Balancing Act San Diego’s Blk/Mrkt strives for credibility on the street and in the conference room
by Alison Blasko, associate editor
A graffiti artist tagged the electrical box across the street from San Diego-based design firm Blk/Mrkt, changing the letter “N” to an “M” on the familiar “Post No Bills,” making the sign read “Post Mo Bills.” It seems oddly appropriate. Two of the visual communications firm’s founders, Shepard Fairey and Dave Kinsey, spend their off-time “posting bills” of their own.
Fairey is the one-man show behind the “Obey Giant” guerrilla art campaign, and he currently has his street art running in 15 different U.S. cities. Partner Dave Kinsey splashes his Picasso-esque character-based creations on boarded up buildings and other neutral sites with the brazen flair of an artist who began his career with a can of spray paint in hand.
What Fairey and Kinsey do on the streets is illegal, and they’ve had to explain themselves to enraged property owners and indignant authorities. But their street art or “bombing,” as they call it, is also youthful and edgy, and it’s their youth and their edge that’s led corporate America to seek out Blk/Mrkt (pronounced “Black Market”).
Fairey is a minimalist and a screen printing guru capable of stripping concepts to their core. Kinsey is a computer whiz with a penchant for angles, all things retro, and movies. The company’s third partner, Philip DeWolff supplies the business savvy that channels his co-founders creative energy into successful commercial ventures.
Blk/Mrkt has its roots in a short-lived company named the First Bureau of Imaging (FBI), which was founded by Fairey, Kinsey, DeWolff, and pro skateboarder and artist Andy Howe. After a few months, and after conflicts over the company’s direction, Howe left the company, and FBI adopted the name Blk/Mrkt.
“We picked the ‘Black Market’ name because of the bad-assed underground connotation of it,” says Fairey with an All- American-boy grin. “And also because the Black Market was the arch-enemy of the FBI.” Today, Blk/Mrkt has evolved into a 12-person youth-oriented design firm that produces some of the hottest, most aggressive, and viably commercially viable campaigns for some of the nation’s leading action sports, entertainment, and dot-com companies. Clients include Pepsi, listen.com, skateboard.com, Virgin Records, Sony Records, DreamWorks, and Universal Pictures.
Blk/Mrkt’s extreme attitude, in-your-face graphics, and finger on the pulse of the underground have corporate America’s Baby Boomer executives to mine the highly coveted 15- to-25 year-old market demographic, which is ruled by their rebellious Gen-X and Generation-Y children.
“Most clients want us to work for them because of [our street art and underground connection],” says Fairey. “They see that it appeals to kids, and they want a tamed-down version of that done for them. But the kids are a little more savvy than a lot of people give them credit for, and they smell the corporate rat quickly.”
Kinsey agrees. He feels that Blk/ Mrkt’s main appeal to the corporate world is the firm’s ability to translate the power of his and Fairey’s street art into credible marketing concepts for the Gen-X and Gen-Y market, without seeming contrived, condescending, or unauthentic. But although the company revels in its street cred, its partners are businessmen as well as rebels, and know how to communicate with their clients.
“We are basically speaking [corporate America’s] language with our tone of voice and lingo. We research our corporate clients and try to ascertain their messages, what their vision is, and then we apply our style,” says Kinsey. “We wouldn’t do stuff with K-Mart or JC Penney, but we would with Mountain Dew, DreamWorks, and Virgin Records. They’re on both sides of the fence and that’s where we are. We bridge the gap between the hardcore underground and the mainstream corporate America.” Blk/Mrkt’s philosophy can best be summarized as a process the partners call “visual sniping.” Visual sniping can be summarized as a graphic style that employs arresting attention-grabbing imagery and causes viewers to reevaluate preconceived information and formulate new conclusions. “It’s about rethinking and regenerating thought, about doing things a little bit differently, and not following a routine,” says Kinsey. “The premise is ‘unlearning to rethink.'”
Kinsey and Fairey have spent a lifetime rethinking the norm. Both grew up in conservative East Coast families.
Fairey is the son of high-school sweethearts who grew up to become a doctor and teacher, and he says his father is a gifted artist himself. He grew up in Charleston, SC, and his family was profiled by Redbook magazine in the 70s as the “perfect” quintessential Southern family.
Kinsey’s father is a Pittsburgh-based Episcopalian minister, who held high expectations for his son and was at times strict.
In addition to strict upbringings, Kinsey and Fairey’s formative years and interests are uncannily similar. Both are intelligent, driven, and extremely personable. Both share a passion for skateboarding, which they admit with a grin that their families didn’t always understand or approve of. Both are blessed with extraordinary talent and both cite their parents and grandparents as driving forces that helped them recognize, cultivate, and pursue that talent.
