Transworld Stance: Giant Phenomenology

January 01, 1999

by Scott Snyder/ ARKITIP

In the world of advertising, money buys space. Advertising a product, in turn, hopefully adds up to revenue dollars or increased awareness—–unless you’re promoting something that isn’t really a product. The constant barrage of images we’re exposed to numbs the mind. While a few have been memorable, not many have been as consistent as Shepard Fairey’s. Promoting and adding to urban landscapes free of charge for almost ten years, he has taken his obey giant poster/sticker campaign to the level of worldwide dominaton.

Unlike traditional art, Fairey enjoys mixing gallery art and illegal street-art. The very same people who consider his work an eyesore or vandalism might actually appreciate it when on gallery walls. Most people wonder what the driving force behind it is. Well’ just like Picasso painted and Ansel Adams took photographs, Fairey designs and pastes posters. Whether it’s the original “Obey Giant,” Chinese Chairman Mao, or revolutionary Che Guevara, the images are striking and memorable. While out in the battlefield postering with Fairey, he let me in on a few insights. obey giant has a posse—look around.

What’s your background?
I’m 29 and I lived in South Carolina until I was seventeen. I skateboarded and listened to punk rock. Then I moved to Rhode Island School Of Design, where I studied printmaking, photography, and graphic design. What attracts you to create art or express yourself? Art making is the only pure synthesis of input and output for me. It’s a creative regurgitation of what I absorb from my surroundings.

Who were your biggest influences growing up?
Punkers and skateboarders doing things their own way. Who influences you now? I’m influenced by anyone who does something passionately and well. Good art design, advertising, propaganda—anything designed to motivate people to do something. Explain the differences between street art and the art that’s hung on gallery walls. Street art is accessible to anyone who is paying attention.

What started the whole infatuation with obey giant?
I don’t have an infatuation with Andre, but I’m trying to make other people have one.

Is the purpose more than his image—do you know something about his life we should know?
The purpose is more than his image, it’s about the process of an icon being painfully absorbed by society.

Are your poster campaigns funded by the mob?
Not at all, but the mob does control street postering in major cities. They threaten or eliminate any competition out there, whatever it is. In general, wild-style postering is a very cutthroat business.

What’s your scariest/craziest story while poster-bombing?
One time a friend and I spent two hours covering a high-profile wall on Melrose [in L.A.] and the snipes [poster crews] went right over it an hour later. So we spent another two hours covering it again. What they do furthers the coup. It just draws more attention to my project.

Besides obey giant, you are involved in Black Market, a design business that’s done numerous album covers, the Man On The Moon movie poster, and have heavyweight clients such as Hasbro, Pepsi, and Virgin Records.

How has the transformation from street art to corporate America changed your style?
It hasn’t changed my style at all, I just learned how to use the computer. The aesthetics of what I’m doing haven’t changed. I wasn’t commercially viable before the computer. Most of the people who approach Black Market want the look of my fine art anyway, so I don’t have to change my style that much. It seems a lot of mainstream companies are looking more to street artists to resurrect and restructure their image. Why? Because they are getting smarter about trying not to look like corporate assholes. I have no problem taking their money and making more Giant stuff. They’re getting savvy about the demographic they’re creating for, making sure the people who make the product are working on the product— it helps them look more authentic.

With postering you have to be dedicated—risking an arrest or the occasional chase is commonplace. On our night out, things ran pretty smoothly, no real run-ins or harassments. Cities and companies don’t like people putting stuff up on the streets because it puts power back in the hands of the people. Public property like buses and bus-stop shelters are owned by the taxpayers, yet people pay to advertise on them. Why can’t poor artists satisfy their non-sale-driven agenda by putting posters on electrical boxes? It’s hypocrisy from the country that brought you the Boston Tea Party, and now regularly practices taxation without representation. Think about it.

Shepard’s first solo show in Japan opens May 21, 2000 in Tokyo. Then he;s back in the States with another solo show May 27,2000 at Merry Karnowski Gallery, 170 S. La Brea, Los Angeles, California. Visit the official Web site: for updates, new posters, and propaganda.