San Diego, January 14-20, 2000
Have You Seen This Face?
Puzzled by random posters featuring obey giant? Our fearless reporter examines a night in the life of prankster Shepard Fairey By Louis Stephens
“The Giant sticker campaign can be exlained as an experiment in phenomenology…. Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things tbat are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation. ” – The Giant Manifesto
“The idea that anyone can claim public spaces for their own personal expression is just a very bad idea. [Such persons] should be arrested and prosecuted.” Professor George L. Kelling, co-author of Fixing Broken Windows.
It’s almost 11 p.m. on a warm autumn evening in Los Angeles, and Andre’s posse is assembled in a safehouse somewhere in the city. Large buckets of wheat paste have just been prepared in advance of the night’s activities. Parked on the street outside, there’s a long, black Chevy lowrider packed with obey giant posters varying in size and shape. The members of this crew have changed into dark, nondescript sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers, and now they’re knocking back quick shots of Jack Daniels while listening to their chief go ever the last minute details of the plan. All that’s missing is some of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Imposible theme music to complete the scene.
“So everyone knows what they’re supposed to do?” asks Shepard Fairey, the 29-year-old mastermind behind the obey giant campaign, which since its inception i’n 1989 has disseminated over 1 million posters and stickers worldwide. Fairey has just returned from a multimedia blitz of Foggy London Town to promote an art show at that city’s Chamber of Pop Culture. With dark, closely cropped hair and a stern demeanor that can change into a devilish grin and back again with a snap of your fingers, Fairey gives the impression that he doesn’t take any shit. Maybe that’s how he survived growing up in South Carolina with a last name like Fairey.
After a suitable pregnant pause, Fairey nods toward the door. “Let’s go,” he says, and the posse heads out to the car carrying buckets of wheat paste and brushes. Two of Fairey’s boys ride in one car. Fairey takes the black lo-lo and his best gal rides shotgun like they were Batman and Batgirl out looking for the Joker in a tricked out Batmovile. In the back with the wheat paste and the ladder is this fearless reporter, ready to risk a run-in with the police for the story. Your’s truly is strictiy an observer, but that won’t make his ass bulletproof if some hotshot cop gets an itchy trigger-finger. “I’ve never had a serious incident in L.A.,” explains Fairey as he pulls out into the neon-lit night, putting some Ice Cube on the box. “Usually things go pretty smoothly. But I like to work fast, even if it seems mellow.” Despite these reassuring words, anyone familiar with Shepard Fairey’s street art knows that Fairey’s been busted before in both New York and Philadelphia for his activities. Indeed, ever since Fairey came up with the first obey giant sticker as a goof during his days as a student at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design, he’s been butting heads with “The Man.” His’first major prank involved plastering Andre’s ugly puss over the head of Providence mayoral candidate Buddy Cianci on one of Cianci’s political billboards. Cianci, wanting to seem like a good guy, didn’t press the matter, and Fairey got off with a slap on the wrist. Suddenly, everyone in Providence knew Fairey’s name. A pattern was setm and a legend was born.
“When it’s a first encounter [with the Andre image], it’s easy to talk your way out off it,” Fairey says of his bout with the powers-that-be. ‘When they haven’t seen it before, they aren’t pissed. They don’t think you’re papering the entire city.” But when “they” understand that Andre is a sophisticated anti-authoritarian statement, they attack like a pack of rabid dogs.-When New York mayor Rudolph “Bully-ani’s” anti-graffiti Gestapo nabbed Fairey a couple of years back, Fairey, a diabetic, spent a few nights in the pokey without any insulin. He got so sick that the coppers let him go just to keep him from suing them. Why does the altered and often streamlined mug of a deceased World Werstling Federation champion inspire such loathing in the status quo? After all, there’s plenty of commercial graffiti that does not incur the wrath of the state. And the public space of most large cities is filled with the legal eyesores of advertising. Fairey’s Andre campaign, by contrast, with its simplistic, Orwellian slogans such as “Obey Giant” or “Join the Posse,” advertises nothing. It does, however, make people think, if only to wonder what the hell it’s for. IF folks dig a little deeper, checking out Fairey’s Web site and reading a few artides about him, they’ll begin to discover multiple layers of subversion. Perhaps they’ll go so far as to mimic Fairey’s practical anarchism and start to disrupt the societal paradigm we all operate under.
“It’s the extreme version of what they already are,” says Fairey of law enforcement’s response to Andre. “But they think they’re not that. They think they’re protecting you from that. They either realize they’re being mocked or they think they need to protect you from the evil fascists that are putting this stuff around.”
“The authorities also don’t want the masses to be unsettled. That makes their job a lot harder. So when they get complaints from people who are whining that they have to look at this thing which they don’t understand, they don’t want to have to deal with that. They want to eliminate anything they get flack From… It’s all about what symbolizes a good, happy society, which is no graffiti, no dog shit on the sidewalk, things like that. It’s like saying as long as you keep things looking good on the surface, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on underneath.”
The cynical might suggest that this is all self-promotion on Fairey’s part. But Fairey already runs a successful design firm in San Diego, and he certainly doesn’t need whatever underground cachet he gets from the risky and expensive venture of making Andre’s visage ubiquitous. He does sell Andre posters, but that doesn’t cover, what he loses just by going on his weekly “bombing” runs of L.A. or whatever city he happens to be visiting at the time.
“People think that just because they see the stuff all around that I must be making a lot of money,” he says as we come up on the condemned building where the night’s postering is to commence. “At best, I break even on the whole deal.”
The cars parked, we’re soon on the street, fanning out to our respective possitions. Fairey’s crew pop walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. Some keep an eye out for black-and-whites, others help Fairey get up to the roof with some jumbo posters in town. It’s still early, and there’s a lot of activity foot traffic from local clubs and nearby apartment buildings. Yet nobody seems to pay any mind to Fairey as he does his thing.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, some Deputy Dawgs are snooping around the joint. Fairey bolts, disappearing down a drain pipe. The scene gets hot and the decision is made to leave it be and to go on to other sites. Fairey’s crew plan to do a little tour of L.A., but this reporter leaves them before they hit a good portion of Los Feliz and downtown. Afterwards, Fairey calls to touch base and relate the events of the following day. “I actually did a billboard while my girlfriend was shopping for a coat,” Fairey says nonchalantly, referring to the “liberation” of a billboard for Andre’s image. “It was really fast.” This has become a common occurrence in the City of Angels, with Sprite or Crest billboards being taken over by The Giant. If you pay attention while you drive, you may see one or two in addition to the stickers and posters one catches sight of more frequently. Many see what Fairey does as vandalism, but Fairey believes his art to be “empowering.” Surely the popularity of his imagery attests to the fact that Fairey has tapped into something larger than himself, something people relate to on an intuitive level. And a metropolis like L.A. with its history of street art and its trendsetting super graphics, seems like the perfect stomping grounds for an artist who has left the Carolinas, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Chicago, London and all up and down the West Coast. At last, despite his wide appeal, Andre finally has a home in Land, thanks to his acolyte Fairey.
“I think it’s really easy for people to the path of least resistance,” says Fairey campaign. “You know, like ‘Don’t buck parking meters,’ anything that’s kind of irritating but easier to deal with than to try to make a difference in the long term. The more people behave like that, the better things are for trying to retain control over everyone. that I’m anti-capitalism or anti-government [just] about redistributing power. Hopefully, people will talk about what I’m doing the issues it raises and do their own thing.”