Interview by Chris Nieratko
“Always remember to Obey” The art of Shepard Fairey
It’s safe to say everything in life boils down to a point of reference. Either you can associate something with a previous experience and get the joke or you can’t. Growing up in the 80’s, most children were fans of a wildy theatrical dramatization of athletism-professional wrestling. Hairy men with green tongues, hawaiian wife-beaters, makeshift sheiks and other physical oddities treated our eyes to some of the most visually pleasing actors of the decade. And it’s only naturral that they be remembered.
So comes Shepard Fairey, a student at the Rhode Island School of design, a by-product of the bad-news decade with all its awful TV/movie/radio programming, looking for a way to capita;ize on the warped eye candy of his ’80s upbringing. And obey giant, a 7’4″, 520-lb. mass just begging for love with his sad, sunken eyes. A love that only Shep could have given.
In 1989, looking for a catchy icon to use as a stencil, Shep came across an image of Andre that he couldn’t pass up. That iconographic face of obey giant has since popped up everywhere from Jim Morrison’s grave to MTV, making many peoople laugh and unnerving others.
The first time I saw the black and white sticker, I laughed thinking, “That’s so funny, so simplistic. I should have thought of that.” That was in 1992. Three years later, I found myself in Florence, Italy on a bus to Milan, starring out the window, when I noticed a row of posters for an upcoming speech by Castro bombarded with Andre stencils. It was then that the joke got serious and I realized the staying power of those sad eyes. I had seen Andre transform from wrestler, to actor, to skate guru to an international icon. And for that brief moment, I felt a part of something. Something bigger than all of us.
Chris Nieratko: How did this all come to be?
Shepard Fairey: We made the first stickers at Kinko’s with a straight-up proof sheet with 20 of them on it and we’d just Xerox it on sticker paper. And I started sending those to friends in other parts of the country, telling then to do the same thing. In 1990 I was working for this company called Jobless Anti-Work Wear that used to make clothes. They printed their own vinyl stickers, so I started making my own vinyl stickers there. Soon after that, I started my own screen printing business. That’s how I was able to get so many made and so many out there because, owning my own screen printing business, I would just print up stickers, week after week. I hired a guy that would just print stickers all day, every day.
At the time we were selling the stickers at like a dime a piece, and the reason for selling them so cheap which I wish I could still do was to encourage people to buy them not as something precious but something they could get a large quantity of and participate in the whole process. It was really to encourage the proliferation of the stickers in other parts of the country. And it really did work. It still is working. The people that sell and distribute my clothes, KRUX, they sell rolls of stickers, 500 for $50, so they’re still only a dime a piece. It works out good for me. It’s a licensing deal where they print the shirts and the skateboards and I get a royalty. I send them all the designs and they just do it. The posters I still print myself. They make the clothes, leaving me time to focus on my art.
CN: Were you a big fan of wrestling growing up? Why did you choose Andre?
SF: It was really just random luck. I was a little into wrestling when I was like 10 years old, but when this started I was just looking through the newspaper for a picture so I could teach my friend Eric Pupeki he’s a pro skateboarder how to paper-cut stencils, because that’s how I was making all my stencils back then. I didn’t even know about photo emulsion silk-screening at that time. So I found this ad for wrestling in the paper with a picture of Andre. I started laughing at it and we just decided that was going to be the mascot for our little clique of skateboarders, the skate posse. “obey giant has a Posse” was what Eric and I came up with. I just wrote that stuff by hand and photocopied it at Kinko’s. It all took like 10 minutes, super fast. It just caught on somehow. People were all wondering what it was. It was funny, and it had this real primitive graphic appeal, too. You could spot it on a stop sign from like 50 yards away and still tell what it was. We started sticking them everywhere in Providence. I remember overhearing people on line at the grocery store, or at parties talking about it and that’s when I realized this thing has power and I should exploit that. That’s pretty much how it started.
