by Chad Verly, Sept-October 2000
A stark face and its ominous glare confronts you from a bus stop bench. On the side of a nearby mailbox, it appears again with the challenging word, Obey. Giving the sticker a second glance, its meaning escapes you. Intuitive viewers might recognize the face as the late Andre the Giant. Many fear the sticker as cult symbolism. Others suspect it as a tricky advertising campaign. The image has even been called nazi propoganda. As long as the sticker draws any reaction, its creator Shepard Fairey will be satisfied. Fairey, a 30 year old graphic designer who skateboards, will tell you there is no meaning behind the it.
Instead he calls the sticker an experiment in phenomonology, which he borrows from Heidegger who explains phenomonology as the process of letting things manifest themselves. Fairey believes that taking Andre’s image and elevating it to an an icon plays off of society’s consumptive nature.
He’s observed that many people want a sticker of their own just because they’ve seen it everywhere. Fairey often uses historical figures such as Stalin, Lenin and Castro in his work not for their politics, but rather for the feeling their images convey. And the word Obey is reverse psychology that reflects Fairey’s tendency toward anti-authority views. As a result, most of his fans are people who also sidestep around mainstream society. But Fairey explains, It’s not really for cooool people, in-the-know people; people that are like, Ã«yeah, I read about street artists’, or Ã«I know what’s going on in skateboarding and indie music.’ His real goal is to get people to think for themselves instead of always letting pop culture spoon feed them. Originally an inside joke between skateboarders, Giant began in 1989 with Fairey teaching a friend how to cut a stencil for screen printing. At the time, Fairey was attending the Rhode Island School of Design and used stencils to make bootleg t-shirts.
During the search for a stencil subject, he ran across a professional wrestling ad featuring obey giant. Fairey turned Andre’s picture into paper stickers with the copy, obey giant has a posse. As stickers found their way to the skate parks and stop signs of Providence, Fairey would occasionally overhear people discussing their meaning. The buzz the stickers created gave him a desire to increase their distribution. Friends going out of town would take stickers with them; Today Fairey has admirers around the world helping him reach a number cities that no one person could travel to. He has since moved to San Diego, established his style and refined the process behind his work. Fairey uses a photocopier to increase the contrast of photographs, and then a masking film to cut a new illustration with the photograph as a template.
I can draw but I consider it kind of a waste of time because most of the stuff that I do I want to have some sort of prior cultural resonance. So I’m always playing off of existing images but just giving them my own flavor. Fairey was eventually forced to remove Andre’s name from his work to avoid copyright issues, but the face has become so stylized that it no longer directly resembles the wrestler. He has also added spray paint stencils and posters to the sticker campaign. In 1996 the Giant work led to the establishment of Black Market, a ten person visual communications agency that specializes in guerrilla marketing on a corporate scale. Pepsi, Levis, and Listen.com are a few big names on the agency’s client list. Fairey notes ironic conflicts between Black Market work and Giant: I did the Suicide Machines’ album cover and they went and put the snipes up over my stuff all around San Diego.
The anti-consumer message that his work sends out wouldn’t seem to concur with the marketing campaigns in his day job, but Fairey claims he’s over any contradictions. In his view, someone’s going to do it, so it might as well be him. A lot of his Black Market profits actually pour into the Giant campaign anyway. Fairey names Frank Kozik as one of his earliest inspirations because he was really prolific. Kozik has done illustrations for music groups like Nirvana and Beastie Boys. In 1994, he held a show down the hall from Fairey’s gallery. He had several hundred posters and at the time I think I had a grand total of like five Giant posters that I’d ever done and it really inspired me to get off my ass and pick up the pace on the poster campaign.
Fairey travels routinely to show his work in galleries and more importantly to bomb, a word he uses to describe the process of installing his work on walls, billboards and any other public areas. Bombing is so important to Fairey that seven arrests for vandalism have not slowed him down. I totally measure my worth by output, so I try to make the neccesity of having output fun … I used to make models when I was a little kid and every week I had to make a new one and I would get really depressed if all the stores were out of cool models. One of his largest installations involved sabotaging a dozen Sprite billboards with Giant images, blocking out everything but the word obey in Sprite’s advertising slogan. In New York he targeted an Okay Soda campaign, replacing subway ad placards with Giant posters. Most recently he took out a five by sixty foot billboard in Tokyo with Kozik. The Giant project and Black Market to a degree are a synthesis of my intellectual side, my sort of punk antagonistic humorous side, my desire to make things that are just nice pieces of art, aestheticly pleasing and some sort of design challenge, Fairey explains. I like getting recognition for the work, but its much more about people just seeing it as opposed to them knowing that I’m the personality behind it . . . because I actually don’t want that extra level of filtration before somebody starts to think about what it means . . . I want them to confront it and not have someone that will interpret it for them.