December 2010: Shepard Fairey: the Whitehot Interview

 Shepard Fairey meets with Whitehot's Joe Heaps Nelson in Miami during Art Basel week 2010.

Shepard Fairey is one of the most respected street artists working today, a truly influential and controversial figure. Appropriating and redesigning pop culture images and bringing them to the street, the strategy goes something like this: (Punk rock + badass) + (pop culture + smartass) + (street cred) = world domination.

In 1989, while a student at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, he created the “Andre the Giant has a Posse” sticker campaign. When I asked him about his original inspiration, Fairey explained that he used to make knockoff t-shirts of his favorite bands (which were, of course, Minor Threat, the Bad Brains, Black Flag, the Ramones, SNFU, and so on) for himself and friends. One day a friend asked him how to make a paper-cut stencil. To demonstrate, Fairey picked up a newspaper that was lying around, and found an image of Andre the Giant. Fairey made the stencil, and although his friend thought it was stupid, every artist appreciates the sweetness of random inspiration. Fairey started stenciling and stickering the town, pretty much as a goof. Immediately people wondered what it was, but whenever anybody asked, those in the know would reply “I can’t tell you.” Of course that just made everybody more curious. It was a marketing campaign without a product, "an absurdist propaganda campaign." The street campaign activated public space with an intent to making observers question the ubiquity of, and meaning of, advertising images.

Fairey and his skating buddies were called Team Shed, because they worked at a skateshop called the Watershed. They started telling everybody, "Team Shed is done. There's a new posse now, and you better get with it." The local indie newspaper, the Nice Paper, ran a feature pleading for information. For anyone who could explain the meaning of the sticker, they offered two free passes to the show of your choice at the local rock club. Fairey sent them a bag of stickers with the note, "I can't tell you what it means, because that would spoil it. But here are some stickers, if that's any consolation."  

In 1990, Fairey issued the Obey Giant manifesto, which nicely sums up his intent in those early days:

Soon, the guys were making roadtrips down to New York, and up to Boston, stickering strategic locations. They sent stickers and stencils to friends in other cities. Walls, water towers, billboards, they bombed the world. “Andre the Giant has a Posse” was an instant underground sensation, especially popular among skateboarders. There were countless knockoffs. Fairey states: “We had the whole insider thing going for us. Andre the Giant is a good symbol because he straddles the line between threatening and sympathetic. You can change it by adding other things, and bring in more people. Adding Gene Simmons makeup to the Andre the Giant character is a way to bring in people who may already have an interest in Kiss.”

Obey Giant developed into an art project and a commercial endeavor. The images became vaguely menacing, with strong totalitarian overtones derived from constructivism, but graphically pleasing. As Fairey began selling merchandise, and became wildly successful, the inevitable accusations of “sellout” followed. In my view, there is nothing wrong with an artist making a lot of money, but now Fairey must balance his antiestablishment stance with his status as corporate poobah. It’s not an easy trick. The fact that street art is (mostly) illegal is no small part of its allure. It helps that he came up legit, but I must confess that I feel a certain discomfort, or dissonance anyway, when I see an Obey logo in a store window between logos for Levi’s and Nike. Is it still subversive? I honestly can't tell? Anyway, some people just get annoyed by stuff that’s popular, so, big deal.

All along, Fairey was pursuing a career in commercial art and graphic design, following clients' instructions, but always with his own twist. His red and black murals, which incorporated counterculture figures with wallpaper design-y motifs, were instantly recognizable, yet as with the earlier work, the meaning remained ambiguous. Things got even crazier once Fairey made posters for Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2008. It's the most iconic campaign poster since, well, ever. The original image of Obama was captioned "Progress", and it was changed to "Hope" because that's what the Obama campaign wanted. There's no way to measure it, but I believe Fairey helped get Obama elected as much as anyone, except John McCain. The Hope poster was everywhere, its look was classic yet fresh, and its very popularity led to Fairey being sued for copyright infringement by the Associated Press. The resolution of this lawsuit will have dramatic implications for all artists who use media images in their work. By this time, he had gone from underground famous to world famous, and then made headlines again when he was arrested in Boston in 2009 and prevented from attending the opening of his first museum solo show.

If you are wondering whether Shepard Fairey is a cool guy to hang out with, well, yes, he is. As a guy who has followed his career with interest for 20 years, I was happy to have a chance to meet him. We met at the Primary Flight gallery space, in Miami's Design District for the conversation that follows.

Joe Heaps Nelson: Tell me about February 6, 2009, when you were arrested by the Boston Police on the way to the opening for your retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Shepard Fairey: I’m still active as a street artist, and that was my 15th arrest. I’ve been arrested many times putting posters up on the street, or stencils. But usually, I’m caught in the act, I spend a night in jail, I’m charged with a misdemeanor, I pay whatever fine or do whatever restitution I need to do, and then it’s expunged from my record, because it’s a misdemeanor, not a serious crime. I know it’s a risk of doing street art, and I actually try to be as thoughtful as you can be, doing art that you don’t have permission to do. I try not to be obnoxious with my placements. You know, dilapidated property, or places that are already sort of layered up with stuff, not well maintained, you know, city property rather than private property. But, it’s a risk of doing street art, that you’re going to be arrested. 

