure the thing, and two hours to make it at Kinko’s and assemble it, and fifteen minutes to execute it, with two friends helping. It was so easy, and the whole town was going nuts about it. I thought that it wasn’t that I was so motivated, it was that everyone else was so lazy, and I was going to take advantage of that.”

So there’s no Posse. But Fairey’s plan isn’t just a joke on the public. “I enjoyed the nonsensical, Dadaist side of it, but there was a deeper concept, too, which was, don’t just sit there and let people who have some sort of political or financial agenda set things up the way they want them, because if you want to throw a wrench in their spokes, it’s really easy.” No idealism lies behind the choice of Andre, however. “People have asked me, ‘Why can’t you do your project with something that’s more aesthetically pleasing? He’s so ugly,’ Your whining about how ugly it is tells me why I should keep using it.”

Fairey moved from street-level T-shirt and sticker designer to entrepreneur in only a few years, selling designs to a skatewear company in Providence and opening his own screen-printing business as an undergraduate in 1990. Though he was schooled in illustration, he picked up design skills cleaning up customer art. “As I became known for Giant, people asked me to do design stuff, but I didn’t even know how to use a computer, I did everything by hand with a copier and my drawing.” In ’96, Fairey sold his screen business and moved to California, at first to sell Giant T-shirts, then to found Black Market In San Diego. “The whole Giant project has been what’s propelled me into the limelight, and enabled me to get some bigger clients, because of the notoriety of the thing. There’s a million designers out there who’re competent and can use a computer, but I guess this gimmicky project is what’s gotten people’s attention. I’m not saying I don’t back it up with really good work, but it was my foot in the door.”

The Giant project is a fanatic’s mission, but Fairey is pragmatic about keeping it afloat. Propaganda and advertising are two sides of the same coin, but the latter flirts with accusations of selling out. Advertising firms and big corporations continue to plow counter-culture sources to market their products, so Fairey plays along, hoping to bring a subversive edge to glossy magazines and movie posters. “Sometimes I don’t like to do things for money,” he explains. “If I don’t like a company, I won’t want to do stuff for them in my style, but there are enough companies that I think are doing cool stuff, and I think it’s great that I’ll get stuff out there that’s recognizably in my style, and support myself as an artist. I want to maintain my integrity, but I also want to work on my own art, and doing these other things is going to insure that I’ll be able to.” He cites the designer of the Federal Express logo, who got $300,000 for a few days’ work. Whether his personal projects are as bizarre and quixotic as Fairey’s is a dubious prospect, but the artist doesn’t wear dual masks. The creative sense that drives Giant is apparent in Black Market’s commercial projects- it’s just a needle instead of a monkey wrench. “I hope that Black Market can reach the point where we can do cool things like that- movie titles, and album covers, things that people see. There’s alot of bad graphic design out there, and there’s always going to be products, somebody’s got to do the packaging for it. If it pays well, and isn’t something that I have a problem with, then I don’t see a reason not to do it.”

Crossing the barriers between street, commercial and fine art, Fairey has fulfilled his fantasy of infecting popular culture with the Giant meme: his poster prints hang in alleys and galleries across America, and keen-eyed movie geeks may spot Andre’s mug peering out of the urban clutter of 8 mm and Batman & Robin, among others. Along the way, Fairey has faced Andre off against mainstream American icons like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Armstrong to rehabilitate his trailer-trash image into a universal symbol for ironic anti-elitism. (ILLUSTRATION: MAXIMUM ROCK & ROLL “BIG/GIANT” AD) “It was fairly benevolent, but still people were saying, ‘It’s a cult! It’s bad!’ And so I decided, ‘if they want bad, I’ll give them bad.’ What you resist, persists.” Cranking up the irony, Andre turned to the dialectics of tyranny. “That’s when I started using ‘OBEY,’ and all the Communist-inspired stuff.” Some of Fairey’s celebrity choices underline the importance of revolutionary imagery over ideology, as images are tweaked to play tricks on the eye: the poster of Anton LaVey is really Max Von Sydow as Ming The Merciless, and his Che Guevara is a model from a hairstyling magazine. (ILLUSTRATIONS: MING AND/OR CHE POSTERS)

