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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
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.
Design is increasingly recognized as a powerful approach to crafting more effective public services. MindLab, a studio inside the Danish government, assists senior decision-makers in designing better solutions to complex public problems, using methods such as ethnography, user journeys, system maps, service prototypes and design games.
Section: Inspiration -
personal essay, design research, design thinking, government, in-house design, strategy
Benjamin Dauer is a Senior Product Designer at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and was recently the Lead Product Designer at SoundCloud in Berlin, Germany. AIGA Baltimore took a field trip to interview Benjamin about designing in-house for NPR.
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