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.
My approach to street art is: it's a populist vehicle. It's about saying, "Hey, public space is for more than just powerful corporate interests and advertising." The important thing is just that the artwork is accessible. It's not about legal or illegal. It's not better if it's illegal. It's about getting it out there by any means necessary.
When I started in 1989, there was no Internet. I felt like it was important to say that, as a taxpayer, I owned a little bit of the public space, and I should be able to have some say in how it was used. A lot of people feel powerless--you know the Chomsky phrase "spectator democracy"? I wasn't going to sit back and be a spectator.
But I'm also not unrealistically, romantically attached to the idea that I will forever be a 20-year-old anonymous street artist. When you look at my goals for my street art, it wasn't just to throw a wrench in the spokes of everything and say, "Screw you, I do what I want, anarchy, yay, I tore the system down." It was always just to find a way to be part of the conversation.
So now that you're the boyish face of graffiti-as-high-art, which is worse--hearing that you're a vandal and a public menace, or that you've sold out?
I'm in a no man's land in a lot of ways. A huge chunk of the street art community now thinks that I'm like the Uncle Tom of street art. Like I'm saying, "Yes, massa!" to the Man, because I'm not like, "Fuck you, I'm gonna write on all your shit, burn the banks down." And so there are a lot of people that call me a sellout or tag on top of my stuff, because I'm seen as the Man now.
But then, on the other end of the spectrum, the Man still thinks I'm definitely not the Man and I'm the enemy. A few years ago, they had me put a banner on the side of city hall in Boston and do a photo shoot with the mayor. And then I was arrested two days later.
The message being?
That the cops in Boston don't like the mayor.
Maybe you just need a better hooded sweatshirt.
People ask me why I'm not anonymous like Banksy, where I'd have more freedom. The answer is, after a few years of doing street art and seeing the way that it was presented by law enforcement, I realized that there's only one side of this being discussed, and it's the anti side. One of the arguments that people who were anti-street art were making consistently was, "Well, these people know what they're doing is wrong. Otherwise, they wouldn't be secretive about who they are." So I felt like I had to start talking about it, otherwise it was a one-sided conversation. It also forced me to think about what I was doing, because I had to take responsibility.
But being up front about who you are in the graffiti world doesn't help your rebel brand at all. People really like the idea of someone being secretive--the archetype of Zorro or the "V for Vendetta" guy. Banksy is definitely allowing people to project that fantasy onto him. And that's great for him--and his art sells for a lot more money that mine does--but it just wasn't my integrationist way of thinking about it.
Any new projects you can talk about on record without risking a parole violation?
I was asked recently to possibly design the art for the exterior of the new West Hollywood library. (Then this lawsuit with the AP happened, so now it's sort of in limbo.) But for the very same reasons I'm proud of the Obama poster I would be proud of doing that project, and it's something like this: I started with a four-dollar-an-hour skate shop job, making Andre the Giant stickers, and I never had any connections to anybody powerful, I never had backing. The whole point was, without corporate subsidy or agenda, to make something that people would see and would have an impact.
So the journey from that to the Obama poster--or from somebody that's been arrested many, many times and fined by the city of LA to doing the outside of their library--it's all about being unorthodox about how you achieve things in life. I don't look at any of those things as, "Oh, now I've been corrupted and absorbed into the system." I look at it as a triumph. Plus, I just like libraries. I like actual books.
Has your method changed much since art school?
The way I look at the landscape is forever changed because of street art. Even my wife, when we're driving around, will say, "I know, I just saw that billboard location." I don't even have to say anything. She just knows. She's been out bombing with me so much over the years. I do still try to get out.
You have two daughters. Have they started to figure out what their dad does all day?
Our daughter, Vivian, is about to turn five and she really likes to draw. She recognizes my style. She knows that iconography. My goal is to encourage her to make art and all that, but my mom and dad were head cheerleader and captain of the football team. They were really pushy about what they thought I should be doing and I went in the opposite direction.
You're going to have to hold your tongue the first time the LAPD carts her home at 3 a.m. for trespassing and curfew violations.
She likes to put stickers up already. She's too little and cute to get in trouble for it. When I'm out walking around, she's like, "Can I have some stickers, please?" She'll ask me about spots. "What do you think about right here?"
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.