What Fairey hoped to get across was that Giant uses the same propaganda techniques that try to sell you cigarettes, movies and presidents. “The whole ‘OBEY’ thing was like reverse psychology. It’s a mockery, but a lot of people have a strong reaction to it. But I’d rather have a strong negative reaction that none at all.” In the most literal sense of Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted maxim that “the medium is the message,” Giant is a joke only on those who look for the message in the content. “Once you examine it, there’s nothing left but the aesthetics of a process. If people realize, ‘I was manipulated by that,’ then maybe, like the domino effect, they’ll say, ‘What else am I being manipulated by, that I’m not questioning?'”

“I don’t want to be didactic,” Fairey goes on, “and say, ‘Question Authority,’ or ‘Stop Racism.’ You just get a pat on the back from the people who agree with you already, and the people who don’t agree with you don’t even think about it. So for me it’s just about creating an individual dialogue process that can expand into people trying to interpret it, and asking someone else, and then there’s two people talking about it. Something just going on that people can’t pigeonhole along with everything else.”

This isn’t the first time Fairey’s tried to explain Giant. He answers the e-mail from the website- which gets upwards of forty thousand hits a week -himself, and has issued a manifesto, which describes Giant as “an experiment in Phenomenology,” or “‘the process of letting things manifest themselves.'” Fairey wants people to puzzle over his monster and fear it a little, but has an artist’s need to be understood. “The funny thing is, alot of the college-educated people, especially at Brown and Harvard, places like that, they’re the ones who want proof, they want you to empirically break down what it is, what it’s doing, and why. So I wrote the explanation for those intellectual Doubting Thomases, who’ve got to stick their finger in the hole. I’ve had two or three people say, ‘you don’t need this, this is an intuitive project. It’s like beating a dead horse.’ And that’s how I feel, but there’re people who need that, who feel uncomfortable interpreting something until they think they know what it is. And if that makes them feel like they’re in on it, then they’ll participate after that, then the gains will outweigh losing some of the mystery. But I think that people do come in contact with it before the mystery’s unraveled, so there’s a period where it works.” Fairey avoids discouraging any of the wild interpretations of Giant that he gets, letting the myth grow and sending out stickers to those willing to spread the germ. “It’s got a life of its own,” Fairey says with some pride. “There’ve been forty or so bootleg stickers made, some just repeats of the Andre sticker, and others spoofs or derivations of it.” The warring posses of Herve Villechaize, Great Cthulhu and the Governor of Minnesota add to the visual noise of every streetcorner, but obey giant still reigns at the top of the bootleg iconography foodchain.

We’ll never know if the late obey giant ever knew of his second life as Fairey’s muse, but Fairey has had several brushes with others who traffic in the freakish athlete’s image. Andre’s illegitimate daughter and her mother approached Fairey to try to extort a slice of the Giant phenomenon, but a video documentary of his shoestring operation sent them packing.

The WWF also tapped him, and forced him to change the name of his website from andrethe “All these wrestling fans were hitting it, and I would get these letters saying, “I can’t believe you’re desecrating the greatest athlete of our time! This is blasphemous! I hope you rot in Hell!’ I think one of them turned me in. So they contacted me, and asked me how much I made by selling the posters and the T-shirts. I sent them an accurate sales report, it was $5,000 for the whole year, and they went, ‘this isn’t worth shit.’ They said I couldn’t use the obey giant name anymore, and if it ever got bigger, I’d have to sign a licensing deal with the WWF to use the name. I just changed the name to Those are the only copyright runins I’ve had.” People have asked me, ‘Why can’t you do your project with something that’s more aesthetically pleasing? He’s so ugly,’ and I’ll go, ‘Yeah, and your whining about how ugly it is tells me why I should keep using it.’

