Shepard Fairey, Citizen Artist
By Antonino D’Ambrosio, June 2009 issue
For those of us growing up under the shadow of the Reagan Presidency, the 1980s were a bleak time. In an effort to grab hold of something positive, some of us were set free in the graffiti and skateboarding community. Armed with a skateboard, a spray paint can, and a pair of Dickies work pants bursting with cassettes from the Clash, Black Flag, Public Enemy, and Minor Threat, we rolled around the neighborhood scrawling public art on the scores of abandoned buildings that once bustled with workers but were left to rot. It was our attempt to reclaim what was lost by creating something new. During one late night ride we spotted a set of posters with the stenciled image of wrestler Andre the Giant and one lone word printed boldly below the face: “Obey.” It got our attention.
Soon, it was impossible not to see “Obey Giant” plastered all over Washington, D.C., Boston, or Baltimore, and appearing next to the famous tags “Cost” and “Revs” in New York. The image declared, “Andre the Giant has a posse,” and behind the posse was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
A skateboarder and punk music fan, Shepard Fairey, born in Charleston, South Carolina, activated a new movement with defiant echoes of the French Letterists, the fury of ’70s punk, and the confrontational style of 1980s artists Winston Smith, Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon, and Robbie Conal.
“My early work was angry,” Fairey says. “It was absurdist propaganda coming from more of a Dada or nihilistic approach. Since then, I’ve tried to channel my frustration and anger in a positive way but still remain critical, analytical, and willing to embrace what we have in common as people rather than just taking a stand for how I’m different from all that I hate.”
Two decades later, the thirty-nine-year-old street artist made the world stop, think, and act with the now iconic Obama “Hope” poster. Carried out with no assistance from the Obama campaign, the spread of the “Hope” poster was a grassroots effort.
“By the end of the first week 10,000 posters were dispersed and it was all over the Internet,” he says. “All it took was an image that could be passed along, helping demonstrate just how profoundly Obama was affecting people because now there was a symbol they could share.”
How Fairey moved from “Obey” to “Hope” reflects the urgency he embraces as a citizen-artist.
There is a distinct worldview linking those of us raised in the ’80s who rejected the reactionary rhetoric of the United States as a “city on a hill,” taking its rightful place as the world’s lone superpower. The ideology behind it was out of touch with where we, as world citizens, needed to be placing our energies and hopes.
“The idea of being a citizen of the world because we are interconnected, and that we can make a difference, is what was communicated by great artists of the past,” Fairey explains. With work that includes the image of a riot cop wielding a baton with the message “I’m going to kick your ass and get away with it” or another image stating “You Are Under Surveillance,” Fairey’s early street art touched a nerve because it questioned the unopposed supremacy of the powerful. His art said it was time not to “Obey” but instead to act. “Art should be about a visceral connection first, then an intellectual connection second,” Fairey says.
Fairey’s work exhibits a historical awareness, amplifying a range of creative and political influences, including the Situationists. The international group of artistic-political agitators used graffiti slogans like “Action must not be a reaction, but a creation,” “Politics is in the streets,” and “Power to the imagination” to great effect during the student and worker revolts in May 1968 that crippled the French government.
Yet while some of these past movements sought to enrage citizens to rise up and destroy modern society, Fairey’s work moves forward, seeking to engage and transform contemporary society. Consequently, he contends with the often-difficult balance of maintaining supporter expectations and remaining true to his vision.
“When people ask me, ‘Why don’t you just focus on doing stuff in art galleries? Why do you do T-shirts, posters, album covers, all the different things you do?’ I tell them this is how I connect with many different people that wouldn’t care about museums or galleries,” he says. “It’s important to do things for people who don’t necessarily see the value of an elitist art world endeavor. I make art to communicate with as many people as possible, and the more universal I can make it, the better.”
Fairey also faces the criticism that he’s “selling out” because he sometimes works with the “mainstream establishment.” Skeptics view Fairey as tarnishing something they believe is pure only when left on the street.
