Interview with Shepard Fairey: Still Obeying After all These Years
Before Shepard Fairey revived Andre the Giant's image, he was just a has-been wrestler, but fifteen years ago his scowling face became the symbol of youthful defiance. Against what, you ask? Doubtless against everything the previous generation held dear. Today he’s a brand – a trademark of alienation – that has been copied by marketers, yet he is also the figurehead of street-artists and culture-jammers around the world. In this interview Fairey discusses why the image has resonance and what it says about the culture.
Heller: It has been fifteen years since Obey The Giant hit the radar screens and catapulted you into both design notoriety and entrepreneurial activity. Could you have imagined its impact when you began?
Fairey: In 1989 when I first began the Obey Giant campaign, which was originally just a sticker that said "Andre the Giant has a Posse", I thought it would only be a few weeks of mischief. At first I was only thinking about the response from my clique of art school and skateboard friends. The fact that a larger segment of the public would not only notice, but investigate, the unexplained appearance of the stickers was something I had not contemplated. When I started to see reactions and consider the sociological forces at work surrounding the use of public space and the insertion of a very eye-catching but ambiguous image, I began to think there was the potential to create a phenomenon. At the time I thought about all this in purely hypothetical terms because I did not think I had the resources to create the kind of image saturation it would require to make it a reality anywhere other than Providence, Rhode Island. I became obsessed with the idea of spreading the image further and was surprised by how many people were willing to spread the stickers to other cities based on the template established in Providence or an explanation of the concept. I think a lot of people liked the idea of "fucking with the program" in a society dominated by corporate imagery. The stickers were a rebellious wrench in the spokes, a disruption of the semiotics of consumption. Eventually, five years or so in, the stickers spread enough for national media to notice. I considered the coup successful at that point. Now that I make posters and t-shirts that are for sale some people consider the entire project invalidated. I don't think a lot of people consider that it costs a lot of money to produce posters and stickers that are sacrificed to the street.
Heller: Obviously, RISD, where you went to art school, was a heady place and doubtless influenced your version of culture-jamming, But were you politically motivated when you started producing "Obey?" Did you believe this would have political resonance?
Fairey: Actually, I did not look at Obey Giant as political at all at first. In college I had been producing some work based on the concepts of abuse of authority, racism, and first amendment rights. Though these works were cathartic, I realized the actual result was limited to me achieving greater status in the liberal club I was already a member of. I saw the political angle for Obey Giant as "the medium is the message". When something is illegally placed in the public right-of-way the very act itself makes it political. My hope was that in questioning what Obey Giant was about, the viewer would then begin to question all the images they were confronted with. I was very hesitant to make any literal political statements with my images because I felt the mystery of the project elicited a variety of honest reactions that were a reflection of the viewers’ personality in the same spirit as a Rorschach test. I also did and do not feel I have all the answers... though I do have opinions. I want people to question everything.
Heller: Part of the allure of "Obey" has been its ambiguity. There is an Orwellian quality in this big brother figure that is contrasted by the inherent humor in the goofy Andre visage. Do you feel that such ambiguity has served you well?
Fairey: Yes I do feel that the ambiguity of Obey has served me well. To get back to what I was saying before, all my didactic slogans and left wing rhetoric would only be embraced by people who shared the same opinion, and be instantly rejected by anyone who saw it as issued by the enemy. Obey seemed to get under people's skin because they didn't know what to make of it. This ambiguity promoted a debate about the intent of Obey and got a lot of issues out on the table that people would not have discussed if they were able to classify and immediately ignore it. I think the Obey icon image finds a balance between goofy and creepy, humorous and monolithic. I consider the image the counter-culture Big Brother. I'd like to think of it as a sign or symbol that people are watching Big Brother as well. I've had people ranging from anarchists to the president of the National Reserve Bank embrace my work and I think the more diverse the audience is, the more potential for interesting dialogue there is.
Heller: Why did you become an active (and illegal) wild posterer?
Fairey: I became active as a street artist because I felt public space was the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy. The internet was not developed at the time I started and though it does level the playing field for some things, it still filters out those who do not own a computer. I also did not really consider what I was doing art and considered the art galleries too elitist anyway. I also found the whole idea that you could be arrested for stickering or postering as something I wanted to rebel against. In my opinion the taxpayers are the bosses of the govt. I'm a taxpayer... why can't I use public space for my imagery when corporations can use it for theirs? I was baffled by the idea that companies could stick thousands of images in front of people as long as they were paid ads but that I could not put my work in the street without being told that it is an eyesore or creates a glut. For the most part I think the merchants and the city governments don't want the public to realize there can be other images coexisting with advertising. This is the exact example I'm trying to provide.
Heller: How do you determine what to attack with your posters and stickers, and on what venues they will appear (or deface)?
Fairey: I use common sense. As a taxpayer I feel that public property is fair game as long as I'm not covering text on street signs. I use the backs of signs, electrical boxes, and crosswalk boxes. I try to be as respectful to private property as possible. I mostly only hit private property if it is abandoned or boarded up. If a building has a lot of graffiti on it already then I might hit it. Unfortunately the cities are usually more aggressive about prosecuting art on public property than private which often pushes graffiti artists to hit things like store fronts. I don't approve of this but I understand why many artists have been pushed in this direction. My opinion about street art is the same as free speech...I'd rather hear or see the occasional thing I was offended by than not have the right to express myself in a way that others might find offensive. I have experienced that there is a silent majority of people who are more open-minded about street art than public policy would suggest.