“When I was 12, my parents bought me a drafting table for Christmas,” says Kinsey. “I cried. I wanted a bike. But they knew at that time what I was supposed to be doing even if I didn’t. My grandma was artistic. She published some books and wrote poetry. Her dream was for one of her grandchildren to get to do what she never had the chance to, so I kind of feel good about doing art because it’s like an extension of her. And I still have that drafting table from that Christmas and I still use it.”
Kinsey and Fairey’s families may have helped them recognize the value of their artistic talent, but it was during their respective stints at art school-Fairey in Rhode Island, and Kinsey in Pittsburgh and later Atlanta-that they learned to refine it. Art school taught them discipline and the ability to channel their creativity into thought-provoking work. Although both cite renowned street artists, and Andy Howe, as their main stylistic influences, Kinsey and Fairey quickly credit teachers as invaluable resources, particularly for the budding young street artist.
“I always say ‘street artist.’ I don’t like the term ‘graffiti artist,’ because it has a really bad connotation,” says Fairey. “On my Web site I tell people they need to be really smart about it and make alliances with art teachers in colleges and community groups and to do murals and stuff that gives back to the community. I did all these pro bono huge illustrations for the Children’s Museum here. And I did it because I wanted to, but also because I don’t want people to say all I’m doing is vandalizing the community and that I never do anything positive. That’s an important lesson.” Life’s lessons come easy to Fairey and he willingly imparts what he has learned. He even considered becoming a teacher himself early on in his career, but rejected it, but, in a way, his career has returned full circle. His street art, obeygiant.com Web site-which is a playful twist on his street art campaign-and Blk/Mrkt’s commercial success teaches students what teachers often find they cannot.
“I got an E-mail from a teacher that read ‘JorgÃ© never showed an interest in anything. He never paid attention in class until he went to your Web site and now he wants to learn about [history] and he wants to learn to do iron-on transfers, and he’s taking an interest in school he never had,'” says Fairey. “That’s not my goal, but that makes me feel like it’s worthwhile. Still, I have totally selfish reasons for doing my [street art.] I love to put my thumbprint up everywhere.”
Fairey’s visual thumbprint is everywhere-as is Kinsey’s. Fairey’s recently returned from a gallery exhibition showcasing his fine art in Japan and he currently is in Australia conducting another show. Kinsey is in New York participating in an exhibition that is touring the East Coast. In all of these locations, the two artists are displaying their work in galleries and “bombing” the streets.
Blk/Mrkt’s thumbprint is ubiquitous, too. The firm helped devise Mountain Dew’s “extreme attitude/extreme sports” conceptual campaign, which reinvented the Pepsi product as the Ã¼ber-hip drink of choice for the un-Pepsi generation. Kinsey designed the new “MD” logo and swirl, which was created in his tools of choice, Photoshop and Illustrator.
The firm also handled the successful underground one-sheet campaign for Universal Studio’s Andy Kaufman bio film “Man on the Moon.” According to Kinsey, Universal handed Blk/Mrkt a budget and told them to run with it.
“The one-sheet was for the cultish side of it. Universal did the mainstream poster campaign with Jim Carrey, and we did the one-sheet for the underground crowd that knew about Andy Kaufman,” says Kinsey. “It was one of the first projects where Universal said,’You know what, here’s the budget, we don’t want anything to do with it. We don’t even want to see it, just get it out there.’ We did a poster design and a Web site. Its purpose was two-fold-it was the viral marketing campaign for people in the know and it drew people in who didn’t know about Andy Kaufman.”
Imagery is Blk/Mrkt’s genius, and one of firm’s most visible images is Fairey’s “Obey Giant.” The project began as an art student’s joke. Fairey was working at an East coast skateshop and dabbling in freelance screenprinting work at the time.
Concurrently a friend asked Fairey to teach him how to make paper-cut stencils. Fairey found a picture of the famed wrestler obey giant in the paper and told his friend to trace it.
Fairey’s friend soon grew frustrated with the stencil and Fairey took over. The result was the permanent marriage of the ultra-hip world of skateboarding and the then uncool world of professional wrestling. Fairey photocopied stickers at a local Kinko’s, distributed them to his friends, and created an urban legend. Soon he attracted the attention of the local free paper and he learned the invaluable lesson of word-of-mouth advertising and exploitation of the press.
“In the first two years, I made 60,000 stickers and I was like, ‘this is hilarious.’ People actually want this because I said this was the new posse. I knew I had to exploit this because it was so good,” says Fairey. “Then the paper ran the article asking what the campaign was about, and I realized that if you pique the curiosity of the press, you really can get the image out there. I was trying to elevate it to the status of other legitimate pop culture stuff, and the whole idea was making a coup of this thing that should be rooted in stupidity.”