Delving into the Giant style brings out the aesthetic theorist in Fairey. When I ask him about the mix of propagandistic and counter-culture styles in his graphics, the talk goes academic. “The only difference I see between them is the cultures that they’re coming out of. I promote the design firm using icons that have strong resonance with the companies and their target market audience, but using the propaganda style, because it’s really powerful- the simplicity of the colors, the integration of image and typography. It’s always getting your attention and communicating the most in the shortest amount of time.” But there is a strong streak of intellectual hooliganism in Fairey. He relishes the power to distort images and influence minds. “With the Giant stuff, it’s the straight propaganda style. That’s because I’m not selling something, and I want it to be more sinister. Russian Constructivism hasn’t been used alot, even though it’s some of the best design in history, because there’s a political association with it that it’s unAmerican. I’m utilizing the power of symbols to desensitize people to these loaded things like Communism, and the Red Star. ‘Why’re you getting so worked up about this stuff?’ But in order to do that, you have to get them worked up in the first place.”


One of Fairey’s favorite stories shows the Giant effect and Fairey’s pleasure principle to vivid effect. “I made an Andre image that was a morph of Che Guevara’s and Andre’s faces. If you look at it closely, it’s totally Andre’s features, just with the sparkle in the eye and the mustache of Che, and the red background, and the beret. Everybody’s so used to seeing that picture of Che with the beret and the mustache.But it’s totally Andre, not Che.

“I had that painting in the IP Gallery on Broadway, and the show was up for a month and a half. It was right in the front window. About a year later, I’d bought a house, and I had to change the water bill over, and the building was across the street from the IP Gallery. And I was wearing a shirt that was just Andre’s face cropped with ‘OBEY’ underneath. It’s not the Che Guevara shirt, not one iota of Che in it. And there’s this Hispanic guy behind the counter, and he looks at me when I walk up, and he goes, ‘Ah, you are a fan of Che Guevara!’ It took me a second, but I realized that the portion of the Che-Andre painting that he remembered was the Andre features, so when he saw that, he remembered Andre’s features as Che’s features from walking by the gallery to work. So I’d changed his recollection of what Che looked like through the symbols. I almost came. I was so excited by this beautiful manifestation of all my theories.”

The Andre project has kept people guessing and reacting and questioning their environment, but some have taken issue with the medium itself. It is these people whom Fairey most wants to reach, as he issues his sternest rant yet. “People sometimes go, ‘He’s just like a grafiti-tagger, he’s just a vandal,’ but they don’t even think about the fact that every side of a bus has a poster on it. That’s public property, and they can shove their thing in your face, but you as a taxpayer can’t put up your thing on an electrical box, which is also public property? You wait at the bus stop, and there’s a big mounted poster in there that someone’s paying for, and that money’s going to the city, and do I have any say in where that money’s going? It’s probably going for more parking meters, so I’ll have to pay more to park somewhere.” If Giant is really about anything, it’s about awareness of environment, and about not letting others control it. It demands the right to use the public forum to shout out messages, whether or not they advertise something, and it calls into question a basic freedom which has silently slipped away, as people who post bills for garage sales and lost dogs are ticketed for vandalism, while ads continue to creep into the secret places where we think and dream. “It’s gotta be all or nothing,” Fairey declares. “Either I can put my stuff up, and they can put their stuff up, or neither of us can. Billboards are debatable, the stilts are on private property, but it rises up above the horizon, and it’s not behind a curtain, with a sign saying, ‘line up here to see a great ad.’ You can’t avoid it. The whole idea of people not questioning that, and vigilantes with celphones calling the cops on me, and driving by a billboard and not thinking about it. It’s this programming, this life on autopilot, that I’m trying to get people away from.”