Shepard Fairey: The real message behind most of my work is 'question everything'.
Shepard Fairey is an avid skateboarder and lover of punk-rock who ventured into the design world via tee shirts, stickers, and skateboards--not the background you'd expect for an advocate of freedom of speech and expression. But the famed illustrator has become just that. His propaganda-like art and guerilla-style marketing techniques have garnered criticism from almost every direction (underground artists say his work is too commercial, while mainstream critics say it's generic and "watered-down"), but Fairey knows precisely what he wants his art to say and how his message should be delivered. He is an uncompromising artist. Multiple arrests (at least 14–even one at his own show opening), fines, health problems (his diabetes requires him to wear an insulin drip at all times), and his family life (he has a wife and two daughters) have not changed his work.
Shepard Fairey attended Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a BFA in Illustration. While in school, he started his first company, Alternate Graphics. It was a small venture; he made T-shirts, stickers, and posters. One day, a friend asked Fairey to teach him how to make a stencil. To demonstrate, Shepard used a newspaper ad that pictured professional wrestler Andre the Giant. He loved the result and became "tantalized with the possibilities" that he saw in the graphic. Here began Fairey's OBEY campaign–now a successful clothing line and the moniker for all of his work (see: www.obeygiant.com).
OBEY was the beginning of Shepard Fairey's now-legendary career. In 1995 his small entrepreneurial venture had grown to employ four full-time employees. He created a sister company to Alternate Graphics called Subliminal Projects. In 1997, fellow RISD graduate Helen Stickler made a film about him called "Andre the Giant has a Posse" that detailed his creation of the OBEY campaign. In the years that followed, he partnered with several friends and colleagues to create multiple successful marketing, design, and branding agencies: First Bureau of Imagery (FBI), BLK/MRKT, and Studio Number One, to name a few. During the years from 1995-2004, he worked with brands like Pepsi, Hasboro, Netscape, and the Black Eyed Peas. Although many artists see commercial art as "selling out," Fairey cites his success as a commercial artist as the reason he's been able to afford to do the personal work he's passionate about. "I think the biggest thing that people fear when it comes to art becoming a business is the authentic, pure aspirations of art being compromised. But I've never put business before what I wanted to say," he says.
What he's wanted to say has been his motivation from the beginning, starting with day one of the OBEY campaign. "When I came up with the tagline OBEY for my work, it was based on the idea that there are forces all around us that have agendas, but they are frequently unspoken," he explains. OBEY was immediately viewed and criticized as propaganda, but Fairey points out that much of the visual communication we're surrounded with on a daily basis is of the same spirit: "Advertising is often packaged in a way that is friendly so people don't think about the OBEY element," he explains.
Shepard Fairey became a household name in 2008 when he designed the "HOPE" poster for Barack Obama's first presidential campaign. The image was created with the approval of the Obama campaign, although they did not sponsor its production. The "HOPE" piece was not the first political art Fairey had produced; he made anti-Bush art in 2004 but failed to reach the right audience with it. The 2008 campaign was different for Fairey. In the years between the 2004 and 2008 elections, he'd had a daughter and had a second on the way. “This (the HOPE poster) isn’t about me augmenting my existing brand of pissed-off rebellion," he remembers thinking. "This is about my daughters’ future.” Fairey was a passionate supporter of Obama's positions on the Iraq war and healthcare, but he chose not to explicitly represent those opinions in the art itself. "An image like that just allows [the public] to project whatever limited idea they have onto it."
Unfortunately, the poster's success became problematic for Shepard Fairey. In January 2009, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC announced that it had acquired the original mixed-media portrait for its collection. Shortly after the announcement, the Associated Press demanded payment from Shepard Fairey for using the image of Obama (which was taken by Mannie Garcia at a 2006 event benefitting Darfur). A series of lawsuits ensued: Fairey filed a suit claiming protection under the fair-use exceptions to copyright law; AP countersued based on the fact that Fairey was profiting from the use of the image.
Fairey wasn't trying to downplay the importance of copyright or intellectual property–in fact, quite the opposite. "I feel like what I did was both aesthetically and conceptually transformative," he argues."I do think that copyrights and intellectual property are important–it's important to be able to keep people from making verbatim copies of a particular creation that could somehow hurt the creator." Like many artists, he sees his creation process as "an extension of language and communication, where references are incredibly important." He explains that reference can give the original work a new audience or, in some cases, a whole new life. At the trial's conclusion, he offered a statement (published by The Huffington Post and quoted below) in which he powerfully articulates the connection between art and free speech. The punk-rock skater has a message, and he's not afraid of being heard.
I was fighting for... the ability of artists everywhere to be inspired and freely create art without reprisal... Throughout my career, I have seen art as a powerful tool of political speech and social commentary, and I try to use my art to stimulate a constructive dialogue. I believe in intellectual property and the rights of photographers, but I also believe artists need latitude to create inspired by real world things.
The ability for an artist to creatively and conceptually transform references from reality is essential to their artistic commentary on the realities of the world. If artists find that freedom curtailed, it is not just artists, but all of us, who will lose something critically important.