By Ellen Welch A Giant Spectacle RISD grad’s sticker campaign sends shockwaves throughout America
Observant pedestrians in Providence will notice scraps of colored paper, bearing cryptic messages and images, plastered to the parking meters, telephone poles, and sidewalks of the city. The most insidious of these water-stained, mass-produced images must be the lumpy, hollow-eyed face of the late but great wrestling star obey giant, staring out above a boldfaced caption: obey giant Has a Posse.
“The Giant” is not just another bit of art student graffiti, or a hip mode of advertising downtown venues; the stickers have been sighted at New York bus-stops and on brick walls in Georgia–as well as on North Main Street, Providence. The Andre phenomenon did originate on College Hill, however, when Shepard Fairey (R’91)–the project’s creator–was a RISD freshman. Over the phone, Fairey shared the history of the Andre the Giant sticker phenomenon from San Diego, where his business continues to reproduce the infamous image.
In the late ’80s, Providence fostered a thriving skate-boarder culture among the city’s teenagers. Gangs of skaters “tagged” city spaces with signature sticker-graffiti that displayed group slogans and logos. A skate shop operated above d’Angelos on Thayer Street, where a furniture store now sells futons to College Hill residents. Fairey worked in this store the summer after his freshman year, xeroxing the most popular tags, such as “Team Shed” stickers, to sell to local skaters.
On his daily errands at Kinko’s, Fairey saw “kids printing up their own tags,” spending hours to create and print original stickers for their skater-gangs. Fairey and a few of his friends couldn’t resist creating a mock-tag when they spotted obey giant, staring up at them from a “random newspaper ad” that publicized a wrestling event. By pasting a few self-fashioned stickers alongside “real” tags around the city, Fairey thought he could “make the skater kids wonder what’s up.” The project worked, Fairey says, because the obey giant stickers “transcended skater cliques”–no single group of skaters could claim responsibility for the image. At this point, Fairey and his friends were simply “having fun” plastering the city with Andre’s face, and observing the confusion of skate-taggers who visited the store.
The Giant did not take on a wider audience until the fall of Fairey’s junior year, when a RISD assignment led him to replace the face of Mayor Buddy Cianci with that of Andre on a Steeple Street billboard. The metamorphosis was covered exhaustively by local newspapers and radio programs as Providence resdients conjectured about possible meanings behind Fairey’s images. The most popular interpretation suggested that by transforming the mayor into a wrestling icon, Fairey’s image reminded viewers of a notorious, shady, violent episode in Cianci’s past. Fairey says that the billboard incident first impressed upon him the “power behind propaganda,” and proved to him “how easy it was to manipulate people.” Excited by this feeling of power, and curious about the project’s potential, Fairey decided to turn obey giant stickers into a campaign that reached well beyond Providence. He sent eight-by-eleven inch “proofs”–sheets of tiled stickers–to friends in New York, South Carolina, and Georgia, who in turn shipped photocopies to other out-of-state acquaintances.
Overcoming metaphysics Fairey is very articulate when explaining the forces that turned his obey giant stickers into a phenomenon; it’s obvious that he has had practice. Just as Providence media could not believe that Fairey’s billboard had only the vaguest of underlying theories, viewers across the nation demanded an explanation of the campaign as Andre stickers appeared in their cities. What began essentially as little more than a joke was eventually featured in the pseudo-academic paper, “A Social and Psychological Explanation of obey giant has a Posse,” in which Fairey described his sticker campaign as “an experiment in Phenomenology,” quoted Heidegger, and discussed “the trendy and conspicuously consumptive nature of many members of society” as evidenced by public reactions to the stickers. Some of these reactions have surprised Fairey. He writes that “the paranoid or conservative viewer” often condemns the obey giant stickers as the work of “an underground cult” or simply as “an eyesore or act of petty vandalism.” Yet, Fairey met one such “conservative viewer” who belonged to a punk band, and who condemned Fairey’s “Obey Series”–Andre stickers sporting the caption “Obey Andre the Giant”–as fascist propaganda.
Mostly, however, public reaction only reflects simple curiosity. “People’s reaction, then my reaction to the reaction,” Fairey says, have led him to expand the movement and to create new incarnations of the Giant image. The summer following his junior year at RISD, Fairey began experimenting with silk-screening, creating T-shirts that displayed different phases in the evolution of obey giant. The “industry” he began in 1990 lasted until this August, when Fairey moved operations to California.
A new art? Fairey’s new company, First Bureau of Industry, specializes in graphic design for corporations and offices, and provides the basis of Fairey’s income. Still, The Giant continues to play an important part in Fairey’s life and work. In California, he mass-produces and distributes stickers, posters, stencils, T-shirts, and other merchandise bearing the obey giant image. The media and art world also continue to give attention to Fairey’s “phenomenon.” Last year, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York devoted its store-front display to Andre the Giant. The Cooper Hewitt Museum has also featured Fairey’s work. Still, the most obvious and most profound influences of the Andre the Giant campaign are to be found in Providence, where art students launch their own sticker campaigns, and downtown clubs use amateur-looking stickers and post-bills as cheap, trendy methods of advertising. Fairey acknowledges this work as “a new movement,” that he insists he could not have spawned by himself. “All of us [artists] were influencing each other,” he notes, “which is pretty natural in the artistic community.” Fairey cites the group of artists working out of Ford Thunder Studio on Eagle Street as one source of current sticker-art campaigns. He discusses all of this in the context.