Shepard Fairey

January 01, 2000

Whenever I’m in Raleigh, I always drop in to Lump Gallery on Blount Street to visit my friend Bill Thelen and check out the latest art work. Last October, Bill and I got to talking about the upcoming show-the screenprints of San Diego artist Shepard Fairey. You know-the guy that does all of the obey giant has a Posse stuff?

I was somewhat familiar with the work but Bill filled me in on some of the details and thought that Shepard would be a perfect candidate for ‘Sup. Bill was more than right. My interview with Shepard was by far one of the easiest and most fun I’ve ever done.

A former student of Rhode Island School of Design, Shepard now lives in San Diego working for a design firm, Black Market, that he co-owns with a friend. He does the Andre stuff on the side and spends the little free time he has skateboarding and showing at small galleries, the most recent in London last December.

The show opened the First Friday in November and I went over to Raleigh a little early accompanied by my two friends, Katie and Penny. On the trip over we all exchanged Andre stories and all wondered why anyone but the artist themself would want to spread propaganda all over public spaces. “Why don’t those losers just start their own art project?” we wondered. But believe it or not, after chatting with Shepard, I too actually found myself helping him and his cousins sticker Chapel Hill Saturday afternoon and it was actually fun.

Katie and I have yet to come up with our own little project.

So what sort of stuff were you making at RISD?

Shepard: All I really knew how to do when I got to RISD was photography and drawing. I had always drawn and I felt like that was my strength. I’d done a lot of paper-cut stencil bootleg T-shirts in high school, you know Sid Viscious, Husker Du, the Misfits and stuff like that but I saw that as a way to make T-shirts. I didn’t see that as having any connection to my fine art. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had dumb ideas back then.

Anyway, then as I learned more about screenprinting, I learned how to do photo-emulsion screenprinting my freshman year and I took some two-dimensional design. I started doing a lot more Xerox art, so all of a sudden you could see how illustration and photo could connect in the middle with Xerox and screenprinting. You can kind of manipulate a Xerox to where it’s partially drawn and partially photographic, so that’s what I started doing. I started getting into a lot of political stuff, like I guess any college student does, like question authority, stop racism, freedom of speech, sort of boring stuff. But, I think that’s something I had to go through. At that point I still wasn’t seeing a connection between mass production screenprinting and fine art.

When did you start incorporating obey giant into your work?

Shepard: The summer after my freshman year I made the first Andre sticker. It was kind of a fluke, but I was having fun with it and then people wanted shirts, so I started making shirts. And then people started asking me to design some shirts. This skateboard clothing company called Jobless Anti-Work Wear asked me to design some shirts and I did that. Mostly through school I was doing screenprints from my own photographs because I liked photography a lot, but I didn’t really like the surface of photo paper. When I started doing it, I would spraypaint on the film that I used to shoot the screens, so that it added this ethereal texture to it. Then I would layer up starting from a light gray or whatever tone I was using all the way to black, building up from the detail in the brightest highlights in the darkest place to the detail in the brightest highlights in the lightest plate.

A lot of times the problem with a photo is that you get detail in one area or the other, so I was dodging and burning every film super technical, like five layers. Sometimes I would spraypaint the paper silver and do all of this crazy stuff, but I was making editions of about 10 prints. I still look back at that stuff and I like it, but it was really labor-intensive for not all that a compelling result. All the while, the parallel thing that was going on was that I was doing more T-shirt graphics for Jobless and other people were asking me to do stuff. Jobless was a bunch of fuck-ups so I decided to start my own screenprinting company. I did that the summer after my junior year and bought some equipment with some money that I had saved and I rented a teeny little space and started screenprinting some of my own designs.

Were you doing Andre stuff?

Shepard: At first it was just one Andre shirt that had his head big on the back and 7’4” 520 on the chest. I was doing some other designs, one had a scene of cops shooting rubber bullets at guys in South Africa and it said something about ignorance. It was all of this Rage Against the Machine sort of shit. There was another one with a Nazi skinhead and a black guy going “Ahh,” and it said “Stop Racism.” Another one had a skateboarder holding his board and it said, “Stop police boredom, Skateboard!” I got bored of the basic Andre design, so I started wanting to do some derivatives. The thing just made me laugh, so I wanted to incorporate it into other stuff I was doing.

