Boston’s Weekly Dig

September 20, 2000

Vol. 2 Iss. 34 Sept. 13 – Sept. 20, 2000
Shepard Fairey brings his Dada juggernaut to Newbury Street By Anne Weeks

He is an artist who does not sign some of his work. “I don’t want people to think of art through the ego of the artist,” states graphic underground proliferator and consumptive culture dialogue-ist Shepard Fairey.

You may be familiar with Fairey through the ubiquitous street sticker of obey giant indicating that Andre has a posse or proposing the directive to “OBEY.” The image was first created in 1989 by accident as Fairey was showing a friend how to create stenciled graphics. The example he made his friend work from was an advertisement for professional wrestling. “It all started with a copier and a ball point pen and a stencil,” states Fairey with a confident tone of fatalist inevitability.

On September the 16th Smash City, previously located in the Allston Mall and now housed in the newly purchased Mystery Train space on Newbury Street, will hold a solo art opening for Shepard Fairey. The space itself is a combination of music and music culture paraphernalia including the poster artwork of many local artists, t-shirts, zines and comics. The show will include primarily obey giant “propaganda” with a smattering of Fairey’s other work and will also be a bleated grand opening for the new Smash City.

Fairey’s been drawing since he was a kid. In the 8th grade he got into skate boarding and skate culture, including punk rock. His frequent cut outs and stencils depicting band logos eventually lead to art school where he focused on screen printing techniques. In a rare and industrious move for a young artist, he actually capitalized upon these skills and opened his own screen-printing business.

Since art school, Fairey has incorporated many forms of art in his creations but his mainstay seems to be the popular variations on a theme, so to speak, of obey giant on a sticker adhesive. One could argue that his phenomenal placement of the sticker on nearly every citified public surface is merely tautological irony. That is to say the needless repetition of an idea, word or statement for the sake of the unexpected — readers of Zippy the Pinhead are familiar with this idea. However, according to the feedback Fairey has gotten, everyone who sees the sticker interprets the image differently so the obey giant sticker is, in the mind of its independent viewers, not a repeated concept. Thus making a similarly universal idea or archetype about the Andre images impossible. “The mystery of it is interesting,” Fairey states. Unlike standard advertising, for which the Giant sticker parodies, the constant reminder and placement of the image has no quantifiable association. It’s not necessarily a logo FOR anything. Short of “OBEY” there is no other text to describe or indicate the nature of the sticker. It’s merely imagery left for interpretation.

“The confusion of the image is interesting to me,” states Fairey. Like the professional wrestling culture (where the image comes from), one doesn’t know whether to take it seriously or not. Is it a parody or something true being advertised?

The objective of the obey giant project, though Fairey may not have been conscious of its full meaning at the beginning, is to get people perplexed. It has worked. The audience for it (anyone who walks down the street) seems not to know whether it’s a promotion or a joke. It’s the confusion that keeps Fairey charged up about it and in a sense what keeps the fanfare going.

“It competes with corporate advertising and has been throwing a wrench into that because it’s [the sticker] showing something that it is not attached to a product. It’s non-sensical. People want a product to come from it. People need stuff that fits. The funniest thing to come out of it would be for it to become as big as something like the Rubik’s cube. It would be like, ‘How did this happen? How did this get so big?'” He speculates.

It also makes people unwillingly question the context of something inside of them that they don’t understand. For instance, the “OBEY” at the bottom of the image has taken on its own connotation apart from the confusion of the sticker itself. “People get mad at the ‘OBEY’ text because they like to be in denial about their own obedience. It’s about making people confront that word,” continues Fairey. “I hear people talk about it in line at the grocery store; people projecting their ideas onto it. It’s really developed its own steam. The more I put it out there the bigger it got,” he explains.

The name of Fairey’s show at Smash City this weekend is appropriately titled Damage because as Fairey explains, “I went out and I did damage with this whole thing.” As stated by his print manifesto;

“The obey giant sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology (described by Heidegger as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.”) The first aim of Phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The obey giant sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings.”

“I put some of the stickers on a friend of mine’s store front window just as a sort of gesture of saying ‘hello.’ His parents thought it was some anti-Semetic thing. It shows where their paranoia was coming from. On the other hand people think it’s a cult thing or something Satanic. The post office we use has a lot of the stickers around…on staplers and stuff. People have come into the post office and said things like, ‘You should remove that. It’s a cult.’ The reaction seems to be about people being afraid of what they don’t know. It’s like this big Dada juggernaut. The medium is the message. How far can I go with it?” asks Fairey.

With the obey giant sticker Shepard Fairey has created a psimulataneously [sic] embraced and rejected statement by the public at large, he still procures a bit of living security from “the Man.” His San Diego design firm Black Market handles corporate accounts for those interested in exploring the power of parody to sell. He has in fact taken a statement that could have turned negative for him and made it benefit his procreation as a nationally known artist. As the manifesto states, “Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the sticker’s existence is worth as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings.”