So, in Boston, I had several legal walls that I was working on, but I also did some sites that I didn’t have permission for. The police in Boston really had it out for me because they hated the idea of a legitimate museum, an institution, promoting the type of culture that I represent. To them, it was dangerous. It was like, putting a criminal on a pedestal and they thought it would turn me into a role model. I’m paraphrasing, they basically said if Shepard Fairey gets away with what he does and is in this museum show, then every kid in Boston will want to spray paint on houses. So they were looking for a way to show that there are consequences for the things I do.

NELSON: But the problem with that approach is that it brought you so much new publicity.

FAIREY: Yeah. Some people thought it was a publicity stunt, but they were wrong. What ended up happening was the museum had created a map of all the legal murals I did and the city looked at it and found all the spots that weren’t on it, and assumed that they were illegal, then on my way to my opening, with a thousand people in attendance waiting for me to dj, I get surrounded by undercover cars as I’m taking a cab to the museum, and they pull me out and take me to jail.

NELSON: I thought they had to catch you in the act. How could they prove that it was you doing the pieces?

FAIREY: It was all circumstantial. What they did was they dragged up a warrant from 2000, when I was stopped in Brighton, Mass putting up a poster on an electrical box, which I took down, and they told me it was a $100 fine. So I paid $100. Then when I was arrested in 2009, they told me, oh well, the $100 you paid, that wasn’t the actual fine, that was your bail, then you had to go to court, and repay the $100 then, and get the other $100 back! (laughter).

So they had this sort of old thing that I thought was already resolved, that they could dredge up as the excuse to take me in.

     Fairey's 2010 Miami Mural.

NELSON: So tell me about the Obama poster, and the controversy surrounding it. Everybody knows this image. That’s been knocked off an awful lot. It’s like the new American Gothic or something. Did you donate all the money you made from that to Obama’s campaign?

FAIREY: I donated as much as I was legally allowed to donate to the campaign, and the rest of the money went to creating more posters and stickers that were given away free. I only sold 1400 posters, but I printed 300,000 posters and half a million stickers, which were all given away. After the election there were still a few posters left over, and all the money from that went to two organizations, the ACLU and Feeding America, the nation’s biggest food bank. I also had a free download of that on my website. I wanted it to be very clear that I made that image not for commercial reasons, but because I genuinely believed Obama was the best candidate for President. I wanted to show my support.

It’s important to me because there are a lot of causes that I care about that I want to make art for or give money to or shed some light on, so whether it’s Obama or doing stuff about the oil spill, I want to make sure that people understand that I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon because it’s cool or there’s commercial potential in it. I don’t need to do that because I sell art, and one of the things I’ve always thought about charity is that it relies too much on appealing to people’s guilt. I think if you want people to be charitable the best way is to just make whatever the good thing is appealing. How I do that is, I make an image that they want anyway. With some of the people they just go, oh I want that poster, it’ll look cool on my wall, with other people they go, I want that poster and it’s a cause I care about, and I can spread the gospel. It has this snowball effect, and maybe they’ll give money, but at the very least they buy it because they like it, and I take some of that money and I donate it to the cause. That’s a reasonable way of doing things, given the mechanics of capitalism.

NELSON: So how did this come back to bite you in the ass?

FAIREY: So yeah, Obama. The way it comes back to bite me in the ass is, I did the illustration referencing an Associated Press photograph of Obama at a news conference, at a Darfur discussion with George Clooney, from before he was even running for President. The AP feels that media diversification is hurting their business, because a lot of internet sites don’t pay for the content. So they looked at what I did as the most famous example of something they could pursue, even though it wasn’t really analogous to their problem. Their problem is people using the images or stories verbatim, not artists’ reinterpretations, referencing something they own, that has independent value. Their problem is people using things that compete in the same market and will hurt their revenue. What I did will in no way hurt their revenue. But it was an image that they thought they could get the most publicity for pursuing, and they just thought I would capitulate quickly, and it would be a public flogging.

NELSON: The lawsuit addresses some interesting problems. What is legitimate artist’s material and what isn’t? Andy Warhol used to silkscreen Pulitzer Prize winning news photos, and whole front pages of newspapers. So the question, it seems to me, is what are the limits of fair use?