CN: Being looked upon as a visual terrorist, have you had your share of arrests? SF: I’ve gotten arrested five times. I guess I had pretty good luck for a while and I started feeling invincible because from ’89 when I started until ’95 I never got arrested. I had to turn myself in for doing a billboard where I covered the future mayor’s [of Providence, Rhode Island] face with a huge 8 1/2-foot Andre head. But that was just bad luck because his daughter hap- pened to know somebody that knew that I did it. Since Providence is such a small place, it was easy for them to find out that it was me, but I didn’t really get in a whole lot of trouble for that. Later on, it started getting worse. I think the first arrest was in Providence for putting up a sticker on the X-treme Games course. I had put a huge five-foot stencil on the luge course, thinking that they were gonna film it from above and they didn’t do that. They only filmed it from street level. I was like, “Fuck, they sabotaged my whole plan!” So I went out and started putting stickers over the Taco Bell signs.
I was really hated by the Rhode Island School of Design security staff because it was such a nuisance for them to get all the stickers off of campus. It was mostly other people putting them up. They’d just trickle down through the kids that knew me. I wasn’t even the one putting them around, but they just saw me as Public Enemy Number 1. One of the school security guards saw me and called the Providence cops, the security that worked for the X-Games. Next thing you know there’s six cop cars there, all over a little black and white sticker. They took me in and I spent the night in jail. After that was in Long Beach. All this took place in ’96. My luck really ran out that year. I was putting up posters all around Long Beach, and this bus driver called the cops on me. I spent the night in jail and then the next day paid $250 to get out. After that I got busted in Philadelphia. What happened in all these places was there were all these people that really wanted to get me. In Philly, my girlfriend at the time was living there and I was putting a lot of stuff up and there had been a few newspaper articles about all the Andre stuff popping up. Then these visual anti-citizens were gunning for me. ‘That Andre guy, he’s a nuisance. We gotta get him.’ So this guy with a cell phone called me in. I had to spend a couple days in jail there, which is really whack because I’m diabetic and they take your insulin away when you’re in jail because you can only take it with a needle and they consider that a weapon. I got kinda sick in the cell in Philly, but not too bad. The worst time, which was the very last time, was in New York. I guess with Guiliani’s whole quality of life campaign, they’re really cracking down on graffiti and graffiti-related crimes. I was in SoHo putting up posters on a building and these cops in an unmarked car pulled up next to me. They were like graffiti task force guys, they knew all the graffiti magazines and they were like, “Isn’t this stuff from Rhode Island?” They knew all about it. “We’ve seen this stuff up all over the city, in six different precincts. What’s your involvement in it? Are you a disciple?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m just a disciple.” But then they opened my bag and found like 80 posters, I’m wearing cargo pants stuffed full of 300 stickers, two spray paint stencils, spray adhesive and two cans of paint. This was right before I was moving to California, so I was trying to leave New York with a major impression.
They looked at all this stuff and said, “We don’t think you’re a disciple, we think you’re the guy. Tell us what the truth is and we’ll let you go.” Which, of course was a lie, but I was already busted. So I admitted I was the guy. They took me downtown and they were talking about hitting me with felony charges. l’m sitting in the cell for like two days, they took my insulin and I got really, really sick. When I first got there, they put everything in little evidence baggies and they had it spread out on this one big table in the station house and they were bringing in tours of all the officers and everybody from the station to look at all the stuff, as if they’d found 50 kilos of coke or some huge stash of arms. That’s how they were treat- ing it. It was kind of flattering and funny, but at the same time all I could think was, “I am so fucked.” So I got really sick because they wouldn’t give me my insulin and I had to be rushed to the hospital. It was actually good fortune that that happened, because they rushed me through trial because they didn’t want to lock me up again, have the same thing happen and have a lawsuit on their hands. So they didn’t have time to prepare a real deep case. All the judge got was a thing saying, first arrest, possession of a tool of criminal mischief, which was spray paint. So my public defender got me off with time served since I’d already spent two days in jail. And I just walked out the back door as if nothing happened. But now when I go to New York I’m extra careful. I live in San Diego now, and the City of San Diego is after me. They sent an e-mail to my website which I recently had to shut down saying that they wanted to find me.
