What? Tuesday

May 08, 2001

Detroit Free Press, May 18, 2001

The story behind that Giant face — and the graffiti man

Those eyes: glowering, yet wistful. The nose: squashed. The mouth Massive.

He looks familiar. maybe you’ve seen him somewhere. You’re not sure.
His image stares at motorists from around metro Detroit as they drive toward Joe Louis Arena, Under the Lodge Freeway. The image also is popping up on an increasing number of walls across the city.

It is very uncertain what the image means. Yes, it is kind of…wierd…differenet…curious. “It’s an awesome picture,” said Ken Williams, a 25 year old Detroiter transfixed by the poster this week. “But it’s not making any points because it doesn’t have any words.” Exactly. It’s art.
Turns out the image is that of a dead celebrity. Weighed 520 pounds, stood 7-feet-4. Wrestler. Actor. Played a giant. Name; Andre Roussimoff. obey giant.
His Detroit images are part of an international underground campaign centered on Andre that is the inspiration of a 31 year old guerrilla artist from California.
This art could disappear at any time. Crews appear to have erased much of the other art-also known as graffiti-on the Lodge in recent days. the owners of a tall water tower near I-75 and the Davidson Freeway already painted over two Andre faces that materialized several days ago.
“People always fiddle with my stuff,” Said Shepard Fairey, the artist, in a phone interview. “I love the cyclical nature of it. I put it up. They take it down. I love the way the posters look when they’re ripped, when they’re in various stages of decay. I accept it as an ephemeral art form.” Fairey’s main image is a 6 by 8 foot painting on paper that he affixes to surfaces with wallpaper paste. No words accompany it, but other posters carry the Orwellian command “Obey” under Andre’s face- a satire on the message of advertising. Still others feature likeness of Mao and Lenin, with Andre superimposed in the middle.
Fairey runs a graphics design studio in San Diego, is slowly turning Andre’s face into an international icon. Using other forums, too, including millions of small stickers, for more than a decade he and his “posse” of worldwide associates have pasted the image on abandoned buildings, freeways, lightpoles and other public spaces from Prague in the Czech Republic to Hong Kong. It’s like a whimsical ad campaign in which the product is a dead wrestler. Why?
“It started out as a joke,” Fairey said. “It wasn’t a mission,” as a teenage art student working in a skateboard shop, Fairey produced stickers of Andre on a whim so his friends could paste them on their boards. Fairey was not an andre fan. He noticed that the face, when posted, bugged a number of people. “They would say,’Oh. It’s a cult,’ ” Fairey recalled. reactions were strong. Some critics scratched it with their keys. The campaign started growing.
As Fairey watched the effects of is unexplained face, he realized his campaign raised questions about how people interact with advertising and other public images, and how people become numbed by many messages that bombard them every day. He wants consumer to question that process. “It’s the irony I enjoy,” he said. He loves the adrenaline rush of doing art that is illegal. Police across the world have arrested him eight times, though Fairey emphasizes that he respects private property–unless it’s abandoned buildings–and mostly posts his images on unused space that is publicly owned.
Detroit authorities view this as defacing public property, a misdemeanor, or perhaps malicious destruction of property, a felony. While in town recently for an exhibition of his work at the C-Pop art gallery on Woodward in Detroit, Fairey cruised the streets with several people looking for outside exhibition space. At the water tower, they used a ladder to scale a barbed wired fence, and Fairey climbed the tower by himself. Fairey also hit an abandoned store in downtown Detroit on Michigan Ave and Shelby.
“The police drove by when I was hitting the store,” he said “They didn’t say a thing.” On the East Jefferson, a vandal already defaced an Andre poster. Under the word “obey” someone wrote “only God.” The artist would approve.