Guerrilla artist Shepard Fairey’s images stare you into thinking … hopefully March 15 2001
By Andrew Ramsay
What started as an inside joke between skateboarding friends in Providence R.I., has evolved during the past decade into something just short of a phenomenon. And in a world that’s driven by marketing slogans and advertisement imagery, sometimes it takes the utterly absurd to show us how far we’re willing to leap. Standing on the edge of that cliff, watching the lemmings take the plunge, is guerilla artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey.
In 1989, while still an art student, Fairey doctored a grainy image of Andre Roussimoff, the 7-foot-5-inch actor and professional wrestler better known as “obey giant.” Adding the phrase “obey giant has a posse,” Fairey canvassed the image across his Rhode Island community. He certainly never expected anything to come from it.
Aside from “skateboarders and musicians, I didn’t expect anyone to get caught in the fray, even care or notice it,” explains Fairey. But the image did catch, traveled the world and, in the end, took on a life of its own.
Visiting Las Vegas for the first time to take part in the most recent MAGIC tradeshow, Fairey brought his Giant image along for the ride. No longer just a punch line without the joke, he sees the image almost as an extension of himself. “It’s evolved a lot over the years,” he explains. “In a way, (now) it’s a vehicle I use to express myself. Metaphorically, it’s replaced my signature.” While in the Valley, he says he took time out of the sightseeing and Nevada-style entertainment to slap up dozens of his posters on vacant signs, buildings and utility boxes.
Through the years, Fairey has been labeled as everything from a skate-punk, a troublemaker, a vandal and even a hate monger. But he insists that the image is nothing more than tongue-in-cheek mockery. And although he admits that he doesn’t get permission to put up his art, he also doesn’t slap the image up haphazardly. “I look for power boxes, abandoned signs, I see them as unadorned totems.”
Recently in an affluent San Diego suburb, parents groups, seeing an image of glowering eyes over the ominous single word, “obey,” feared the worse. The concern was that a hate group had entered their suburban community to recruit their children. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fairey feels that the public has been so trained to absorb images that the more ridiculous the image, the more absurd the conclusion people willingly leap to. “To be honest,” he says, “it gives me a chuckle most of the time.”
For Fairey, the intent of art is to deconstruct this iconolatry. He no longer uses the tagline “obey giant has a posse,” finding it more powerful to use cuttingly direct language: “Giant” or “Obey.” The result? People who happen upon his images have a reaction, and that’s exactly what he wants.
“People get suckered by manipulative advertising,” he says. “When they see (my image) they may feel threatened or insulted.” But to Fairey, that’s the point. People should be insulted with most of the images that surround them, certainly when it comes to advertising.
And like the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, looking down upon the ash heaps and the millionaires, Fairey’s image looks upon us as well. And whether you’re numbly driving to work, or squandering your leisure on the Strip, if you see the eyes, stop and think. Abstractions, imagery, manipulation all are reduced down to singularity. Or as the artist more succinctly puts it: “Just think about what you’re looking at.”