Shepard Fairey


make art not war

Shepard Fairey (b. 1970) is a contemporary artist, graphic designer, and illustrator who emerged from the American skateboarding scene. He first became known for his ‘André the Giant Has a Posse’ (…OBEY…) sticker campaign, in which he appropriated images from the comedic supermarket tabloid ‘Weekly World News.’ His work became more widely known in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, specifically his Barack Obama ‘HOPE’ poster.

Fairey’s first art museum exhibition, titled ‘Supply & Demand’ like his earlier book, was in Boston at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the summer of 2009. The exhibition featured over 250 works in a wide variety of media: screen prints, stencils, stickers, rubylith illustrations, collages, and works on wood, metal and canvas. As a complement to the ICA exhibition, Fairey created public art works around Boston. The artist explains his driving motivation: ‘The real message behind most of my work is ‘question everything.”

Fairey created the ‘André the Giant Has a Posse’ sticker campaign in 1989, while attending the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). This later evolved into the ‘Obey Giant’ campaign, which has grown via an international network of collaborators replicating Fairey’s original designs. As with most street artists, the Obey Giant was intended to inspire curiosity and cause the masses to question their relationship with their surroundings. The ‘Obey Giant’ website says: ‘The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.’ The website later goes on to contradict this statement however by saying that those who are familiar with the sticker simply find humor and enjoyment from its presence. Those who actually try to look deeper into its meaning only burden themselves and often end up condemning the art as an act of vandalism from an evil, underground cult.

Originally intended to garner fame amongst his classmates and college peers, Fairey states ‘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.’

In a manifesto he wrote in 1990, and since posted on his website, he links his work with Heidegger’s concept of phenomenology (the study of experiences recieved from the senses). His ‘Obey’ Campaign draws from the John Carpenter movie ‘They Live’ which starred pro wrestler Roddy Piper, taking a number of its slogans, including the ‘Obey’ slogan, as well as the ‘This is Your God’ slogan. Fairey has also spun off the OBEY clothing line from the original sticker campaign. He also uses the slogan ‘The Medium is the Message’ borrowed from Marshall McLuhan.

After graduation, he founded a small printing business in Providence, Rhode Island, called Alternate Graphics, specializing in t-shirt and sticker silkscreens, which afforded Fairey the ability to continue pursuing his own artwork. While residing in Providence in 1994, Fairey met American filmmaker Helen Stickler, who had also attended RISD and graduated with a film degree. The following spring, Stickler completed a short documentary film about Shepard and his work, titled ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse.’ The film premiered in the 1995 New York Underground Film Festival, and went on to play at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.

Fairey was a founding partner, along with Dave Kinsey and Phillip DeWolff, of the design studio BLK/MRKT Inc. from 1997–2003, which specialized in guerrilla marketing, and ‘the development of high-impact marketing campaigns.’ Clients included Pepsi, Hasbro, and Netscape (for whom Fairey designed the red dinosaur version of’s logo and mascot). In 2003 he founded the Studio Number One design agency with his wife Amanda Fairey. The agency produced the cover work for The Black Eyed Peas’ album ‘Monkey Business’ and the poster for the film ‘Walk the Line.’ Fairey has also designed the cover for The Smashing Pumpkins’ album ‘Zeitgeist.’

In 2004, Fairey joined artists Robbie Conal and Mear One to create a series of ‘anti-war, anti-Bush’ posters for a street art campaign called ‘Be the Revolution’ for the art collective ‘Post Gen.’ ‘Be the Revolution’ kicked off with a night of performances featuring Z-Trip, Ozomatli and David J at the Avalon in Hollywood. Fairey also co-founded ‘Swindle Magazine’ along with Roger Gastman. In 2005 he collaborated for a second time with Z-Trip on a limited edition 12-inch featuring Chuck D entitled ‘Shock and Awe.’ In 2005 Fairey also collaborated with DJ Shadow on a box set, with t-shirts, stickers, prints, and a mix CD by Shadow.

