AN INTERVIEW WITH OBEY CREATOR SHEPARD FAIREY
AN INTERVIEW WITH OBEY CREATOR SHEPARD FAIREY
Keep reading to learn more about Shepard Fairey, his art endeavors, his background, his visit to Montreal and the history behind some of his most iconic pieces.
First things first, how old are you, where are you from, and how did you get into street art? I am 52. I'm from Charleston, South Carolina, but I've lived in Los Angeles for the last 20 years. I got into street art gradually because I was not exposed to wild-style graffiti until I was in college, but I was exposed to the street art of punk bands putting up flyers and skateboard brands, promoting with stickers and stencils while I was a teen. The summer after my freshman year of art college, I made a sticker of Andre the Giant that I decided to put up on the streets for fun. I quickly became more ambitious and started putting up stencils and larger posters following a similar pattern of placement to graffiti tagging but with more graphic imagery. Can you briefly explain your art background? I grew up drawing and painting traditionally, but when I got into skateboarding and punk rock in 1984, I became interested in screen printing and stenciling to make homemade t-shirts and stickers. Later, my illustrations, screenprinting, stenciling, and collage would converge. In my twenties, I set out to be more of a street artist and graphic artist because I thought the world of fine art was too narrow and elitist. I always enjoyed making more refined mixed media pieces and eventually found a balance between my accessible graphic art, street art, and fine art.
You are a skateboarder and did a lot of your early pieces on skateboard decks. What do you like about skateboarding and are you still skating to this day? Skateboarding changed my life because it was the first thing I did that was fun, liberating, and creative in both the activity and the culture. Skateboarding also taught me to look at the creative use of the landscape, which applies to street art very nicely. I don't skate as much as I used to because I'm so busy with art obligations, but I still follow skateboard culture and am inspired by its amazing progression. It's a known fact that Obey existed long before becoming the brand we know today. What made you decide to turn your art endeavors into an official clothing brand? Because it was better than the unofficial clothing brand that no one paid attention to for the first ten years. But seriously, I made t-shirts from the first week I made the original Andre sticker because t-shirts were the visual currency of all the cultures that I cared about. I also felt that clothing was a lot more accessible and less intimidating than "art." For many people, the Obey Clothing line is their first introduction to the rest of my art practice.
Is it true that the brand was inspired by the movie They Live? If so, what exactly in that movie got you inspired? I was making t-shirts before I saw "They Live, " but the use of the word "obey" in my art and for the brand was inspired by the movie "They Live." I was already a fan of George Orwell's writing, and Barbara Kruger's art, both of which have philosophical and stylist similarities to "They Live," so when I saw the use of the word OBEY among many others in the movie, I decided to start incorporating it into my work as a prompt to people to question obedience. It would take me a while to explain the movie, but I'd recommend for people to see it after which I'm sure they'll understand why I like the film and the power of the word OBEY. "Andre the Giant" was one of Obey's first known characters. What was the inspiration behind it? Happy accident. I was teaching a friend how to make a stencil in the summer of 1989 and found a picture of Andre the Giant in the newspaper for him to try to make a stencil from. He started but abandoned the stencil, which I then finished and decided to also turn into a sticker that would be an inside joke with some of my skateboard friends who would comprise the "posse." People became very curious about the stickers, and they became an underground phenomenon. The various reactions to the sticker made me think about the psychology of images in public and the control of public space. What started off as an absurd joke then evolved into a sociological experiment.
Your Barack Obama "Hope" piece is among your most popular works to this day. What motivated you to create this piece? Obama was the first mainstream politician I felt reflected my values and had an opportunity to infiltrate the system and change it for the better. The Hope poster was not an official part of the campaign but a tool of grassroots activism that I made and disseminated with the help of many friends and activists. I had no idea it would become as popular as it did, but the free download I put on my site allowed anyone to use it and helped it go viral. You have been participating in many humanitarian causes through the brand. What are the causes you are the proudest of participating in and why? Through the Obey Awareness campaign, we have done projects around climate change, racial justice, incarceration reform, access to art and music, human rights, disaster relief, etc. I'm equally proud of all these initiatives because they are all important, but I think the fundraising we did to support victims of the genocide in Darfur was probably one of the most important and successful initiatives from the standpoint of the funds we raised and the help the program provided.
After almost 20 years since your last visit, you will be back in Montreal this Summer to participate in the highly anticipated Mural Festival. What are you the most excited about coming back to this great city? Painting large-scale murals is one of my favorite things because it impacts people who don't go to galleries or museums and may not even know I have a clothing brand. Murals change the landscape of a city and start conversations that wouldn't happen otherwise. I was also very excited to do an art show showing about 100 pieces of my work at Station16, a gallery I've collaborated with on a few other projects. In addition, Montreal is a great city to explore. I had a lot of fun Djing at the Mural Festival. We hear that other than being a prolific artist and brands founder, you are also a full time DJ. What do you like the most about DJing? I'm a huge fan of music as a source of enjoyment, a democratic tool of communication, and a great way to bond with people. Djing is an opportunity for me to play music that I love, bond with the audience, and maybe deliver some of my ideas and cultural references embedded in the music.
Who are your favorite street artists today and why? I'm a big fan of Vhils because his process of chiseling his imagery out of walls is very beautiful and conceptually powerful. I also love the layering and intricacy of Swoon's work as well as her activism. In Montreal, I'm a big fan of Sandra Chevrier, who is more known as a fine artist, but who I've collaborated with on a large mural in Austin, Texas, as well as Kevin Lido, who has several great murals in Montreal, but who I've worked alongside multiple times in Miami. What's next for Shepard Fairey? Anything exciting coming up brand or art wise? I'm very excited about the Sex Pistols collaboration that we just launched with Obey Clothing because the Sex Pistols were a life-changing band for me. The various talents in the band itself and their fashion management and graphics team created something special and powerful that changed culture for the better. I'm always working on new imagery and ideas for the clothing line, and luckily I have an amazing team helping with the many aspects of the line, including the cut and sew and various collaborative opportunities with bands, brands, artists, and shops. I've got several upcoming art shows, including museum shows in Seoul, South Korea, and Dallas, Texas, along with a solo show at the end of the year in Munich, Germany. I'll be painting murals in all three places.