So what inspired you to do the first Andre design?

Shepard: This is what it was. The summer after my freshman year, my parents wanted me to come home, but I didn’t want to come home. So, I begged this guy that who a stoner to let me work part-time at the skateshop so he could go bail and get high and go look for dancehall records during part of the day. I mean this guy wore red, yellow and green armband and he would drive by and you would see his arm come slowly out of the window and he would go, “Raaaagaaaamuffin…Boke.” [we all crack up laughing at Shepard’s impersonation]

He was also the nephew of the guy who owned the store, they were called Watershed and this was the downtown one. So, first Bill just let me work part of his hours and I was super excited that I got to work at the skateshop because I love skateboarding. I could hang out all day and do paper-cut stencils and hardly anyone came through really. If anyone besides someone with their mom wanted their deck set up, I would just had them the tools and keep working on my paper-cut thing. I could listen to my music and I had a key so I could come back after hours and drink beer in there and do whatever I wanted to do.

Because it was called the Watershed, we had Team Shed and everyone on the team got a 30 percent discount on all the products. Since I was running the shop, I was kind of like team captain. I was making these Xerox stickers for Team Shed and making those paper-cut stencils everyday, a new one like Metallica or whatever. I was running off five shirts and then I’d bring them in. My boss was never there and so when they sold, I just kept all the money. So I was selling them for less than their shirts, I was undercutting the store and keeping all the money.

I guess everybody saw me doing that sort of stuff and they all wanted something. You know that shitty chocolate milk drink, Yoo-hoo? This kid was like, “Make me a custom Yoo-hoo shirt, I’ll bring you a yellow shirt.” And so I would cut a two-color stencil for one Yoo-hoo shirt, that’s how much time I had on my hands.

My friend was staying over one night and he wanted to learn how to make a stencil, so I was like “What do you want to do?” and he didn’t know what he wanted to do. So I was looking through the newspaper, this is all totally random, and I saw this ad for wrestling. I was like, “You should do this, you should do obey giant and we’ll make a shirt for you. And when people ask what it is, you say, ‘What? It’s the Andre possee, you don’t know?'”

Up to that point it had always been Team Shed, so the idea was to create a new hierarchy within the hierarchy that was existing at the skateshop that was just an inside joke goof. So he tried to do it with an exacto knife and he got really frustrated and couldn’t finish, he was just flailing. So I took it and I finished it and I wrote that shit in with ballpoint pen and it took me like five minutes. Then I just made a bunch of them and gave them to Eric. He made a really crappy spraypaint stencil for his grip-tape that just said Possee.

After I made the Xerox for the original sticker, I took the bad paper-cut stencil thing and screenprinted it on the sleeve of a shirt, one for me and one for him I took a Sharpie and did like pointilism all the little grains in the face. But, it was just a joke. I gave them to all the guys from Team Shed and we started hitting the skate spots and some stops signs and stuff like that with them. I was at the grocery store one day and I heard this girl talking to her boyfriend going, “Hey, have you seen that obey giant thing around, what is that?” Then I saw one guy at a party with one stuck on his baseball hat and I saw one on a car bumper, and these were all just crappy Kinko’s paper stickers. I just realized that this was funny.

It was having an effect on more than the crowd it was intended to effect. And the whole thing with posse was that we were all starting to listen to Ice-T, Public Enemy, NWA and they were always talking about their posse, so it was our white boy affectatation of that culture. We felt it was a little bit taboo to steal from that, but at the same time that made it appealing as well. So, you know when you knew you were crossing the line, you kind of liked to straddle it as well.

It was just kind of making fun of all that stuff that we were into and the whole deal with all of the kids tagging at the skate spots, there was a real weird gang competitive mentality that never reached violence but there was a lot of shit talking. You know how it is with skateboarders. When I noticed how reactant people were to just a few more stickers, I was like, “Hmm, well if they’re reacting like this to this many, what if I just put a few more up?” And more people reacted.

It became my mission, my goal to hit every stop sign in downtown Providence. There was only a few hundred so it didn’t even take that long. By the end of the first summer, right when school was starting, the indie paper, called The Nice Paper, had a contest and whoever could say what the obey giant stuff was about could win tickets to a show of their choice. That was great because that was more free publicity for it and I was already starting to understand how you could take advantage and exploit this sort of thing. So that was it.

