March 31 1999 by Allison Hersh
Shepard Fairey’s absurdist propaganda coming to Savannah
You may not know who Shepard Fairey is, but chances are you’ve seen his work around Savannah … or somewhere else in America. Fairey’s designs, featuring a black-and-white illustration of the face of obey giant emblazoned with the word “obey,” have been plastered on abandoned storefronts, bus stops and telephone poles across the country.
Through what he calls “an elaborate propaganda campaign,” this 30-year-old illustrator, graphic designer and photographer has immortalized the black-eyed visage of obey giant, the late professional wrestler who weighed in at more than 500 pounds and stood 7-4 tall. In the process, Fairey questions the very foundation of American-style capitalism.
On Friday and Saturday, Fairey will host “Giant Coming to Your Town,” an exhibit of his original absurdist propaganda art, at the old York Lane Theater. Approximately 30 images will be on display, with screenprints of Fairey’s work and T-shirts available for purchase.
Many of the propaganda screenprints on display incorporate photography, combining Fairey’s photographs with original illustration. Inspired by Andy Warhol, Fairey has a deeply rooted fascination with popular culture, particularly the iconography of advertising, capitalism and commercialism.
More than 1 million stickers, 15,000 posters and countless spray paint stencils have been posted worldwide, making the Giant project one of the most ambitious and widespread art campaigns ever launched. The Giant icon has surfaced on television in shows like “Homicide,” “Law and Order” and “Veronica’s Closet,” and has even appeared in movies like “Batman Forever,” “The Devil’s Own” and “8MM.”
“The obey giant sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings,” Fairey explains in his Giant Manifesto. “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.”
What exactly does the Giant sticker mean? “The sticker has no meaning,” Fairey explains, “but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.”
The Giant campaign has been treated as an act of vandalism, as an assault upon the urban landscape, but Fairey argues that billboards and other advertising media use the same method to sell products.
“Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed with the sticker, which they consider to be an eyesore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images that everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.”
According to Fairey, the Giant campaign serves as a critique of “society’s trendy and conspicuously consumptive nature,” a criticism of the way in which we thoughtlessly accept the advertising messages that bombard our senses daily.
Originally from Charleston, Fairey attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he majored in illustration. He started a screenprinting business in Providence, R.I., before moving to San Diego in 1996. Fairey has since become one of the most revered underground artists in America, the subject of articles in Wired, Raygun and The New York Times Magazine.
Through Black Market Designs in San Diego, Fairey designs T-shirts, skateboards, posters and assorted items emblazoned with the Giant image. He has created an extensive series of absurdist propaganda prints that will be on display in Savannah next weekend. These screenprints continue what Fairey calls “an absurdist propaganda campaign.”
The propaganda series continues the project Fairey began with his legendary Giant campaign. “The Giant project has been a populist street campaign,” he says. “As an artist I also enjoy working with a little more detail. The propaganda pieces are a little less disposable than the street posters.”