Heller: Speaking of ambiguity, how do you reconcile your business, which counts some big corporations as clients, with your wild snipping? Is this the Robin Hood effect?
Fairey: Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect... I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. I will explain, but I must also emphasize that I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards. When I first started Obey Giant I owned a screen-printing shop and used that equipment to produce my own work as well as doing work for paying customers. Printing is a difficult business and I got frustrated with it. I work as a graphic designer these days which came about because the work I was putting on the street created enough of a buzz that companies began to feel it would resonate enough to be used for marketing. I had created a demand for my style of work that meant that if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers. I decided that in doing graphic design I could keep my design skills honed and make enough money to pump even more Obey Giant materials out in public, which I consider truly subversive. This method of financing my campaign also keeps me from having the content of Obey dictated by fine art market forces. Plus, I have been able to convince some of the corporations to invest in the cultures that try to exploit, helping to create a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and harvesters of culture. It's not an easy game but I'm making the best of life without a trust fund.
Heller: As one weaned during the sixties (which makes me a weanie), I have been long sensitive to the notion of "selling out" and of "being co-opted" by profiteers. By running your own business (agency) you control how much you're being co-opted, but for you what is definition – or line in the sand - of selling out?
Fairey: To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity. Let's face it though, money is freedom. For some it is freedom to buy cocaine and cars... for me, my design earnings give me freedom to produce my propaganda work and travel to other cities to put it up. It is also gives me freedom to keep an art gallery that is never profitable open. People often accuse anyone who does not fulfill their image of fine artist as suffering martyr of being a sell-out. After 10 arrests and having been physically assaulted by the cops and deprived of my insulin on several occasions (I'm diabetic), I can tell you that it is very possible to make money and be a suffering martyr!
Heller: I know you put your body where your work is and have been busted by police in a few cities for your contraband activities. This is admirable, but I have to ask is it worth it? In other words, do you feel that there is a quantifiable result? And if so, what is that?
Fairey: To get back to the martyrdom issue, I spend the money and take the risks I do because I want to and I don't feel that anyone owes me anything. I do feel sorry for myself when I'm sitting in jail but overall I feel it is all very worth it. I feel it is worth it because of the positive feedback I have received from people. Many people feel powerless and my goal is to show that one person can have an effect on things even with limited resources. Whether this manifests itself with people in the form of street art or a magazine or a band, I'm hoping to encourage D.I.Y (do it yourself) ethics. These things are hard to quantify until they pass the tipping point... but I've seen satisfying results.
Heller: So, after so much "brand" exposure for "Obey" do you feel it still has legs, or has it run its course? Is it time for other approaches or does it still get results?
Fairey: I do still think Obey has legs but the longer it is out there and the more popular it gets, the more it becomes absorbed into the dominant paradigm even if it is fighting the whole way. In some ways Obey can run parallel to the system utilizing aspects and subverting others but eventually it's familiarity will render it impotent... it will become wallpaper. There are examples of how this has already been demonstrated. I was regarded as a vandal when I was living in Providence but I was recently asked to be in a museum show of "Rhode Island treasures". People have also told me how they felt comforted by signs of subculture when they traveled to a conservative place and saw my stickers existing there. 15 years is enough time to develop a solid case study which is what I intend my "15 years of Obey Giant" book that is in the works to be. The book will be as much a sociology or anthropology piece as an art book. Obey has a life of its own at this point and though I do want to continue with it, I also feel like working on some new stuff that will afford me the anonymity which allowed me to move freely and discover a lot through Obey Giant in the first place. So don't ask about specifics because it’s all top-secret.
Heller: Currently you are producing more decidedly overt political messages. Is the coming election and the increasingly mucked up war in Iraq your inspiration. Can "Obey," which certainly sounds like it could be the current administration's mantra, function in this environment. Or have you decided that a more polemical route is a better strategy?
Fairey: I actually have always thought that the command to "obey" would cause people to do the exact opposite or at least question obedience. A lot of my work even before the Bush administration has dealt with dictators and the consequences of the public giving them their obedience. The funny thing is that the people who have reacted most violently towards the dictator images are the people most like them... it's like their cover has been blown or something. Most people seem to intuitively get that my project involves a lot of questioning authority. The reason that I have become more direct and overtly political is that I feel we are in a time of a crisis and there is no time to be wasted allowing people to have epiphanies about authority, conspicuous consumption, and the control of public space at the rate that best suits them. I hate behaving like a paternalist but I feel it is my only choice right now. I have an audience that listens to me already and plenty of other people to reach, who for the sake of the future of the planet, I hope I can convince not to elect Bush. I acknowledge this is a short-term solution and my goal is to get people to scrutinize things so in the future people like Bush could not thrive because people would not fall for their fear tactics. I will probably continue to make posters like "More Militerry less Skools" because that is not attacking anyone specific but a mentality. Attacking individuals is playing catch-up. I'm more into preventative medicine. The two party system is flawed but then again, I don't know how to fix the country. I think the constitution has some good ideas in it and questioning creative reinterpretation of it could be a good place to start... we've got some Animal Farm meets 1984 shenanigans going on right now.
About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com