We recently caught up with Shepard Fairey, founder of Obey and the man behind the Barack Obama “Hope” poster. He’s gone from unknown artist skulking around at night pasting up posters to, er, globally famous artist skulking around at night pasting up posters. This interview originally appeared in FRONT 177.
Hi Shepard! You were recently over here doing an exhibition, Sound And Vision. Is it very different doing something publicised and open like that rather than sneaking around at night?
No, to me it’s all part of the programme. I believe in a lot of different platforms to get my work out there. Record covers, t-shirts, art. Street art of course. I’ve painted three large murals since I’ve been here, but I’ve also done a bunch of postering. The thing about London is they clean stuff that’s at street level so quickly. I always have a pocketful of stickers. There’s so many fantastic opportunities to share my work, many of which are free and many of which are commercial, whether it be doing a clothing line or doing Led Zeppelin’s album package.
So it’s a do-everything approach?
I try to just look at what the best use of my time is to reach the most people and cross-pollinate audiences, rather than preaching to the same people all the time. But you know, culture’s very tribal sometimes. People get very mad and very protective. “You shared that with someone I don’t relate to? You suck! You’re a sell out! You’re a piece of shit.” But you grow up and become less narrow-minded. I’m 42 now and I listen to the Dalai Lama – he says “Human beings argue about what we have different when what we have in common is much more important.” I share that belief, even though I’ll happily look down on your music taste if I don’t like it.
Do you genuinely get given lots of shit off people?
There’s this idea that you’re either an outsider or a corrupt insider, but actually, life’s a little bit more complicated than that. Now that I’ve had this success that I never thought that I’d actually have, people think that somehow that means I’ve compromised my ideals. I think it’s really important for me to demonstrate that my mentality is as DIY as it’s ever been. I call it ‘the inside-outside’ strategy. I think anyone who has the opportunity to move within the system without compromising anything, changing it from within, subversively, would be a fool not to. You’d just be worrying about your own brand image, which is actually counter-productive, instead of getting in there and shaking things up. That’s my intuition. I don’t do it because someone tells me I should do it. I enjoy it.
How long’s this Obey Giant face we’re shooting you next to been up for?
About a week. People go over my stuff just because they think, ‘Oh, he’s huge, successful’ or, ‘I’m going to get attention for it. It’s a very competitive, transgressive culture. I don’t get too precious about it. I don’t even take it personally either, I know that not everybody knows me. If you know me and you’re fucking with my stuff, then I’ll be offended. Plus, I fucking love the accumulation. We did a series for the clothing line that was all putting posters up and then documenting them as they got layered and layered.
How many Giant stickers do you reckon have been stuck up over the years?
I stopped counting when I was at about two million. The year I did the Obama poster and ended up getting into the lawsuit, I counted how many I did just in that year, and that was 700,000.
The two things you’re most know for are the Obey campaign, which seems to promote a healthy cynicism, and the more sincere and idealistic Obama poster. Do they sit oddly together?
The Obama poster was completely sincere. Some people say, ‘How can you do Obey, that’s about questioning authority and questioning propaganda and then do something that sincerely supports a mainstream candidate and is propaganda?’ I encourage people to be analytical, but there’s a fine line between analytical and cynical. My goal was, if I was employing that inside-outside strategy myself, then I’m going to support other people I think could be an instrument of that same strategy, and that’s how I saw Obama.
It seemed to immediately become the most famous picture in the world.
Recognising that American politics is very reductive, that things are reduced down to slogans, icons, if I were to work within that framework, I would have to utilize the same methodology. Interviews are the opportunity to expand upon something simplistic, so I did a lot to encourage people to look closer at Obama’s policy positions, not just say, ‘Cool poster, I’ll vote for him!’ I’m married, I have two kids, I’m not an angry teenager anymore. I still get pissed about stuff but when I see an opportunity to be positive and constructive, there’s not enough of that in the world,. I don’t just wanna be like, ‘Nah, bullshit’. It’s that fine line between idealism and realism.
Copyright issues with it turned into a huge legal pain in the dickhole. Is that over now?
Yeah, that’s over now. There’s things that I would do differently, and mistakes I made. I’m glad it’s over and I can get on with my life, but it’s definitely the most pressured and the most compromised I’ve ever been. In some ways it made me feel very sad about aspects of the world. In other ways, I got through it, and I’m more equipped now to deal with difficult situations and ready to just keep charging.
Did the Andre The Giant Has A Posse thing come from being a wrestling fan?
Not at all. Skateboarding. I was working in a skate shop and making a homemade Hendrix or Misfits shirt and my friend was like ‘I wanna learn how to make stencils!’ So I looked through the newspaper, saw a wrestling ad and said, why don’t you make a stencil out of this? We were listening to a lot of Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Beastie Boys, so we used the slang ‘posse’ for crew so I said, ‘What are you talking about man? Andre’s posse is taking over! Shit’s getting large!’ It was just an inside joke with skateboarder friends, back in ’89. Nothing to do with wrestling, everything to do with skating. I always saw Andre as goofy and sympathetic, other people saw him as ominous and intimidating.
Can you explain the idea of phenomenology?
I’d started making the Andre The Giant stickers and seen unexpected reactions and wanted to look at how to explain it to people. At art school I read about phenomenology, the idea that people organize things in their brains in the way that’s most convenient, then need to have unique encounters to re-awaken their sense of wonder about the world. I was already a fan of the Sex Pistols and I realised that there was a connection between phenomenology and situationism, which Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid were fans of, the idea that people are in a trance and need a spectacle to snap them out of it.
Where’s everything at now then?
I’m always trying to string together things from the past that I think are valuable for a new viewer to discover now. There’s always new stuff happening. I feel less like I need to be as overt about using the Andre icon, the icon face, the star, the word Obey in my work as I used to, but I always re-circulate the original imagery so that a fifteen-year-old who discovers my work connects it back to all the other stuff and all of a sudden it’s like ‘Wham!’