CN: Do you consider yourself a graffiti artist or a fine artist?
SF: I see what I am doing as really important. I’m not just a graffiti artist. This thing has, at least I hope, a greater degree of social relevance than most straight-up graffiti, even though I am into being a punk and an antagonist, which a lot of graffiti guys are into. I also think it’s a bit more provocative than tagging. See, I never even wrote graffiti. The closest thing to graffiti that I do are spray paint stencils, cause you can get a lot of them around, real quick, and they’re pretty permanent.
CN: What’s the deal with that new wrestler that goes by the name The Giant?
SF: I think with the popularity of Andre, they want to try and reincarnate somebody that will take his place. You know Billy Crystal made that movie, My Giant. I think Andre really has a lot of fans, even though he’s dead, and I guess people are just trying to come up with something new that can build off what he was. I think it’s pretty lame. Andre’s appeal isn’t that he was a huge oddity and everything, it’s that he acted, he did the Princess Bride, it’s that he was really funny-looking. There’s so many aspects of him that make him lovable and appealing, but I have to say that I have really branched out from that, from relying just on his image. I have simplified the face so much that a lot of people that don’t know the history of what I’m doing wouldn’t even know that it was obey giant. See, I’m trying to create it more as a universal Big Brother icon and not just something that has its roots in wrestling. It’s more of a propaganda icon than a reference to obey giant per se, because that can only go so far. The longer he’s been dead and the less he’s seen in the public eye, the less relevant that factor is going to be. I think it’s a funny and interesting point of departure, but it’s the graphics for me that are the strength of the work.
CN: You started out with some clever rip-off graphics and have since moved into an entirely new realm with your work. Explain where you’re at and what influ- enced that evolution.
SF: Well, it started off as a joke. As the joke grew, a lot of people’s negative reactions were surfacing, even though it was a harmless joke. And that made me want to be a bit more antagonistic. At first, what I wanted to do was make Andre associated with funny, hokey things that people are already familiar with, like the Flash Gordon or the Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Gene Simmons icons. I briefly teased religion when Andre died with commemorative shirts, a crown of thorns around his head. What I realized later on was that there are two ways to get people to like something. One way is to associate it with things they like, the other way is to make people like it because the people that dislike it are people they hate, so therefore, by default, they like it. If you make conservative people hate it, then people that are rebellious like it, even if they don’t know what it means. So people’s reactions to the propaganda stuff, the people that are usually scared of things they don’t understand, are the conservatives and the authoritarian types that want to maintain a cer- tain order in our society that is easy to control. They hate it. It’s like a wrench in the spokes of society to them. Those people disliking it makes other people like it. So they say, “I don’t know what it is, man, but it just says, ‘fuck the system,’ so I love it.” And that’s cool and very powerful in that way.
