I have known Matt Revelli since the late 90’s when he put together an art show for me at a small San Francisco space. That art show was promoted on the reverse side of a flyer for a Sugar Hill Gang show Matt was involved in as well. This was before Matt was doing Upper Playground or running Juxtapoz magazine. I identified with Matt’s hustle and passionate appreciation of multiple facets of culture. Matt’s vision, hard work, and dedication to artists has lead to his success with Upper Playground clothing and gallery as well as his influential position at Juxtapoz. I respect Matt mostly for being a thoughtful cultural ambassador rather than just a business person. During the 2008 election cycle Matt generously used Upper Playground’s resources and harnessed and coordinated the talents of many artists in support of Obama for no personal gain. Matt gets how difficult it is to balance art, commerce, and politics. but unlike many people, he has the courage to analyze things thoughtfully and try his best. I respect Matt which is why I was very happy to see his recent essay about my work. Obviously I’m biased toward my own perspective, but I think Matt makes some points that I’ve always felt surprised were not more obvious to people. I sometimes feel that I’m a victim of a “kill the messenger” syndrome. My work has always participated in the very machinations and phenomena the art project comments upon. In many ways, it seems like I’m attacked for holding a mirror up. I’ll shut up and let you read Matt’s essay for yourself.
Shepard Fairey, A Perspective
The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. BecauseOBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.
Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.
Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.
—Shepard Fairey, 1990
Shepard Fairey’s solo show, May Day, opened at Deitch Projects in New York City this past weekend. It got me thinking, and it forced me to step back and observe one of the most impactful individuals I have ever met. As a consistent fan of the underdog, there have been times during Shepard’s explosive ascent as a leading artist of his generation where I admit I have found it hard to get excited about some of his bodies of work. But when I step back and look at what one man has accomplished in a very short period of time, you cannot deny the impact that Shepard Fairey has had not only on the art world, put popular culture as well. If I ever become confused about what he is doing, or the path he is leading, I always look back to his original manifesto. Revisiting it soothes any conflict I might be feeling.
I think a lot of people get lost in understanding what is truly unique about Shepard. Yes, he makes visually appealing work. To me, what makes his work special is a conceptual base that has never been done in the exact way he executes it. Sure people have come close. Of course, Andy Warhol comes to mind. But Shepard to me is like a Warhol 2.0. The work he has done on the outside creates a 360-degree attack of imagery that the viewer is unable to escape. Warhol recognized the power of this, the pop culture and brand icons, and by all accords, was fascinated by the energy of artists working on the outside. Shepard just takes it to another level. This 360-concept conjures many psychological reactions. Obey stickers caused a stir because it represented a known image with an unknown statement and placement. Why was it on the street? Why are there so many? How did they get there? Why does Andre the Giant have a posse? What does that mean? Why don’t I know more? Do I want to know more?
Canadian pychologist, Albert Bandura wrote, “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling : from observing.” Shepard understands this. The observing of the Obey Giant image/images, that is the true effect of the work: Wonderment, questioning, and the lack of understanding leads to more observing and questioning.
One of the biggest gifts that Shepard gives to people (if they take the time to enjoy what he does) is that his work serves as a starting point for questioning authority and becoming aware of the world around you. If it effects you, but why does it effect you? Andre the Giant appeared recognizable, but what from? Why is he looking over us? And why did he have a posse, and who is part of the posse? The questions that the initial images brought out helped start a dialogue with people and the world around them. What do all these images around me mean? If anything, Shepard helped facilitate a discussion amongst people to fully understand the symbols that dictating their everyday being.
That, in itself, has been one of the most remarkable results and impacts of the original Obey intention.
Branding and the Notion of Selling-Out
Viruses know no boundaries. They evolve, hide, grow, and move from person to person, object to object. Shepard, within his concept and within the guidelines of his manifesto, allowed the Obey virus to pick up speed. As he pushed the boulder up a hill in his earliest days, with every wheatpaste and sticker he put up, when the boulder got to the top, and the virus had spread across the world in almost every major city, Shepard let that boulder start its unstoppable momentum.