When would you say it staring catching on a lot in cities beyond Providence?

Shepard: That summer it was still pretty small and it was still just paper stickers, then the following year I was working for Jobless and they printed vinyl stickers, so I got some vinyl stickers done. I did vinyl stickers and people were like “No way, this isn’t just some art fag thing, this is kind of legitimate.” Just the fact that they were vinyl and not paper took it up a level.

I guess it’s sort of like when a zine goes from photocopies to newsprint.

Yeah, yeah totally. I was starting to do all of that my sophomore year and it was mostly just Providence. We went on school field trips to Boston a couple of times and I put them up in Boston. They were all around RISD and people were mailing them to friends at other schools and stuff. It’s really infectious and at a college it catches on so quickly. I’d have to say that when it really starting spreading was that Christmas.

I went home and all of my friends were there and it snowed in Charleston and there was nothing to do but sit around. So we walked to Kinko’s and we made stickers and just walked around in the snow and put them up. My five friends all got the bug. They were so into it and it was all we did that whole vacation. Somehow my friend John was like, “Hey, why don’t you give me a proof sheet, so I can take it back to Athens and make them and spread them around Athens.” My friend Ballard was like, “Let me take one to New York.” So then, that’s when I saw it as sort of having chain letter potential and that if other people got into it I could get all of these other disciples in other cities.

Yeah, we’re from Florida and Penny said she used to see them around in Riverside in the early 90s.

Yeah, in ’92 I went through Jacksonville. I did an East Coast tour. I went from Boston to Miami and back. I put a ton of stickers in Jacksonville. I went to Kona and skated there and just put them all over Jacksonville. I’ve gotten letters from Jacksonville before. I get tons of letters.

What do they say?

Shepard: I love your stickers, I want stickers or whatever. I want to be a member of the posse. [laughs all around] I want to spread it, it’s funny. They think there’s a real posse, like they get a card or something. [Katie chimes in…What’s my membership fee?] Yeah, do I get a T-shirt?

A laminated card with my picture?

Shepard: Yeah, your head with Andre’s body…The following summer, my dad gave me a hand-me-down car. John came up and stayed with me the whole summer. We had the keys to Jobless and we would just go in there at night and screenprint stickers, like all night. [Katie and I start laughing because it sounds like a familiar scene to us…when we printed the ‘Sup anniversary posters, maybe?] By then, the whole gangster rap thing was in full-swing and we were brown-bagging it while we printed stickers. We were obsessed. We were driving to New York, driving to Boston and we had vinyl stickers and we were making-well, we thought we were so advanced because we were making three sizes. [giggles around] We had big ones and we were like, “Yeah, you know that’s about 50 foot range size for stop signs and higher up signs.” Then we had little ones that were for in restaurants and then we had the regular size ones-the 2 1/2 inch squares. That was when it really started.

Then skaters were going like “Let me take some of those dude, I’m goin’ on a road trip.” So, that’s when it really started. It had no real return monetarily yet. I was making a few T-shirts, but it was mostly just a giveaway and I sold a few. Then the following summer was when I started my screenprinting business and started seilling a lot of shirts. I was spending a lot of money on stickers and I was trying to figure out a way to put money back into it.

Do you have any idea how many people are involved in it?

Shepard: Everyday I get at least 15 letters and at least 10 to 15 emails. Most of the stuff is requests for posters and stickers.

So you don’t really try to keep track of it huh?

Shepard: I have a box that’s just people that bought stuff so if I ever want to put a mailing list together I know the people that were serious about it. I gotten contacted from thousands and thousands of people.

From all over the world?

Shepard: Just from the last two months, I have two cardboard boxes full of mail. There’s a person that works for me full-time answering the mail and taking care of that stuff.

[Katie reminds me of a question]…Do you have a staff?