Fairey was arrested in 2009, on his way to the premiere of his show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, on two outstanding warrants related to graffiti. He was charged with damage to property for having postered two Boston area locations with graffiti, a Boston Police Department spokesman said. His arrest was announced to party goers by longtime friend Z-Trip who had been performing at the ICA premiere at Shepard Fairey’s request.

In addition to his successful graphic design career, Fairey also DJs at many clubs under the name DJ Diabetic and Emcee Insulin, as he has diabetes.

Fairey created a series of posters supporting Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy for President of the United States, including the iconic ‘HOPE’ portrait. Although the campaign officially disavowed any involvement in the creation or popularization of the poster, Fairey has commented in interviews that he was in communication with campaign officials during the period immediately following the poster’s release. Fairey has stated that the original version featured the word ‘PROGRESS’ instead of the word ‘HOPE,’ and that within weeks of its release, the campaign requested that he issue (and legally disseminate) a new version, keeping the powerful image of Obama’s face but captioning it with the word ‘HOPE.’ The campaign openly embraced the revised poster along with two additional Fairey posters that featured the words ‘CHANGE’ and ‘VOTE.’

Fairey has been criticized for failing to obtain permission and to provide attribution for works he used. Fairey has threatened to sue artists for the same technique. Austin graphic designer Baxter Orr did his own take on Fairey’s work in a piece called ‘Protect,’ with the iconic ‘Obey Giant’ face covered by a SARS respiratory mask. Orr marketed the prints as his own work. In 2008, Orr received a cease-and-desist order from Fairey’s attorneys, telling him to stop selling ‘Protect’ because it violated Fairey’s trademark. Fairey threatened to sue, calling the designer a ‘parasite.’

Originally, Fairey had claimed his ‘HOPE’ poster was based on a 2006 copyrighted photo of then-Senator Barack Obama seated next to actor George Clooney, taken by Mannie Garcia on assignment for the Associated Press, which wanted credit and compensation for the work. Garcia believes that he personally owns the copyright for the photo, and has said, ‘If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had.’ Fairey said his use of the photograph fell within the legal definition of fair use. Lawyers for both sides tried to reach an amicable agreement.

‘Fair use’ is determined by how much a new work changes an older one. At first Fairey claimed he used the photo of Clooney and Obama and cropped the actor out of the shot and made changes. In 2009, Fairey filed a federal lawsuit against the Associated Press, seeking a declaratory judgment that his use of the AP photograph was protected by the fair use doctrine and so did not infringe their copyright. Later, Fairey admitted he had tried to deceive the Court by destroying evidence that he had instead used the photograph alleged by the AP. Fairey admitted he had used a close-up shot of Obama, also taken by Mannie Garcia, as the AP had long alleged. The solo photo appears much more similar to the final ‘HOPE’ poster than the photo of Clooney and Obama.

Fairey’s lawyers announced they were no longer representing him, and Laurence Pulgram, an intellectual property lawyer stated that the revelation definitely put Mr. Fairey’s case ‘in trouble.’ In 2010, a judge urged Fairey to settle. The parties settled in 2011. In 2012, Fairey pleaded guilty to criminal contempt of court for ‘destroying documents and manufacturing evidence.’ He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service, ordered to pay a $25,000 federal fine, and placed on probation for two years.

Fairey was questioned about criticism surrounding his use of images from social movements, specifically images created by artists of color, in an interview with Liam O’Donoghue for ‘Mother Jones.’ O’Donoghue later posted an article, titled ‘Shepard Fairey’s Image Problem,’ on several independent media sites. The article explored Fairey’s use of copyright protected images while at the same time defending his copyright protected works from being used by other artists and corporations. Fairey cited his collaboration with Public Enemy, his funding of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, and his six-figure charitable contributions for Darfur assistance as counterpoints to the charges of exploitation. ‘I challenge anybody to fuck with that, know what I mean,’ Fairey stated. ‘It’s not like I’m just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit. People like to talk shit, but it’s usually to justify their own apathy. I don’t want to demean anyone’s struggles through casual appropriation of something powerful; that’s not my intention.’

