GQ Online – Shepard Fairey on what Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster would say in 2012 and redesigning the Rolling Stones

November 02, 2012

By Oliver Franklin
October 30, 2012

It was the defining image of the 2008 American election: Barack Obama, his eyes fixed on the horizon, features drenched in red-and-blue, emblazoned with the word “HOPE”. The poster turned Shepard Fairey from a well respected graphic designer and street artist from South Carolina – known for album covers, movie posters and Nineties skateboard meme “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” – into a global household name. Since then he’s illustrated the cover of TIME, met the Dalai Lama and was recently hired by the Rolling Stones to design the logo for the band’s 50thanniversary tour – as well as losing a legal battle with Associated Press for the image that encapsulated the hopes of Democrats the world over.

This month he’s set up in London’s Stolen Space gallery, a stone’s throw from Rough Trade East on Brick Lane, for a new show dedicated to music. “The creative ethos of punk shaped me as an artist: Jamie Reid’s art for the Sex Pistols, Raymond Pettibon’s art for Black Flag,” Fairey explains, flipping through some of his own vinyl records on display. “One of the things I love about music is you can just enjoy the beat – but if that seduces you, if it draws you in, there’s the lyrics, the politics, so many different layers. I see my art working the same way.” As Fairey gave a tour of the show, we talked to him about his thoughts on Obama in 2012, working with the Stones and why street art is like a mash-up album. You designed the art for the Rolling Stones’ 50thanniversary. Will you be going to the shows?
Shepard Fairey: I hope so! You know, I haven’t met Mick but I spoke to him on the phone a lot. I did some art on a side project he did called SuperHeavy and then he said, “I’d be interested in having you do the Stones’ 50th logo.” Certain things you hear and it’s just hard to believe – this is Mick Jagger speaking and he actually not only knows who I am but likes my work! It’s funny, the logo he chose was actually one of my least favourite – I did over 30. But it wasn’t about taking the design into the future, it was about taking the 50 years prior to now and marking that. And it had to use the tongue, that’s the most iconic logo in rock and roll! I just did Led Zeppelin’s new record that’s about to drop calledCelebration Day, which is live shows from 2007. I got to meet Robert Plant- he was very pleasant.

Your new show is very personal. What are some of the records that most influenced you?
Definitely. This is one of the first records that I bought with my own money, The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You. I think I was 11. This show includes about 25 per cent of my own record collection, mixed in with my own graphics. I wanted to set up a record store feel. These are all records I like a lot – so there’s a Public Enemyreference in this work, a Clash reference here. Even though punk rock was the thing that really made me passionate about music, I always liked rock n’ roll: Led Zeppelin, Joan Jett, the Beatles. There was a period I was quiet about that because of Eighties genre fascism – I secretly liked Black Sabbath, Motorhead and Metallica, but if you were punk rock you weren’t allowed to be vocal about what were seen as the rival genres. But then ultimately good music is good music and I stood up for it.

The whole exhibition has a soundtrack, made by DJ Z-Trip (best known for 1999’s Uneasy Listening and supporting the Rolling Stones). How did you two meet?
Z-Trip and I are old friends and he made such a kick-ass mix. I gave him a list of all the artists that are referenced in the show, and he made a mix that’s got The Clash, Sex Pistols, Afrika Bambaataa, LL Cool J, Madness, The Specials. I’ve known him for about 12 years. I did the artwork for a film called Scratch that he was in and we met through that. I always enjoyed seeing a good DJ but when I went and saw Z-Trip? Normally, you were either an electro DJ or a hip-hop DJ or a dance hall DJ. Then there’s Z-Trip, blending all these different genres that most people didn’t blend, in such a creative way. I was so amazed. To me he is the inventor of the mash-up. The way he was blending a capella vocals from one genre with instrumentals from another, nobody had ever done that before.

