Shepard Fairey's brash, often Orwellian street art first hit the American urban landscape in 1989, when stickers and stencils of Andre the Giant's face--caption: OBEY--began appearing on stop signs, subway cars, and high rises across the country. A product of punk rock, skate culture, and the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey's trademark iconography soon defined an era of public political art and made the jump from brick walls and overpasses to book covers and art galleries. He pairs hyperbolic imagery--borrowed equally from Art Deco posters and Soviet wartime propaganda--with disarmingly sincere messages: make art, say yes, vote!
Fairey became something of an unofficial illustrator for the Obama campaign in 2008, when his unauthorized portrait of a pensive Obama--borrowed without permission, it later turned out, from an AP photograph--went viral, and his blocky, red-infused iconography fully entered the American vernacular. (The poster's original caption, Progress, was deemed potentially Socialist, and changed to Hope at the campaign's request.) The image, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, quickly upstaged the AP's lawsuit--try walking anywhere in Washington without being offered a t-shirt version--and Fairey continues to design book covers and urban murals from his studio and workshop in Los Angeles.
Having built his portfolio of two decades of street art (some of it legal, much of it not), Fairey is perhaps the most recognizable--even celebrated--graffiti artist in the country. He spoke to the The Atlantic about his torrid love affair with New York and why it sucks to be called a sellout.
You've been making street art for more than two decades, beginning with Andre the Giant stickers and the now ubiquitous OBEY campaign. Has the perception--and reception--of public street art changed since 1989?
I think it's like anything: it happens really organically. Art is seen as a positive way that a neighborhood starts to transform. If it's run down, artists come and want to have studios, musicians want to have band practice spaces, and then a cafe opens and then a hipster boutique--it used to be the record store, which is gone now. And then the property gets too valuable and everybody gets worried about, "Will the artists bring the graffiti element?" And then it turns into something else. It really is fascinating, the different forces at work.
I couldn't say whether I think there's a greater or lesser appreciation for the role that art plays in communities. I know that in New York, especially in the '80s and early '90s, when the city was closer to bankruptcy, the tolerance of graffiti was mostly a function of it being a low police priority. There were so many other problems to deal with. But then Giuliani had the broken windows theory, where an environment that is tolerant of all these petty crimes means that more significant crimes will flourish. It seems to have worked for him. But a lot of artists feel that New York became an anti-art place after Giuliani took office.
You must have a bit of a love-hate relationship with New York City right now. Your latest mural, at the corner of Bowery and Houston, was recently ticketed for both building code and advertising violations. Tell me about the piece you put up there.
Where do you live? Do you know New York well enough to know that the Bowery used to be a total shithole?
No. Let's start there.
Where CBGB was on the Bowery, which isn't that far from Houston and Bowery, that whole area was junkies and people with squeegees trying to run up to your car at the light--an area where there were dive bars and bands would play, and junkies and artists and musicians comingled and they were frequently one and the same. My first solo New York art show was at CBGB's 313 Gallery, and people like Keith Haring were doing art in that area. And the art culture meant that nicer bars and restaurants started to open up and now it's really--nice--there.
But that creative culture played a pretty significant role in changing the area. So when I was going to come to New York for my May Day show at Deitch Projects, they asked me to do a mural there--and the funny thing is, there's a little alcove next to that wall where I'd done illegal pieces at least three or four times over the years, including an Obama piece, the original PROGRESS image. It's a great corner. Tony Goldman, the wall's owner, is one of the people who really understands how art, fashion, and music are intertwined in the DNA of the ecosystem of a neighborhood. He's the one that got me this wall, to do with permission.
But then the wall started getting a lot of attention in the press, so all of the sudden the city shows up with all these violations, one of which was a building permit violation and five of which were advertising law violations. This was an art mural. It didn't say one thing about my art show at Deitch Projects--no URL, no verbiage leading anyone to me, no commercial anything. It's amazing that the city wants the neighborhoods to be improved, and they love it when things are on the upswing, but then as soon as it's valuable real estate, they can extort you. It's a shortsighted strategy.
Speaking of which, how many of your projects are sanctioned these days--and how many are, shall we say, extra-legal?
This is a very delicate thing, because I'm on probation right now. I'll put it this way: my philosophy is that the more people feel empowered, in a real democratic sense--not just, "I can go and vote but other than that I'm powerless"--and when they can be part of the dialogue about how things work, and feel like they can help shape things, then the better things are. And the more that people are creators of culture, rather than just recipients, the better things are.