Shepard Fairey is sitting at a long table in the offices of Studio Number One, his L.A. graphic design firm, with a sharpened No. 2 pencil in hand and stately, baroque portraits of Bobby Seale, Joe Strummer and Noam Chomsky – part of his Hero Stamp series – looming above him. Dressed in his standard uniform of T-shirt (Kurtis Blow), jeans (Levi’s), and sneakers (Jam Master Jay Adidas), the 37-year-old artist could almost pass for a high school kid taking his SATs if it weren’t for the glints of gray at his temples, the fine lines around his eyes, and the hundreds of prints meticulously laid out before him, waiting for his signature. Every Tuesday, a new signed print goes up for sale on the Obey Giant website, and this week’s offering is a red, black and cream version of “Proud Parents,” which shows a 1950’s couple lovingly cradling a bomb like a newborn baby, standing beneath a banner that promises, “U.S. Treasury, Bringing Dreams to Life.” If past records are a good indication, “Proud Parents” – an edition of 750 priced at $30 each – will probably sell out within 24 hours.
“I think I trickled up,” says Fairey, systematically scribbling his John Hancock on the corner of each print. “When I first started I was not comfortable with the artist label at all. I thought of myself as a guy who made T-shirts and posters. But when the Cooper Hewitt and the New Museum hit me up to buy my work I thought, wait a second…”
After nearly 20 years of making his art (including, he estimates, over a million Andre the Giant stickers) and often going to ridiculous lengths to leave his mark on the highest or sketchiest or weirdest spot imaginable, Fairey is evidently having his moment. Make that his year. 2007 has already seen major solo shows at galleries in Los Angeles and New York; Nineteeneightyphoria, featuring new work about the culture of surveillance, opens at London’s Stolen Space this month. For the E Pluribus Venom show in June, Chelsea gallerist Jonathan LeVine rented a second, 6,600 square foot space in Dumbo just to accommodate the large scale pieces Fairey has been producing. Except for a couple of these 16-foot murals (one of which was picked up by South Park’s Matt Stone, another by a famous German collector) the show is completely sold out. His work is in the collections of media moguls like Brian Grazer and Harvey Weinstein, and the other day Joaquin Phoenix – pictured in Fairey’s Walk the Line poster – came by Studio Number One and selected a dozen large fine art pieces – the biggest single purchase to date.
The current street art frenzy seems to have happened so quickly and to such an extreme degree – a Banksy piece goes for half a million dollars at Christie’s? – there was bound to be a backlash. But although his New York show was targeted by local pranksters who protested the “bourgeoisie-sponsored rebellion” by throwing stink bombs into a couple galleries, including a Lower East Side show by Faile, Fairey’s career and reputation are pretty rock solid.
“In terms of modern street art,” says Jonathan LeVine, “Shepard is the father, no question about it. All these young artist who are coming up, he totally influenced them, including Banksy. Blek le Rat in Paris…nobody even comes close to getting their work all over the place and pushing it. He’s like Michael Jordon when it comes to that. Nobody got up as much as him. Nobody.”
There isn’t much in Fairey’s upbringing that points to someone who was destined to become an urban street hero. Born to the head cheerleader and the captain of the football team and raised in conservative Charleston, South Carolina, Fairey describes himself as a “follow the herd, fade into the woodwork kid” who went to private school for years and was pressured to excel at sports and school. He blossomed when he started skateboarding at 14, miraculously finding the courage to be able to do things such as tell one of the popular kids, “Just because you have 50 Polo shirts doesn’t mean you’re better than me!” He chuckles at the memory. “That’s a step!” When he informed his parents that he wanted to quit the soccer team and the tennis team and just skateboard, “That was like, turning the world upside down.”
Fairey found his passion for art through his passion for skateboarding and punk rock. His artistic heroes were those he found on album covers – Jamie Reid, Raymond Pettibone – and in skateboarding magazines, which he remembers as “a lifeline.” If the style of the art was important, even more crucial were the cultural associations. “You’re not gonna see me imitating the style of Asia and Boston record covers,” he says, “because I don’t relate to it. But if that style was associated with punk rock that’s what my stuff might look like.”
