April 25, 1998

Downtown San Diego’s community newspaperMarch-April 25th 1998
It’s everywhere. On stickers, on posters the sunken, staring eyes, the cryptic words. It stares at you from a series of posters plastered onto a construction wall near Ninth and F It stares at you from the boarded-up front of a theater on Fifth Avenue. You might see it again on the back, of a “Don’t Walk” sign. Who is putting them up? What are they?
“They’re disgusting a word,” says Marsha Sewell of Sewell & Associates, a downtown interior design firm. “Somebody’s defacing private property, advertising for their agenda,” she says, adding, “I don’t know anything about these people!

“I really like the work. I think it’s very strong, graphically,” Candice Lopez says of the posters. Lopez, Professor of Graphic Design at City College, states that “I kind of find it to be like an art piece that’s around downtown.”

And just what does the face mean?
“I know it doesn’t mean anything , ” says Nadia, who works at Street Machine skate- board shop on E Street. “I don’t think he puts them in the places where they really deface property, I think he puts them in places where it actually decorates the property.

So who is he? And why is he doing it? “The whole basis of this thing is this goofy black and white sticker right here which was made in five minutes,” says artist Shepard Fairey. He displays a two-inch square featuring the words obey giant has a Posse and 74″, 520 LB surrounding a man’s face and shoulders. The image is similar to those appearing on walls and signs around town, except it’s grainier, as though it’s been copied a dozen times too many. It is the face of Andre the Giant, the late wrestler; the numbers document his massive height and weight.

But why plaster a dead WWF wrestler’s face all over downtown?
“All Andre is, really, is he’s a funny looking guy,” explains Fairey. “An amazing guy Freak. That’s a good point of departure to make people remember it. Visually it’s memorable.” The obey giant stickers and posters began almost ten years ago for Fairey, as an art school experiment in Providence, at the Rhode Island School of Design. He put posters and stickers on signs and walls, painted stencils onto electrical boxes, and even went so far as to superimpose Andre’s face over that of Providence’s mayor on a re-election billboard. The Giant designs have evolved over the years to assume different styles but always with that same face. The various images are featured in a thriving T-shirt business as well as a line of limited edition posters that Fairey sells.

Yet Fairey denies that the Giant images are all about advertising and promoting his work and wares. He philosophizes that, “It’s the idea that if you repeat something enough it becomes an icon, and then the power that it gets from people’s curiosity, based on them thinking it must be important because of the repetition. You create something from nothing. You derive power from perceived power, where the perception of the power isn’t based on any true power, but then it is, because it becomes it.”

This kind of thinking might explain to Fairey why he does what he does, but it doesn’t explain the Andre phenomenon: in the past decade, more than a million Giant stickers have been put up around the country, by Fairey and by the hundreds of people who enjoy participating in what he describes as something that is “kind of like a middle finger to society.” Some of these people are Fairey’s friends, but many others simply volunteer, wishing to be a part of what looks to outsiders like a national conspiracy. Fairey says he receives about two letters a day from strangers requesting stickers.

Flipping society the bird has its price, though-Fairey has been arrested five times. He spent two days in a New York jail cell a couple of years ago, for putting up the Giant image. A diabetic, he was refused his insulin by the guards. “I thought I was really going to go into a coma,” he says. Despite multiple arrests and physical endangerment, Fairey continues putting up the Giant images. “It’s totally fun,” says Fairey, although he does predict that “eventually I’ll get sick of it. Eventually I’ll get sick of getting arrested for putting stuff up.”

He’s received national attention for the Giant work. Fairey’s posters have been shown at numerous galleries and museums around the country, and he’s received attention at such prominent venues as the Museum of Modern Art and the Sundance Film Festival. That kind of recognition helps affirm the idea that this is more than just graffiti. He has numerous, vocal fans. As Nadia says, “His art is beautiful. It’s not like he’s promoting his product. He’s not trying to sell anything”. Lopez says that Fairey’s work teaches her students a lot about poster design and hopes to get him to lecture to her students.

But Fairey’s work also has plenty of detractors. “I don’t consider it art:’says Sewell. “Somebody’s profiting from it, I assure you of that. It’s not just a hobby. If you’re in business you’ve got to follow the rules.” Sewell states that legal steps are being taken with code enforcement to stop the stickers and posters.

Some people don’t buy Fairey’s explanations of the Giant phenomenon as non-commercial. “I would just urge the guy to grow up:’says Bill Keller, a member of the Board of Directors of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. He refers to Fairey’s explanations as an “eighth grade philosophy.” Fairey is “using public space to promote himself”. Claims Keller, and i think that it needs to be treated like graffiti.” Keller does, however, add that “I think he’s a pretty good artist.”

While acknowledging that she sympathizes with concerns about unauthorized use of private property, Lopez says, “I see a huge difference between [Fairey’s work] and tagging; tags are visual pollution.” She laughs that she would rather see Fairey’s designs than an ugly barricade or a blank wall.

Disgusting? Public art? Advertising? Graffiti? Visual pollution? A brilliant pop culture experiment or a middle finger to society? Whether people like it or not, Fairey’s work draws a strong reaction. Which is exactly what he wants, he says. “There’s the conservative people that think it’s a cult, there’s the indy rockers that think it’s a band, there’s the skateboarders that think it’s a skateboard company. There’s just all these different interpretations. It’s like a Rorschach test. How you interpret it really does reflect how you look at things. It’s your personality.”

Or as critics say, is it simply unlicensed advertising? Is an individual allowed to promote himself in public space, or should he be regulated like a business? You’ll have the chance to make up your own mind. Fairey and his graphic design company, Black Market, are showing their work at Olé Madrid of Fifth Avenue. During April to May, Fairey’s Giant designs, along with other work, will be on display. Go take a gander and decide for yourself if this man who lives among us downtown is a brilliant artist or a criminal.

John Chapin