Shepard: There’s a person who puts posters in tubes, addresses them and sends them back out. I send stickers to whoever requests them whether they send money or not. But, some of the people, like the graffiti kids, they’ll say, “Yeah, yo I’m down.” But, I know those guys are just bombers and they’ll wreck shit. So I had stencils made in Mexico for like 20 cents each, so I’ll send those kids stencils. There are people who are buying the thin offset printed posters and I’ll sell them for $1 each. They’ll buy them and put them up. There are people that say “I don’t have any money, but if you send me stuff to Xerox, I’ll put it up.” So, I’ll send them 11 x 17 black and white art and they can just go to Kinko’s and do it themselves. It’s a lot of time to spend and our business is growing pretty fast and with all of the graphic design stuff I don’t have time to do it myself.

Just to answer my emails takes me an hour everyday. A lot of them have very in depth questions.

Do you answer all of them?

Shepard: Yeah, people don’t really know how busy I am and I don’t want to snub them if they have a question that at least seems important to them, so I stay late. I stay in the office a lot late at night.

Do you do all of this through Black Market?

Shepard: I pay for it with my own money out of the poster sales.

And what you do for Black Market is just other designs?

Shepard: Have you been to the website?


Shepard: I do stuff for Mountain Dew, Hasbro…

That’s what I was going to ask you about because it seems like a lot of thought behind your work is like anti-advertising, anti…

Conspicuos consumption,

Shepard: Right…

That’s what it is.

Yeah but then, that’s the stuff that’s…

The stuff that’s designed to promote it?

Shepard: Yeah.

It’s not the companies that I have a problem with, it’s the people. It’s the people that allow themselves to be manipulated that are so susceptible. Though I’m taking the approach of doing stuff that parodies advertising propaganda, which might seem like an attack on the companies, it’s really an attack on the process of absorption of those images.

Capitalism is great. I think competition is really healthy. I think it makes people work hard and you get rewarded for being innovative and working hard. I think ads are great because it’s so awesome to see all of the clever devices people use to get you to buy something. How can you look at an ad and be like, “Okay, ultimately I’m supposed to buy something. Whether this is making me associate myself with a desirable lifestyle or making me feel insecure if I don’t have this thing or I’m better because I do.” That’s someone’s choice to allow themselves to feel insecure about it. No one’s making you buy anything. That’s why I have such a problem with legislating the tobacco companies out of business. Nobody makes you smoke, it’s your choice.

Giant’s just…I hate it when I start talking about the serious side of it when it’s not the main part. The main part is just making fun of everything.

So Adbusters did something on you, right?

Shepard: Well, this was one of the direct attacks on a company. I usually don’t do this, but for some reason I really felt personally angry about this Okay soda campaign that Coke was doing. Have you guys seen that? [Katie saw it] Well, they only test-marketed it in nine cities, but it’s crazy how these things work. My dad subscribes to Time and I was home the beginning of the summer in ’94.

My dad gives the magazine to me and says, “Son, I think you should check this out, it looks like the stuff you’re doing.” It’s an article about “Coke launches new project targeted at Generation X.” It’s Okay soda. There’s three can designs. One is designed by Dan Clauss, the guy that does Eightball Comics-pretty cool, but kind of riding the grunge low-fi look trend, you know but two years too late. It’s called Okay Soda, the psychology which was that everything overpromises and people are really numb to that, so it will be very jarring to underpromise and get great attention for the product. I was not sure how I felt about when I saw the Time article, but I kind of thought, “This is a good thing to make fun of.”

When I got back to Providence, I assumed it was going to be a national project because there was an article in Time. I already started doing art that was a knock-off of it. Then all of a sudden I started seeing paper stickers of it around and street paste-ups and it would say really teeny, “Product of the Coca-Cola company.” So they were trying to look like somebody that had no money, like underground. They weren’t doing billboards. And they were doing paper stickers, like shitty quality stickers like this was a new underground soft drink company. Don’t trust those corporate devils…buy a case of it…by Coca-Cola. Then when I went to Boston they were advertising in the subways.

I made these posters that were making fun of it that said “AG,” like obey giant, instead of “OK,” and had Andre with his funny haircut. I measured they’re subway placards, printed ones on glossy stock with the same color inks, perfect and went into the subways and put them over theirs. We even went around and did wall posting.

One night these Guitos drove by and were like, “Yo dude, whatch you puttin’ up?” I even held one up and it said, “AG,” and they were like, “OK Soda, yeeeaaahh.” It was so funny and that’s why Adbusters did that thing because we videotaped the whole thing. That was probably the first really organized and executed sabotage campaign that I did.

