March 22, 2000
By Dave Good
Shepard Fairey On Graffiti, Breaking the Law, and the Meaningless of Meaning.
I close my notepad and turn to go. The detective rises slowly, snaps off his desk lamp, relights his cigar, and opens the door.
“Oh — just one more thing,” I say before I leave his putrid office. “That guy — the paper hanger who’s been putting up those ‘Giant’ posters all over town. . .””Go on,” says the cop.
“I think I might have a lead for you.”
The name rolls out of his mouth on a giant cloud of smoke.
“I talked to him last night outside of the Royal Liquor on 14th.”
“Wait a minute.” The cop leans toward me. Suddenly, I feel the eyes of the other cops in the precinct on me, too.
“You mean to tell me — you know that punk?”
It takes just under two minutes to put up a 24″ by 36″ poster, about half an hour to cover a whole wall with them. It’s a little like hanging wallpaper. First, the surface gets a coating of paste, a good thick layer of it that goes on with a brush. Then, the backside of the poster gets pasted, sized onto the wall, and, finally, the front side gets brushed down with the paste. The result, when dried, is artwork that is nearly impossible to peel off.
Posters have been around for centuries. They are one of the earliest forms of organized communication. Circuses at the turn of the century, politicians, and public hangings have all been advertised via poster art; movie, show, and record promoters still use posters to motivate consumers today. Posters are cheap, colorful, semi-permanent, and, ultimately, disposable.
But along with semi-permanence, time is an important concept to an outlaw poster hanger like Shepard Fairey. Every tick of every second that it takes to hang his black, white, and red screen prints of obey giant, with the simple message, ‘Giant,’ or the ominous ‘Obey,’ means exposure to the risk of arrest. It is an act of vandalism to paste posters on the kinds of public property that appeal to Fairey: traffic lights, power boxes, foundations, retaining walls, abandoned buildings. Without permission, it is against the law for Fairey to paste any posters anywhere.
“Last weekend at Balboa and Genesee — it’s a real busy intersection,” says Fairey, “I can see three out of the four corners. I was just finishing hanging a poster, and up pulls two cops. They get out and they go, ‘What are you doin’?’ And I say, ‘I was just putting up a poster to advertise my friend’s band [not true],’ and they say, ‘Oh really uh, what band is it?’ I say, ‘Oh, they’re called Giant.’ The cop says, ‘Looks like some kind of Communist stuff.’ I say, ‘Really? I don’t see that at all.’
“And he goes, ‘Yeah, looks like Lenin, that Communist guy.’ ‘Lenin?’ I say, ‘I dunno who it is. It looks more like a mixture of Donald Sutherland and Michael Stipe to me.’ And then he says, ‘Yeah, that’s true. It does look kinda like those guys.’
“‘Then they say, ‘Well, did you know that it’s a misdemeanor and a $150 dollar fine to put posters on public property?’ I say, ‘No, there are already posters on this box, so I figured it doesn’t matter.’ They just say, ‘Well, you got your choice. You can take it down, or you can pay $150 dollars.’ I say, ‘No problem, I’ll take it down.”
He laughs when he tells the story, but Shepard Fairey’s been to jail several times for illegally posting his art in cities like Seattle, New York, Providence, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. An insulin-dependant diabetic, Fairey nearly died in a New York jail when a guard denied him the use of his medications. “After two days without insulin, I started throwing up something that looked like radiator fluid,” he says. “It’s not legal [to withhold medications], but you don’t have any rights in jail. When they finally realized that I was going down, they took me to a hospital. My blood sugar was over 800 [as opposed to a normal reading of 120]. I never felt so bad in my life.
“I never get fined very much,” he says. “In Long Beach, I got fined $250 dollars, in Charleston, I got fined $165 dollars, and here, it was $150. “In Philadelphia,” he says, “I knew I wasn’t going to be in town, so I just never showed up for the court date, so there’s probably a warrant out for my arrest there. It’s not all that much money — it’s sort of more the whole principal of it. You get treated so badly for going out and hanging a poster on an electrical box. I kinda look at it like, that’s just the intense side of what I’m reacting against anyway. If anybody could go out and put posters up without punishment, I probably wouldn’t be trying to point out the contradictions in the fact that someone can put a billboard up but it’s illegal to put up a poster.”
Taken as a whole, the images do project the possibility of a hidden, darker meaning: “Giant! — bigger than you!” “Obey! — or be punished!” Fairey’s obey giant and other menacing faces glare at traffic from vantage points throughout the city.
GIANT, they proclaim. OBEY, they order.
They are like the first posters in a sequence of weird advertisements that never come, and their lack of explanation implies that if one were truly hip, one would know what they meant. But no one but Fairey knows, and in the absence of an explanation, people create answers of their own.
One such interpretation was supplied by Bob Dingeman, “Mr Scripps Ranch,” writing in SCRA, a newsletter: “Over the past month or so, hate signs have appeared in a few places in the ranch. The signs, which have been pasted on utility boxes and schools, are somewhat innocuous (sic), sometimes having a face and the phrase, ‘Obey.'”
Hate signs? Far from it, says the 29-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and partner in the graphics firm Black Market. In his Giant Manifesto, Fairey writes, “Because people are used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product motive is not obvious, encounters with the poster provoke thought, possibly frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The posters have no meaning, but exist only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. . . the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”
“Some people say, ‘Oh you just think you’re a bad-ass, going out and doing all this illegal stuff, because you think it’s cool that you get busted, that you’re a rebel.
“No,” says Fairey. “That’s not the motivation at all. I definitely have a mischievous side, and I enjoy that, but that’s not the motivation. It’s more of just a way to get my art out there. If somebody just donated a billboard to me, a lotta graffiti guys would say, ‘Dude, that’s legal, so it ain’t real.’ But for me, it’s about the exposure, not whether it’s legal or illegal.” Obey! See Shepard Fairey’s artwork on display — legally — this month at Superfly West, 610 Broadway, San Diego.