Also, as a graphic artist, it’s easy to take things that already exist and interpolate them and even if it’s a clever change, it still gets stale. I’m more interested in, as far as my fine-art ambition, doing work that is a little more graphically challenging than that, so I find that the propaganda stuff is more rewarding to me as an artist. It’s just a more extreme take to go on. The thing just keeps evolving. I always want to maintain the sense of humor in it all. I think it’s real important that people can see the humor in everything. And even though some people don’t see the humor in the Stalin graphics or the Lenin graphics, people need to realize they are not serious. You can’t insert obey giant’s face next to that of a communist leader and hope that people pull the message, “Communist, dead wrestlers should take over the world.” There are those people that take it that way, that have such a knee-jerk reaction to the colors that they automatically think it’s negative. What’s so ironic though is that they are assaulted, bombarded with Marlboro using the same colors as l am, but they don’t get uptight over that. They should fear Marlboro way more than a dead wrestler, that’s for sure. What I’m doing now is making fun of propaganda and advertising utilizing the same devices at the same time. What started the whole propaganda thing is that I’d been putting up stencils and stickers a lot on the streets, but I wanted to do some larger scale stuff, poster-wise, and get that out on the street. I figured out with the copiers in Providence, that my friend taught me how to rig up to get free copies, I could do 11″ x 17″ and there’s always spot colors and the spot color is usually red or blue. The reason I was using those super-bold images with the red and the black was that I could run the print through twice once with each color and as long as the registration was real- ly loose then I could get these posters. Free. Like 500 a night. Later I started screen-printing ones that were the full 18″ x 24″, then I’d have multiple sizes but have like a billion of these disposable, free ones that I could throw up on the street. It’s very difficult to make a lot of screen-printed ones to put up on the street because it’s so time-consuming and expensive. My budget deemed my aesthetic to be black, white and red. Then I just started designing around those colors. But it made sense. I was already headed in that direction with some of my work. It was just a very convenient convergence of factors. That’s when I came up with the whole OBEY thing. In my video I steal some scenes from a movie called They Live, which is kind of like a conspiracy theory film with all the authoritarians and assholes on the plan- et are aliens that you can only see with certain sun- glasses on. But when the people put the sunglasses on all, the advertisements say stuff like OBEY. I thought that was such a funny metaphor for the insidious presence of all these Andre stickers that aren’t really physically undermining anything, but are kind of an annoying nuisance to people that want to maintain order. And the OBEY is just reverse psychology; it’s really saying DISOBEY. The cool reactions that I’ve gotten to the OBEY have been: “fuck off” written on the posters, and “dis” written in front of OBEY. And that’s really what I’m looking for, to move people to action, or at least think thoughts they aren’t accustomed to.
CN: Honestly, how well does the face of a dead wrestler sustain your living?
SF: Not that great. Not really. I struggled when I was in Rhode Island to make enough money to live. It’s expensive to live and make all that stuff out there and then have to ship it out west and place ads and all of that. But I managed to get my work out there and get it seen so when I moved west and started my design firm with my partners here at Black Market a lot of people wanted me to do graphics for them because they liked a lot of the graphics I did for Giant. In a way, Giant alone never sustained my living but it definitely feeds the graphic design business, which does sustain my living now. Indirectly, Giant has been very pivotal in getting as far as I have. We do a lot of stuff for skateboard companies, but we also did the most recent Specials album cover, Suicide Machine’s, DJ Spooky and book cov- ers for Harper Collins, graphics for the Sierra Club. Bad Religion had me design a tour poster for them, and I got Andre’s face on the helmets of these sol- diers that were marching in front of a burning city. They didn’t care. The biggest corporate thing that we’ve done was the new icon that’s gonna be on the Mountain Dew cans that say MD. 700,000,000 cans. They wanted us to do it because they saw a video about Giant. It’s sort of an inside/outside plan for me, because what I really enjoy is Giant but I can’t make enough money from that, so what I do is take most of the money from this corporate stuff and put it back into making more stickers and posters. So where someone would buy a sports car or a boat, I just make more Giant stuff. The whole sell-out bullshit is just a load of crap. If you have an opinion but no way to get it heard, what does your opinion count for? So I do the corporate stuff for my own diabolical reasons. And if I don’t do the Mountain Dew stuff, somebody else will. It’s not gonna change Mountain Dew. I actually don’t have a problem with Mountain Dew. They support and fund a lot of alternative sports events that normally wouldn’t get funding. I tried to sneak the Andre face into the Mountain Dew can, but they didn’t wind up using the actual can design that we did, just the icon design. That would have been pretty funny it was pretty subtle, but it would have been on every can of Mountain Dew.
CN: What direction do you see your work heading?
SF: I don’t know. There’s different stuff influencing me all the time. I’m a pop artist in the most basic sense. The things I see around me are the base of my work, and as I get bored of one thing and decide to read or look at another thing, my scope changes. I”m a very visual person. I’ll see all this communist propaganda and the message and the power behind it and I’ll force myself to find out what’s behind it, the motivation and the inspiration for the art. I read about it also because I don’t want to seem like a dumb ass not knowing what I’m borrowing from or inspired by. I’ve been criticized by people from German, Cuban, African and Russian cultures. “You’re mixing up a whole bunch of different stuff, conflicting images, into one thing,” they say. It doesn’t really matter. I’m going for a feeling that these things convey, not necessarily the exact politics.