Have you done any other ones?

Shepard: Yeah, I took out thirteen of the Sprite Obey Your Thirst billboards. Since I use Obey all the time anyway…it was just white type in the center of a black billboard with a small Sprite logo in the left hand corner and a Sprite bottle that ran top to bottom on the right hand side. I would just paint paper black and I measured everything. I made Andre heads that fit perfectly under the word Obey from there to the bottom of the billboard. I covered all the Sprite stuff except the word Obey in black. I did seven in L.A., two in San Diego and four in San Francisco. And then they ended the campaign. I did one on Melrose Ave. right in the middle of the shopping district…thousands of people saw that.

So you’ve been arrested a few times for vandalism?

Shepard: Five times.

Tell me about that? Has that been pretty gnarly? Have you had any lawsuits?

Shepard: The closest thing to having a lawsuit was recently in San Diego. I never got caught in the act, so they really didn’t know what to do. They sent emails to the site threatening me.

Who did?

Shepard: The city, some Public Relations person for the city, that was this lady Ida Ford, who I got to meet a little later in person, which really sucked. But, I’ll tell you about some of the other stuff first. I’ve just been straight up arrested for, the charges range from Advertising without a permit-they always make it sound so bad you’d think you were about to assassinate the President, like Malicious destruction of public property. Let’s see, Possession of a tool of criminal mischief if you have a can of spraypaint on you. There’s been a lot of different things. I got arrested for putting up a sticker. It was because RISD security had been wanting to get me for so long. They actually had a picture of me in the security office.

So it was like a wanted poster or something?

Shepard: Yeah, and my real name is Frank Shepard Fairey, so they didn’t even know me as Shepard, they knew me as Frank. There was a picture that said Frank Fairey. It was my RISD ID picture that they had on file. This was the first time I got arrested for it. This was in ’95, the first year they had the X Games, which were called the Extreme Games at first. They were held in Providence and the downhill slalom course was right in front of the school, the same hill I would always skate down.

They had all of these hay bales on the course and they had all of these cameras fixed above the course. During the trials I had seen ESPN helicopters flying above and I was like, “Awesome, they’re going to film it from above.” I had this stencil that folded up. It was five feet and I folded it up into four pieces so I could carry it under my arm. So I went out there and they had this little guy in a golf cart driving around the course and I figured out how long it took him to get around the whole course. So right when he went buy the first time, I went out and I spraypainted the shape of the face in silver. And then I hid. And then he went around again. It was like Scooby-Doo or something. It was so funny.

I ran back out and I stenciled the black over the silver. I did this on three places on the court. So the next day, “I’m like all right, let’s turn on ESPN.” But they’re not filming anything from the helicopters, it’s all from this weird angle. You could sort of see the face but the perspective was so tweaked you couldn’t really tell what it is. I was just like “Fuck I can’t believe this. All of this hard work and I’m getting no results on national T.V.”

So the following night, I went out with just big stickers and I stuck them on all of the Taco Bell banners and stuff. I guess one of the RISD security guards saw me and as I was walking back up the hill, he confronted me. Right as he confronted me, he grabs me and was like, “Empty your pockets.” I had some regular size stickers in there. He must have already called the cops because right then three cop cars pull up. And then another three came. There was six cop cars there for me putting up stickers.

When he was like, “Do you have any ID?” It was just like this, I pull out my wallet and I hand him my ID. He was just like, [in a shaky voice], “I got Frank, I got Frank here, I got Frank here.” [we all die laughing] You see this guy was new, he wasn’t even around when I was in school, so he had just heard about the legacy or something.

Yeah, you know he got a raise.

He was so excited. I spent the night in jail because of that.

Does it bother you that people peg you as this sort of Generation X art guy?

Shepard: There’s the whole Juxtapose art scene, which is low-brow art. I guess people are putting me in that scene, but at the same time a lot of that stuff has been not just appealing to that crowd but appealing to the graphic design crowd too. It kind of bugs me, but I think fine art is dead anyway. I really don’t like any of the high-brow gallery stuff at all. None of that inspires me at all. I like stuff that has some resonance of everyday life. Everybody wants to label everything, like this is punk, this is hip-hop, this is grunge, whatever. It’s just a convenient way for people to categorize it.