Fairey refined his image and expanded his sticker campaign to include screen printed T-shirts and posters for his “bombing” campaign. And although he says he has no political agenda other than to make people think, he chose an Orwellian Big Brother-ish propaganda-based theme for his “Obey Giant” work. He also incorporated the color red into his then black-and-white design.
“The most awesome stuff in black and white and red is all the propaganda stuff. It is an amazing art, a really sound graphic style incorporating typography and imagery harmoniously without making them compete,” says Fairey. “The ‘Obey’ campaign is about people’s knee-jerk reaction to things without scraping through the symbols to look beneath the surface. There were people who really liked my stuff before, but I feel this is the point where I started to get taken seriously. That was the work that really got noticed.”
Blk/Mrkt still respects the power of Fairey’s “Obey Giant” project and says some clients even request the icon for their commercial pieces. It was recently employed in a poster campaign created for one of the firm’s music-based clients, listen.com. For the dot-com client’s campaign, Blk/Mrkt designed a stripped down version of the Giant’s red-star icon face, which was embedded in the listen.com commercial design. But Fairey and his firm guard the trademark icon and its urban legend status carefully. Although the Giant was seen in listen.com’s visuals, Blk/Mrkt limited the dot-com’s use of the image to a six-month stint. Even with the restrictions, Fairey admits he took some flack from some of his hardcore underground fans over commercializing the image.
Straddling both sides of the fence is business-as-usual at Blk/Mrkt. And the strategy has served the firm well. The company successfully balances the counterculture and commercial sides of its dual personality, without offending either party.
Still, straight-laced military-and bio-tech-ruled San Diego is an unlikely home for a cutting-edge visual communications firm that prides itself on its colorful past and link to the underground community. And although the company has given back to the community with numerous pro bono jobs, its presence and its founders’ alter egos as street artists are not always welcome.
“Fairey’s stuff is really distinctive. One day the city of San Diego came and complained about the [street art,] and there was a town meeting about it because the merchants were upset,” says Kinsey. “They weren’t mad because we were vandalizing; it was because we were getting unpaid advertising. That was the biggest thing.”
Fairey concurs. “A lot of it has to do with content. If you put up a lost pet flier, nobody usually freaks out about it. My stuff scares people because they don’t understand,” says Fairey. “To me, the poster project is about the control of public space. If you want to buy the side of a bus or a billboard, and, if you have the money, you’ll get it. And the buses are owned by the public. They subcontract all that stuff out. I don’t know where all that money goes. So if nothing else, I want to raise the question about the use of public space. I want to make people think about how they absorb imagery, and how they interpret imagery. Most people think it’s a teaser campaign for something. How ingrained is the symbiotic of commerce that that’s the immediate thing you think when you see something? I don’t have any political agenda except to make people think.”
The city of San Diego’s inability to understand its prodigal child and that child’s commercial and urban art agenda suits Blk/Mrkt just fine. The firm is relocating to a city that’s a little more progressive, and a little bit flashier, and a little more in-sync with its partners ultra-cool attitude-Hollywood.
But the company’s move north to L.A. is not politically motivated. It’s rooted in keen business acumen and necessity. The majority of the firm’s entertainment-based clients are in Los Angeles, and rather than continue to make trips back and forth, the partners decided to move. Blk/Mrkt also has a stronghold in corporate-based New York, and anticipates opening an office there in the distant future.
In part, because the face of corporate America is changing as Boomers pass the baton to the Gen-Xers. In part, because Blk/Mrkt’s face is changing as the company ages, explores varied market options, and expands into a full-service branding agency.
But for now, Black Market is excited about where it is and the commercial work it is producing. And its founders are content with both the success of their design firm and their street art. They are proud of their unique perspective, their extreme attitude, and their continual ability to “stay in tune” with the kids.
“I’m not too worried about aging. I was worried about it four years ago when we were trying to get inline skating, snowboard, and surf work. The average age is 16.
But my style has gotten more sophisticated and a lot of the companies we work with have become more open minded to different stuff,” says Fairey. “But I do have a Peter Pan complex. I’m worried about not knowing what ‘the kids’ are into. I haven’t gone through my crisis yet, but maybe I will when I have too many arrests in too many cities to have the outlet of putting my work up on the street, and I have to get all my satisfaction from my job. But ‘Obey Giant’ is a very youthful project. I’ve been doing it for 11 years now, and I don’t think it’s going to keep my interest forever. And I haven’t really thought about what I’ll be into next.”
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