All the while, Fairey was drawing “beautiful escapist landscapes and fruit bowls and stupid stuff like that” in art class. “The art’s over here, stuff I care about culturally and politically is over here.” It took seeing Robbie Conal’s Reagan Contra Diction posters for him to realize that art didn’t have to exist in some rarefied realm; art could live on the street.
At the Rhode Island School of Design (which he attended because his parents approved of the school’s affiliation with Brown University), Fairey kept wrestling with his definition of “art.” “You start to feel almost paralyzed by this idea of how grand something has to be to be legitimate art,” he says. When fellow students challenged his choice of a “commercial” major like illustration, he pointed out how much their work was catering to New York art world trends, an equally commercial approach. The ideology that would come to inform his career was starting to solidify.
As the well-known story goes, Fairey stumbled onto Andre the Giant by chance in a newspaper. He was teaching a friend to make a stencil, and he suggested using the wrestler’s face as an example. His friend dismissed the picture as stupid and Fairey jokingly responded, “What are you talking about? Andre’s posse is the new shit!”
Telling the story, Fairey obviously still gets a huge kick out of it, grinning at the memory of that moment – the flippancy of youth that unwittingly gave birth to a bona fide industry. Looking at the evolution of that crude little Xeroxed sticker in Fairey’s 2006 book, Supply & Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey, it’s truly mind boggling to think what it has become.
When people responded to this “goofy, spontaneous and anonymous” image right from the beginning, talking about it in line at the supermarket, writing about it in the local Rhode Island newspapers, “I felt like it was revenge against the hyper-intellectualization of everything in art school,” remembers Fairey. “I was very tickled and motivated by that.”
He also began to understand that there were larger psychological forces at work – that people were “hungry to interpret the image in a way that was meaningful.” Some people thought the stickers were advertising a band; others read more sinister meanings into it, like the parents of one of Fairey’s friends who immediately removed any trace of it from their shop window, believing, he later found out, that it was the mark of an anti-Semitic cult targeting the store. “What about that image would suggest that?” he asks. “Where would that come from? That’s fascinating, right?”
Fairey began transitioning from the original Andre image into the classic silkscreened Obey, “Big Brother is watching you type of image,” playing with the irony of something benevolent being perceived as sinister, when in fact the truly malevolent images are often perceived as benign. “People will gladly receive a zillion advertising images a a day,” he notes, “but the moment I put my sticker out there people are like, I don’t know what this is. This is a cult.”
In a way you can’t blame them, for why would anyone go to such lengths, climbing, for example, an eight-story water tower to wheat paste an eight-foot tall Andre face onto it, just for the sake of provoking…thought? The answer is what separates the obsessed artist from everyone else: he can’t stop himself.
“Art is proving you were alive,” asserts Fairey, who has a permanent dent in his skull where he used to lean his screen while loading paper. He adds, “I really believe the passion of the application translates to the viewer.”
Theoretically, street art is free of bureaucracy, but it comes with its own price. Fairey has been arrested 13 times, often sitting in jail for days, suffering without the medication he takes for type one diabetes. “It takes someone who’s willing to take risks,” he acknowledges. “And maybe go above and beyond what the average anonymous tagger with a spray can in their backpack is willing to do.”
He’s also been vigilant about claiming responsibility for his work. “I’ve made it really clear since I was first interviewed in 1994 that here’s who I am, and I’m willing to say that anything you see out there might have been done by me. I don’t think this is something that I should have to be secretive about, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
Of course, he holds himself to certain standards – never putting something up over other people’s stickers, and never being the first person to hit a spot, because “if it’s not gonna have to be cleaned I don’t wanna be the one that makes it so it has to be cleaned.” Naturally he’s missed out on some great opportunities, “but it’s sort of against my principles.”