“Preaching to the converted within my own circle is something that I’m not interested in,” he says. “The idea of selling out is compromising your art form to reach more people. Art should be inclusive. That’s where I’m coming from.”
He employs an inside/outside strategy to reach the greatest number of people. “If I can’t get what I want across through mainstream channels I’ll circumvent that, even though I may not have as many resources, but I’ll figure out a way to express myself,” Fairey says. “But if the opportunity to infiltrate and make things happen with the mainstream or the powers that be with integrity and on my terms presents itself, I’m going to do it.” Fairey has used this approach to much success in supporting scores of independent artists, activists, causes, and political movements, including the Zapatistas.
Thanks to his efforts and his recent success, political art has penetrated the popular consciousness. “Art and culture are very undervalued in their ability to promote the ideas of democracy and freedom of expression, which to me is freedom in general,” Fairey explains. “When people feel uncomfortable talking about where they stand on things or feel their actions don’t make a difference, it’s much easier for the powerful to homogenize and control society.”
Fairey deeply believes that art challenges people to think about a “different perspective and about what’s possible, giving them hope and optimism promoting action—hope promotes action.”
Paradoxically, in elevating such basic creative techniques, Fairey’s do-it-yourself approach obliterates the hackneyed argument of high (worthy) versus low (worthless) art. In so doing, he stresses art’s role in strengthening democracy and uplifting people.
“You need refuge from what grinds you down while stimulating the imagination,” he explains. “It’s almost immeasurable the value of art psychologically.”
After learning that Fairey used an image of Obama from the AP for his “Hope” poster, the news service sought damages from him over copyright infringement. Fairey, who started with a photo found on the Internet that originally included actor George Clooney sitting next to Obama at a Darfur event in Washington, responded by filing a preemptive lawsuit claiming fair use, maintaining that he transformed the image so significantly that it’s altogether different from the original. The outcome is still in question.
“The fight over the photo obscures the real intent of why I made the poster, which was to help Barack Obama become President,” Fairey says. “And the best possible outcome happened. There was never an intention to make money.”
The recent tempest swirling around Fairey reminded me of the time I spent with him in Denver at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He invited me for a private tour of his Manifest Hope gallery—a collection of independent art supporting Obama from across the U.S.—the night after Denver police arrested him for postering. It was his fourteenth arrest, as Fairey still practices his public art whenever possible. Arrest number fifteen came six months later when Fairey was detained by the Boston police on old charges of vandalism just before the opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s twenty-year retrospective of his work. When I spoke to Fairey about the arrest in Boston, he offered his customary bright and humble take on things. “They’re saying I’m responsible for putting up all the Obama posters in Boston,” Fairey says. “It truly calls into question who controls public space.”
Now having worked with Fairey on a series of projects, including a book cover and a set of posters and animation for a feature documentary, I’ve witnessed firsthand his remarkable resolve to connect with people through his art.
“To me the idea of street art, screen printing, and stencil-making—the methods I use—is all about showing you can connect with people through very basic methods,” he says. “You don’t have to paint like Michelangelo to connect with people. It’s more about your spirit and your tenacity than your technical ability.”
On that September night in Denver, as a crowd began to swell as it waited to get into the gallery, we stopped in front of the “Hope” poster. I asked him if Obama ever contacted him about the poster.
“I received a letter from him,” Fairey said. “He wrote, ‘Whether on a stop sign or in a gallery, Shepard Fairey’s work inspires.’ ” I suggest that Obama is endorsing public art and that Fairey should carry a photocopy of the letter so the next time he is arrested he can show the police and maybe avoid trouble. He replied, “That’s an idea because artists in the U.S. sure could use all the help they can get.”
Antonino D’Ambrosio’s upcoming book is “A Heartbeat and A Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears” (Basic Books/Nation Books, 2009), which includes original art by Shepard Fairey. D’Ambrosio, the founder/director of the media and production nonprofit La Lutta NMC (www.lalutta.org), is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, where he recently launched the multimedia project La Terra Promessa.