FAIREY:  Well, now I have learned a lot about fair use. The concepts of fair use are: does the new work harm the market of the thing it references? The biggest things are, is it transformative aesthetically, and even more importantly, is it transformative conceptually? Warhol’s entire argument would be that he has placed the mundane into the context of fine art. He’s presented it with a sensitivity and style that takes it from being mundane to a more sophisticated art object. I think that’s valid, but I think that I actually did more than that. I completely re-illustrate the photograph, make it about politics, not about news documentation, make it so it’s not working at all with the original colors and the original intent, and doesn’t harm the marketplace of the original. So, conceptually, aesthetically, and in terms of whether it competes with the way the photo was originally intended to be used, I think I satisfy all the criteria of fair use.

The thing that they’re relying on is just the idea that most people say, oh, when you put the poster and the photograph side by side, you can see that the poster is based on that photograph, so, it’s copyright infringement.

NELSON: But you can argue that you have a right to use that material.

FAIREY: Right, of course I can. The other thing that’s really interesting about copyright law in regard to photography is, factual likeness is not copyrightable. Only creative contribution is copyrightable. So if the photographer didn’t pose Obama, light Obama, do makeup on Obama, dress Obama, choose the backdrop for Obama, had no control over any of those factors, what is ownable, what is copyrightable in that content? Well the only thing would be the timing, that he caught a moment in time that was unique to any other moment. Well he shot with the thing on auto, and there are about two minutes worth of photos that are virtually identical. And there are tons of other photos of Obama that are very similar.

NELSON: What does the photographer think about all this?

FAIREY: The photographer at first said, I’m an Obama supporter, I wish I had been credited, but great, I’m glad it happened. Then lawyers got in his ear and said, you can make a bunch of money and he decided he was going to try and get money, then he changed his mind back.

But the photographer didn’t own the image. The AP owned the image. So, I don’t want to talk about this case any more, it’s a friggin’ nightmare. I just think the way I exercise my First Amendment rights is through pictures. For me it’s just a freedom of speech issue. If I want to make political commentary on a leader, I need to be able to capture their likeness. I’m going to editorialize and illustrate the image in a way that’s going to make it mine.

I don’t feel that I, or any other artist, should have to pay a licensing fee or potentially be denied the right to use that image as a reference, which is another very dangerous possibility. What if the AP says, what are you going to use it for? They claim to be apolitical. We don’t want you to use that as a political poster, we’re neutral. Then, my only other option is to get a personal portrait sitting with Barack Obama, which is not very realistic.

I think the ability for the average American to participate in democracy meaningfully should be expanded, not restricted.

NELSON: Well, it appears the Supreme Court disagrees with you, because they want to make it worse.

FAIREY: (Laughter) Yeah, the Citizens United decision was definitely a bad one.

NELSON: So how has your week been?

FAIREY: My week here at Art Basel has been very, very intense and busy, but it’s been great. I restored a mural that I did last year, it’s a really large mural, 80 x 20. I did a new mural that was 11 x 22, and I did a really large painted mural that was up off the ground by about 20 feet, 29 feet wide by 36 feet high. It’s in the Design District and I’m really proud of that mural. I think it looks really great and it was technically very challenging, up on lifts.

NELSON: Where is it?

FAIREY: It’s really close to here, if you want to go see it, at 40th and North Miami. We can walk over there. It’s just a couple blocks. I also dj’d a couple parties, and went out to a lot of events, and went out and did some stuff on the streets, you know, that weren’t sanctioned walls. I also saw a lot of good art and cool people, so that’s been great. But I’m proud of the piece I did in the Design District, because I think it integrates with the architecture in a really powerful way. Sort of that step between real seditionary, outsider, hit and run art, and real public art in a more permanent sense.

For me, street art has always been a way to, on a shoestring budget, make an impact and find a voice. My ultimate goal has been to democratize art in any way possible. Rather than making everything us vs. them, the powerless vs. the powerful, or the property owners vs. the renters, or the punk rockers vs. the evil big contemporary rock organizations, or whatever the fuck you’re going to try and make things black and white over, I’ve always thought the idea of making people think about the possibilities of how art can affect people’s lives, is really good. From the smallest sticker to the craziest sculpture or architectural endeavor, provocative creativity can manifest itself in many ways.

And I’m trying to demonstrate that I still run the gamut from a pocketful of stickers, like I have right now, to doing these big installs. I’m possibly going to be doing part of the exterior of a new library they’re building in L.A.

I think it’s a coup, being, in many people’s eyes, a vandal, and then working on a public building, with all the bureaucracy that that entails, that’s actually really subversive, I think. It’s these ideas that show just how art can insinuate itself.

If you’re doing it in a way maintains your goals, and your integrity, and your authenticity, then it doesn’t matter how awkward it might seem to have had to deal with the city of Los Angeles, or an art institution. If you do something great, that’s the ultimate triumph. A lot of people, I think, resist those ideas because they feel the compromises they’ll have to make to get there will water down the content of whatever they’re trying to do. So, I love it when I see something that’s provocative and powerful in a place that normally goes with very safe, or tame content.

So, yeah! I guess just breaking down the walls! That’s what I’m trying to do.

Joe Heaps Nelson

Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.

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