March 9, 2001
“Obey: Giant” Fad Takes Over American Teens By Dan Wedge
Any person living in Oak Park, assuming the have not been living under a rock or in a hole, surely, upon sight, would recognize the leering face of “The Giant.” The grotesque black and white face, staring down at people from street signs, building walls, and billboards, while hardly being accepted as part of our culture, is an extremely familiar sight to most people. About a hundred copies have been seen around our town, and the symbol appeared spray-painted in green in several places near Oak Park High School a few months ago. The estimated 20 million copies of the image around the world, in sticker, poster, or collage form, cannot be ignored any longer.
Upon first sight of the image, most people ask, “What is the product being sold by this? What is it advertising? What does it mean?” The answer to these questions: nothing. The image does not represent anything besides the ugly, monstrous face of the former wrestler, the Giant. No product is being sold. The face means, externally, nothing. One will next ask, typically, “Why are there 2 million copies of an image that means nothing?” The answer to this question is slightly more complicated.
The whole phenomenon started in 1989. Shepard Fairey, a resident of a Rhode Island suburb, and former art-student at a local community college, created the image as part of an inside joke that he shared with a friend. He altered a picture of the 7’4,” 520 lb. behemoth known as Andre the Giant, a wrestler/super-icon who was known for his ugliness. The symbol quickly became familiar in the town and people who saw it began to spread it around the country. The phenomenon thus began with a tiny, insignificant action, intended to be nothing more than an inside joke between two skateboarders in a small town. Now, 11 years later, the image has become so widespread that one can even see it on MTV every night, during the opening credits for one of the most popular TV shows in the nation, TRL. However, in no way was the sole action of one man in Rhode Island the driving force behind the ensuing turn of events; it took much more than his single action to create the phenomenon. After Fairey began it, human nature itself took hold and expanded on it.
From that point on, the sticker campaign has become known as an “experiment in Phenomenology,” which is defined as the process of letting things manifest themselves. When one questions the meaning of the sticker, and realizes that it indeed means nothing, one of three things will typically happen. Some will get mad and annoyed at its constant, meaningless presence, which is ironic considering the constant barrage of commercial graphics we are assaulted with. Others see it as “cool” and counterculture and want to do it too. Others still recognize it as an interesting, enriching, and enlightening part of our culture. Because the face of the Giant has no actually meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities. Those who get annoyed with it will attempt to reverse the trend, and tear down the sticker or inform the police. They are typically older, and more accepting of the way society is. They are usually already stuck in their autopilot world. However, the other groups of people often undertake to perpetuate the trend.
Often, their reaction will be to want to be part of the phenomenon. Many teenagers in today’s society have the constant urge to become part of something bigger, especially if it is secretive, counter-culture, and rebellious. The actual act of postering and stickering, for these people, is what matters. It is the social and cultural sense of belonging that comes along with perpetuating the trend that makes them keep stickering. The typical person who continues the phenomenon for these reasons has been categorized as a rebellious teen or pre-teen, or at least one who likes to think of his or herself as rebellious. They typically like to think of themselves as anti-consumerism and anti-establishment. They are usually younger people, who have not yet begun to understand the world and know themselves well.
Others want to perpetuate and continue the trend for another reason: They want to give meaning to the meaningless image. For these people, the grotesque and ludicrous image of Andre has come to represent the counterculture ideal. They want to get people away from their autopilot, mundane lives, and teach them a lesson in “imagery absorption.” They want to make people more aware of their surroundings. Going along with the anti-commercialism ideal, they often want to stop people from taking for granted to infinite number of commercial images we take in every day. As Shepard Fairey himself said, “They want to point out the conspicuously consumptive nature or today’s society. These people are usually older and more committed to the act of continuing to sustain the trend, and will gladly spend hours in Kinko’s reproducing the image of the Giant. They want to impact society in a significant and idealistic way, and thus provide the driving force behind the perpetuation of the Giant phenomenon.
For others still, the act of perpetuation the sticker campaign merely fulfils their need to create art. Shepard Fairey, the creator and partly, the perpetuator of the trend, is one of these people. He has taken the original image and used his creative talents to make aesthetic and meaningful renditions of it. One of his favorite images is the face of Che Guevara, the famous Argentine freedom fighter, morphed with the face of Andre.
He has created a worldwide distribution system to get his stickers and posters out there. His art is not only beautiful, but also informative about other cultures. His purpose, which perpetuates the trend, is to create art: he mass-produces his carious images and tries to make the world a more beautiful, meaningful place.
Without the obvious actions of Shepard Fairey the trend would likely cease its forward drive. However, the real causes of the phenomenon have to do with certain aspects of human nature, which make certain people do the things they do. The need to belong to something and the need to influence society in a positive direction are ingrained aspects of human psychology. Whether an individuals response to the symbol is positive or negative, Fairey and those who wish to perpetuate the phenomenon for as long as possible consider it worthwhile, as long as the symbol causes people to consider the essence and details of the environment and the world around them.