Erick Lyle has accused Fairey of cynically turning graffiti culture into a self-promoting ad campaign. On the other hand, San Diego Union-Tribune art critic Robert L. Pincus says Fairey’s work ‘is political art with a strong sense of visual style and emotional authenticity. Even in times when political art has ebbed, Fairey’s has just the right balance of seriousness, irony and wit to fit the mood of the moment.’ ‘The Walrus’ contributor Nick Mount wrote ‘Following the example set by gallery art, some street art is more about the concept than the art. ‘Fuck Bush’ isn’t an aesthetic; it’s an ethic. Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant stickers and Akay’s Akayism posters are clever children of Duchamp, ironic conceptual art.’ However, Stephen Heller of ‘The New York Times’ suggested that Fairey’s political art is not any more unique than political art from the past, yet compares, in fact and in equal terms, to political art created by Andy Warhol.

Artists Mark Vallen, Lincoln Cushing, Josh MacPhee, and Favianna Rodriguez have documented how Fairey has appropriated work by Koloman Moser, Ralph Chaplin, Pirkle Jones, Rupert Garcia, Rene Mederos, Félix Beltrán, and Gary Grimshaw, among others. In his critique, ‘Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey,’ Vallen dissects various pieces of Fairey’s work, proving them to be directly plagiarized from the work of other artists. Although Jamie O’Shea takes that criticism to task for a ‘nearly ubiquitous lack of understanding of the artist’s use of appropriated imagery in his work and the longstanding historical precedent for this mode of creative expression’ in addition to being masked in a thin ‘veneer of obvious envy in most cases.’

Art critic Brian Sherwin lashed out at O’Shea’s criticism of Mark Vallen by saying that O’Shea’s ‘SUPERTOUCH’ article was nothing more than ‘damage control.’ Sherwin questioned the intentions of O’Shea’s support for Fairey. Sherwin pointed out that Fairey is a ‘SUPERTOUCH’ author as well as a business associate of O’Shea. Sherwin suggests that O’Shea has a ‘vested’ interest in making sure that Fairey is viewed positively by the public since he has curated art exhibits involving Fairey and has written extensively about Fairey. Sherwin wrote that O’Shea once served as editor in chief for ‘Juxtapoz’ and has worked as a creative director hired by corporate art collections as a corporate liaison for acquisitions. Sherwin concluded that the public will ‘question the artist who says to question everything’ regardless of O’Shea’s Mark Vallen ‘damage control’ on ‘SUPERTOUCH.’ Sherwin implied that O’Shea’s critique of Vallen was selective because key negative facts about Fairey’s history were left out in the article.

Bloggers have criticized Fairey for accepting commissions from corporations such as Saks Fifth Avenue, for which his design agency produced illustrations inspired by Constructivism and Alexander Rodchenko. Fairey defends his corporate commissions by saying that clients like Saks Fifth Avenue help him to keep his studio operational and his assistants employed. Fairey has acknowledged the irony of being a street artist exploring themes of free speech while at the same time being an artist hired by corporations for consumer campaigns. Of this he has stated that designers and artists need to make money. ‘I consider myself a populist artist,’ Fairey says. ‘I want to reach people through as many different platforms as possible. Street art is a bureaucracy-free way of reaching people, but T-shirts, stickers, commercial jobs, the Internet – there are so many different ways that I use to put my work in front of people.’

In 2011, Fairey received a black eye and a bruised rib after being attacked outside of the Kodboderne 18 nightclub in Copenhagen. Fairey claims the two assailants called him ‘Obama illuminati’ and ordered him to ‘go back to America.’ He believes the attack was the result of a misunderstanding over his artwork commemorating the demolition of the legendary Ungdomshuset (youth house). His mural of a peace dove in flight surrounded by a circle of Tønder lace above the word ‘Peace’ was vandalized within 24 hours of its unveiling with graffiti slogans ‘no peace’ and ‘go home, Yankee hipste.’

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