Fairey, Shepard

Shepard Fairey is perhaps the most recognized street artist in the world today.  Famous for his notorious OBEY campaign that became a worldwide sensation, Fairey’s imagery is found everywhere – on caps, t-shirts, skateboard decks – and especially on artwork exhibited internationally in art galleries and museums.  His imagery – a sort of thumbed-nose attitudinal approach by this street-wise hipster – focuses its attention on and brings to light the contradictions inherent in authority, social ennui and the zombie-like commercialism that seems to have engulfed Western culture.

Shepard Fairey studied at the Rhode Island School of Design where he first created his now-infamous OBEY sticker depicting an absurd image of an unrecognizable professional wrestler. Andre the Giant ironically captured the subdued and vacant stare in black and white. That was in 1989. The image, originally appropriated from a World Wrestling Federation ad found in a newspaper, evolved into an underground icon as stickers were circulated in large volumes around the world. By the mid-90’s, about a half-million of the little squares were sticking up around the world.   The skateboarding and punk-rock social scenes of teens and 20-somethings were at the core of those “in the know” about Fairey and his Obey sticker campaign.

Since his early teens, Fairey has been avid in skateboarding and in the creation of the satirical artwork typical of skater culture. The OBEY sticker was a typical example of the sardonic re-working of pop icons by do-it-yourself artists like Fairey.

But the charm of this particular sticker was apparently so viral that the image found itself gaining audience with an ever-expanding population of devotees helping to disseminate the ominous (though ambiguously tongue-in-cheek) message. The ubiquitous pervasion of the visual landscapes in cities and countries around the world became more significant than the message or the image.   Most of the folks who recognize Fairey’s OBEY images are, to this day, uncertain where they come from or what they mean. Yet their popularity has continues to grow.

Fairey openly shares his motives behind the ever-growing campaign of OBEY art. The experiment behind this explosive phenomenon is targeted to expose the “conspicuously consumptive” nature of our culture, the eagerness to buy in that results from image repetition. Fairey explained the experiment early on in the campaign in his 1990 manifesto which relates his movement to Heidegger’s theory of “Phenomenology.”

As the campaign grew during the 1990’s, the WWF requested that Fairey modify the icon further.   He streamlined the look of his image and shed the reference to pro-wrestling. The cleaned-up image of the face became branded simply with the name “Giant.” The aesthetic of his posters and stickers involving the Giant has since developed to reflect industrially produced propaganda. The slogan “OBEY” typically accompanies the images in the work.

Fairey now works as a creative partner for Black Market, a Los Angeles design firm. While creating designs for clients like Pepsi and Universal Pictures, he still creates OBEY art, exhibited worldwide in galleries, and, of course, keeps his OBEY images posted on public streets.   It is not uncommon to find his images stenciled on the sides of building walls in New York City and Los Angeles – the artwork appearing overnight from raids the artist participates in.

Licensing deals are allowing Obey works to invade the commercial world as well. In a letter to the proponents of Giant, Fairey explains, “The ultimate success of the Obey art campaign is a commercial embrace because this demonstrates that the unaware consumer, as opposed to the hipster in on the joke, has been subversively indoctrinated. I’m trying to achieve as large scale a coup as possible with an absurd icon that should never have made it this far”, says the artist.

Fairey achieved international fame when, in 2008, during Barack Obama’s initial presidential run, the artist appropriated the candidates image and in the artist’s signature style, superimposed that image against the backdrop of what was to become an iconic poster for Obama and for Fairey.  The stunt, meant to bring serious attention to Obama’s run for the White House, landed the artist in jail.  The subsequent publicity drew followers and fans from around the world to what was soon to become an unprecedented art movement by a very talented young artist with a penchant for sticking his finger in the eye of all things establishment, commercial and traditional.