Here is what I think is key: I don’t believe Shepard thought when he first sought to spread the Obey image around the world that he knew exactly what would happen. He knew the beginning, but not the middle or the end. As the momentum picked up, the boulder rolled down faster and faster. And at this point, Shepard could only create the path for the boulder to follow down the hill. He himself could not and cannot stop it. He created an unstoppable force. And I have to believe that whatever the end of the story is, or even if we are truly at the middle, that it really doesn’t matter. The momentum continues, and the bottom of the hill is nowhere in site. And one man created this energy.
Again, this is where things get tricky, and why Shepard is misunderstood by so many. At the end of the day it’s hard for people to relate to Shepard. Most people look up from their cubicles or hear their co-workers talk about “American Idol” and Tiger Woods. Those are easy things to digest and understand. Trivial pop-culture anecdotes; celebrity sex rumors, sports, and middle of the road pop music are simple, non-confrontational things to attach yourself to. Creating a global identity by way of stickering and street art, to fully immerse yourself on a path of counter-culture virality, is not something that normally makes water cooler conversation.
In Shepard’s case, or we can even say, in Obey Giant’s case, when traveling the road less traveled, you spend a lot of time in isolation. You are by yourself. Because of this, it becomes harder for people, in the traditional art world or in cubicles, to relate to you and conversely for you to relate to other people. There was a time when people would say to me, “Do you know Shepard Fairey?” Like they were in the know. Like they were a part of the Obey project. Like it was all done for them.
Now the conversation has turned to shit-talking. Humans feel comfortable in groups, even when the group way of thinking is in the wrong. The human condtion is very much a part of the whole Obey manifesto. There is no constant, it’s a wave that crashes in, pulls back and crashes again. Perfect waves come in, but then they turn extremely volatile, lonely, and scary. It’s a cycle. For Shepard, its one minute people love the work, the next minute its too big and they hate it. People thought they understood Shepard, loved what he was doing, and what he had done. Then, all of a sudden, the masses don’t get Shepard, or what he is doing, or what he has done. The cycle continues, and will continue. Stickering and wheatpasting the world with his art and brand, with one experiment in mind, doesn’t register on most people’s brains as a life they could lead or comprehend. And they go in and out of accepting.
A statement you often hear with Shepard Fairey is that he has compromised his integrity. And it comes from people who claim to “understand” what Shepard is about, and it comes from people who don’t know anything about him at all. What does that mean? “Shepard is a sell out?” Wasn’t infecting the world with an image the entire point of his experiment, clearly labeled out in his initial manifesto? Wasn’t making it as big as possible the point? Isn’t being a perceived “sell-out” mean that the experiment is going actually as planned? Didn’t he write in 1990, “people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.” What is a sell-out in this case really mean? Doesn’t it mean we as the observers fell into a herd mentality once again? This all proves two points: if you don’t get it, you call him a sell-out, and if you don’t understand calling him a sell-out is part of the experiment, you missed the entire manifesto again.
In nearly defining Obey, George Orwell wrote, “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” I wish human beings would dare to dedicate their lives to things as meaningful as Shepard has chosen to do with his. Imagine a world where his way of thinking and questioning was the norm in every sector of life. Imagine a constant questioning of authority and the world around you without fear of being pointed out as being the “other” in your cubicle job, being the outsider, the “crazy” left-winger. Imagine if we all took a second to question what the powers that be want of us as individuals? What kind of a world would that be?
Without a doubt, Shepard Fairey’s work defines a generation. The amount of stencils, wheatpastes, and stickers he got up across the world is undeniable and monumental. I can think of him jumping out of his car in traffic to put up stickers in the perfect spot. Once at his own art opening in the late 1990s, as he was about to walk in, Shepard instead decided that a highly visible soft drink billboard across the street from the gallery needed to be hit, and made it his project at that very moment to make it happen. He is legendary in making sure every Obey poster he got up was perfectly balanced and even. He took a 10-year block of time and condensed 30 years of work into it. Look at his output in the 1990s and 2000s, and Shepard was EVERYWHERE.