CN: What have been some of the stranger interpre- tations of the image that you’ve heard?
SF: I heard it’s a rock group, it’s some cult, it’s a skateboard company, but I think one of the most fascinating things that happened early on was I have this friend in South Carolina who is Jewish. His parents own a store and we used to go by there, before he knew who was doing the Andre stickers, and just stick one on the front window. Almost every day we did it and every day they’d clean it off. I think they were getting really annoyed, but we heard that they called the police saying that some anti-Semitic group was targeting their store. That statement alone reflects their persecution complex and it, of course, had nothing to do with anti- Semitism. We were friends with their son. That was an interesting one. On the other hand, somebody once wrote on a poster with the star above the skyline, “fuck you nazis.” It’s all about people’s reaction to symbols. I’m really trying to desensitize people to symbols, because they’re way too loaded. The star is used by so many different cultures that think they oppose each other politically like the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, the rebel flag. The five-pointed star is just a pleasing icon, but you use it with red and people assume you’re a communist. It’s really funny how peo- ple react to symbols. I’m trying to encourage people to think first, react later. I’m just a reactionary. I’m react- ing to all this stuff I’m exposed to just as much as people that look at Giant are reacting to it.
CN: One question I’ve had since I first saw your stuff is how is it you have access to Andre’s image?
SF: I don’t. I stole it. I finally got a notification from his estate that I couldn’t use the phrase “Andre the Giant” in any images or use his face in anything. The thing is, and this is why I had to shut my Web site down and change the name from www.andrethegiant.com to www.obeygiant.com., because the WWF owns the name obey giant. It took them nine years to figure it out. My Web site seemed like such an official obey giant website because of the name that people kept hit- ting it up. I don’t even know how I got that domain name. You’d think it would have been taken. A lot of wrestling fans were hitting the site, and eventually somebody pointed it out to the WWF people. But in the more recent images that I’ve done, the face has changed enough from the original likeness to not be copyright infringement. So what I’m gonna do is still make the original sticker, just not sell them or put that name on any clothing that I could get a lawsuit for. As far as the fine art domain, it’s totally open. Warhol didn’t get sued for using Marilyn Monroe’s likeness, as long it was changed enough. I just can’t sell products with the name obey giant, so now it’s all gonna just say Giant.
CN: When you go to work and you look at that simple face with its sad, sunken eyes, what do you see?
SF: What do I see? Just those eyes, which are pretty piercing. I don’t know. It’s funny, because I’m so used to that image it doesn’t really take me back that often. But sometimes I get a glance at it and it’s like goofy and ominous and all I can think is, “I’m lucky I stumbled upon this thing and that I was able to do something,” because it really does stick in people’s minds.
CN: Any last words you’d like to throw in?
SF: The only thing I want to say that I didn’t mention was the use of public space to put your artwork out there is a right that every taxpayer should be entitled to because a billboard, although it may be suspended above some piece of property that someone owns and rents to the company putting up the billboard, it still invades everyone’s space and infringes on your visual horizon. Therefore, as a taxpayer you should be able to put whatever you want out there for people to look at. All that shit on the billboards, bus stops, and buses is advertising. Which is basically saying you’re only allowed to speak your mind or put your thing out there if you have money and you’re selling something, and willing to pay for the space. It has to be an all-or-nothing thing. Either everybody that’s motivated to put stuff out on electrical boxes, post boxes, I’m not saying private property, mind you private property owned by an individual, or company, not tax payer owned you shouldn’t fuck with that. But public space…all or nothing. No billboards, no advertisements, or no discriminating against people with no money. It’s unethical. Being arrested, to me, is so ironic because I don’t pull up to the billboard people’s place and say, “Your advertisement is offensive to me, I’m taking you away.” I think that’s a concept that most people don’t even think about, but is so legitimate in my eyes.