You’ve said that traditional art galleries used to make you feel uncomfortable. Have you become more used to it?
I have, but I also think I’ve been really lucky in that as my career developed, a lot of different gallerists found more traction for what they were doing as well. It was not in my comfort zone to work with people that had an attitude about art that didn’t align with mine. That’s the benefit over time of cultural changes and paradigm shifts. But with these pieces, you’ll see a larger image and then a smaller image of the same image, which is a much less expensive version. Then there’s also a 45 dollar screen print and below that there’s a $20 T-shirt or a $1 sticker. Some people have misunderstood that as me trying to cash in on as many formats of possible but it’s about access. I want people to be able to get my stuff, ranging from serious art collections down to high-school students.

Hope was an enormous success and has since been copied in so many ways. What has been the most surprising place you’ve seen it?
The style has become its own meme. I’ve seen images of it in Africa and that’s probably because of Obama being half-black and his dad being African. It was something that seemed amazing not just to Americans but people all over the world. To me, that was just a tangential benefit of Obama being elected – I supported him because I thought he was intelligent and had the best policy positions, it wasn’t about a glass ceiling around race thing. The funny thing is I’ve seen so many uses of that style for things that I don’t agree with, but I don’t have a problem with it because that’s the nature of communication. You find a reference point and you either build upon it or subvert it. I’ve done that with so much of my work, it’d be absurd to have a problem with other people doing it.

If you had to remake that poster in 2012, what word would you use instead of “Hope”?
If I were to make the same poster again it would imply that I had not experienced that past four years. That poster was based on an optimism that Obama could be a transformative figure and also that the people in both parties would be constructive enough to try and facilitate that transformation. So that I am unhappy with the way things are right now is not just a reflection on Obama – in fact it’s much more of a reflection on the dysfunction of the system and the apathy of the American populace. But I guess it would probably be something about tenacity: “Follow Through”, or “Patience”. Because the problem is with American politics right now, people are really impatient. It took thirty years of f***ing it up to get to 2008 – since Reagan. Gradually seeing regulation decreased in financial areas, the abuses that were happening there and the amount of money that was sucked out of the economy by very few people. Rather than people blaming the Citizens United supreme court decision and deregulation and Republican obstructionism, they just go “Obama hasn’t fixed it yet.”

Has the court verdict on the Hope poster changed your perspective on copyright?
My perspective on “fair use” is still the same, but my understanding of how painful it can be to get embroiled in a law suit is going to make me consider how I work to protect myself from that. But regardless, I’m still going to champion the concept of fair use. It’s not that all intellectual property should be free for the taking, it’s that new creations that are unique and valuable – even if you can see the evolution from something pre-existing – need to be allowed. That’s the nature of language and communication and is how culture evolves. Holding that back means that only the people that control things and have a lot of money can say things exactly the way they want to say them. I license images, I work with photographers and compensate photographers, so to see me portrayed as someone who doesn’t respect intellectual property – it’s not true and it’s not fair.

There’s an interesting parallel with your show – between street art and hip-hop, with artists getting sued for using samples. There’s an argument that something like Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album is more than a sum of its parts.
I couldn’t agree with you more. Anyone who would try to claim that the Grey Album would harm sales of the Beatles’ white album or Jay-Z’s Black Album would be completely mistaken. I can listen to all three of those album for different reasons – and in fact, cross-pollination is really beneficial. So an example I would use is that I was never a fan of funk and soul music until I got into NWA and Public Enemy, then I went back and I found Parliament, Funkadelic, James Brown, The Meters, The O’Jays and Booker T & The MG’s because all of that stuff was sampled really creatively and I wanted to hear more than two seconds of those songs. But you know, it’s always a subject of debate.

With “Hope” you’ve gone from designing skateboard art to meeting the Dalai Lama for Tibetan Independence Day. What’s been the most remarkable part of that for you?
Getting to work with heroes of mine is really rewarding. That Iggy Pop interview in Interview magazine was definitely one of the highlights of my life because I’m a really big Iggy Pop fan. He’s a true original and a really bright guy, but also has a real animal energy as well. He is unique on this planet and he likes what I do. So I can read a thousand blogs saying how wack I am, and think “Yeah, but Iggy Pop doesn’t like you…” [laughs] Sometimes I feel like a complete imposter because some of the people that like what I do, I’m just not on the same level as them. So I try to just take a deep breath and do my thing one day at a time. I think my instincts have served me pretty well.

At Stolen Space gallery until 4 November.