Because of this dedication and constant working to fully immerse the world with the virus, to make questioning a full-on project, to have the world pondering this image, to me his art represents the spirit of old. That old-school American blue collar blood, sweat, and tears mentality. I think Shepard would admit that he does not have the God-given talent in being an ornate draftsman or traditional painter. But as evolved humans do, they work with what the talent and ability they have. They use tools or create tools that allow them to exist in an ever-evolving world. Roadblocks are either being jumped over or gone around. Shepard does both. Most people would’ve called it quits after the ridicule and bullshit he has to deal with, from detractors, other street artists, the AP image trial, or to being called a sell-out. Yet it seems like in the face of everything negative and preventing, he is the exception to the rule. All the hating, detraction, and difficulties, it all seems to actually be a continuous fill-up to his tank.
Back to the Experiment
In 1990, there was no household Internet. Kids in Kansas City, Johannesburg, San Francisco, Bangkok, or London couldn’t access forums, blogs, and web sites. The world was BIGGER. And during the first part of the decade, Shepard began creating his own network. He was initiating his own web. The Obey Giant image became a conversation point in the old sense: It actually sparked communication and conversation amongst people, face-to-face, or in magazines and newspapers. It created dialogue that we will never see again. When a sticker popped up in Prague, and then a week later in Los Angeles, a web was being created to connect the dots between Obey pieces around the world. The groundwork was being laid out.
And then… the world changed quickly, almost overnight by pre-Google/blog standards. The Internet made it so every kid and adult in the world could find exactly what he or she was looking for in a moment’s notice (or dial-up speed). Obey started to exist on a completely new network, with locations being connected, pictures being taken, with the message being spread faster and vaster than Shepard ever could have concluded in 1990. The Internet took the already-established Obey network and connecting Shepard’s path together. Now kids knew where Shepard had been before, how he got there, and what new pieces and cities were getting bombed overnight. Obey Giant became a worldwide phenomenon BEFORE and AFTER Shepard had already laid out the groundwork. Imagine if the Clash recorded “London Calling” and only a few kids in Brixton knew about, but 5 years later got MTV airplay across the world. The underground would soon become mass appreciated and comprehended.
And Obey got bigger and bigger. And the Experiment became even more realized.
Where We Are In the Experiment and Where Does It Go From Here…
Obviously, Obama, art directing ad campaigns, and the ascension into fine art have made the Obey Experiment evolve. Some parts of the Obey mission have become part of private art collections, others exist in the National Portrait Gallery, some are ads on billboards and in magazines, and some remain wheatpastes in cities around the world. They are all parts of a whole. Nothing is more important than the other. The mural for Deitch Projects is a piece of the puzzle just as the Andre wheatpaste that has been tattered by weather next to AT&T Park in San Francisco. One cannot exist without the other, and that is what makes the Experiment live on and continue to create dialogue and discussion amongst others.
What does a show at Deitch Projects mean? How can he still do illegal wheatpastes if he is selling art for so much money? What does his Studio Number One play in the part of the original message? Where are the original Obey pieces? What is going on with the Obama image and the AP?
Most likely, Shepard and his career will have peaks and valleys and might circle back like Homer’s Odyssey. The key is that it’s not over. It will not be over until Shepard says it is, until he tells us his Manifesto has come to perfect fruition. It may never reach that pinnacle, and Shepard may always fight to bring it to absolute terms. And he may not. He may continue to project his Experiment for the rest of his life. The questioning and wonderment in life will never end, so why should Shepard? Authority and propaganda are getting even more clever and intrusive, so why stop Obey now?
If you filter out all the noise and really step back and look at what Shepard Fairey has done and what he is doing, I dare you to do better or to create something equal. Most won’t as it much easier to tear people and things down. And really, most people cannot do what he has done. Only so many people in this world have a determination that outweighs the masses. Shepard is that person. And to many, he is an inspiration and a symbol of what one man or woman can accomplish with dedication and the willingness to plow through the bullshit that is the modern world. And for that, the Experiment lives on…
—MR, May 4, 2010