Ten years ago, Shepard Fairey found himself at a crossroads. Revered within the D.I.Y. punk community, he realized he could continue to exist at that level – barely getting by as a screen printer, sleeping in his car on out of town art missions – or he could potentially alienate some members of that community and expand in a more universal direction. The outsider in him that had cultivated the Us vs. Them mentality for all those years struggled with it, but obviously, the latter won out, and Fairey moved to San Diego to start a graphic design business. “I made the decision that if some of those people were alienated that was okay because I’d probably lose their interest anyway, and I might as well just take everything I’m doing as far as I can.” He also realized, to his surprise, “I actually like the idea of what people have in common.”
It wasn’t a punk band, but the Beatles, who provided an artistic model to aspire to. “The smartest person in the room and the dumbest person in the room might both like the Beatles,” says Fairey. “And it isn’t that they tried to dumb down their art to the lowest common denominator; they were artists to the highest level. I thought, it is possible to make good art and have it find a wide audience without compromise, and that’s gonna be the goal.”
Not surprisingly, some of Fairey’s first high profile commercial jobs utilized both his graphics and his guerilla skills. In 1999 he designed and executed a secondary campaign for the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon, creating garish posters of Kaufman and his alter-ego Tony Clifton, and hiring friends in different cities to wheat paste them up. The posters pointed people to a sub-site that was basically just a discussion forum about the late comedian – the idea being that the community would generate interest in the movie. “Usually I wouldn’t do that kind of stuff,” explains Fairey. “But I thought Andy Kaufman was a really interesting and subversive guy.”
“No matter what I’m doing,” he says, “I’m always trying to figure out a way to inject my agenda into the client work – to solve their problem but make sure that I’m able to do it in a style that is good for my career.” He names the Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist album cover as a recent example – with its image of a submerged Statue of Liberty referencing both global warming and the sinking of American values.
He adds, “The only thing that’s really changed is that as I’ve found more legitimate outlets, whether it’s gallery art shows or collaborations with people I want to work with like Henry Rollins [who hired him to do set design for his IFC show] or Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin [whose forthcoming greatest hits package he just designed], now I have a lot of ways to share art that aren’t just through illegal means.”
Fairey is the first to remind us that guerilla marketing has been around way longer than him – “in Paris in the 1890s you saw bills everywhere,” he says – but there are still those who try to blame him for the commercial exploitation of street art tactics over the last decade. Responding to critics who point to his corporate work as proof, Fairey shrugs, “I wasn’t encouraging those companies to do street marketing. I wasn’t saying, ‘Hey, here’s what I do on the street, that could be really effective for you!’” He laughs at the absurdity.
As for the debate about whether one can “share revolutionary ideas through a non-revolutionary medium,” he says, “A lot of those arguments are coming from people who are very naïve about how things work. To me it sort of insults one’s intelligence that you can’t figure out a way to solve that problem, to get the most out of the situation and compromise the least.”
Success has been a long, slow and steady climb for Fairey. All his moves are carefully considered and weighed against a deeply internalized code of ethics. For him, the struggle against “selling out” is virtually nonexistent, because it’s never been about the money. “Money is just a way to do the things you want on your own terms,” he says. “It’s a tool, it’s not the goal.” He adds, “I often pass up very lucrative jobs because I think they’re a waste of time, but I never turn down something that’s awesome artistically because it doesn’t make enough money.”
Once Fairey reached a point where he could afford a $35 dollar a night hotel instead of sleeping in his car, or could actually do a print run of posters without draining his bank account, the rest, he says – the original Banksy and Jamie Reid pieces, the Prius, the house in the Los Angeles hills – was “gravy.”
In 1999 Fairey met Amanda Ayala, who became his wife in 2001. Before she helped him co-found Studio Number One, Amanda proved her mettle by backing her husband up on numerous missions, once being mistaken for a prostitute when she was keeping watch on a Hollywood street corner; another time managing to convince the cops that there was no connection between the Obey Giant stickers in her car and the big new icon face that had just gone up on a billboard across the street.
“She’s ballsy,” says Fairey with a grin about the woman who also manages his art career and is now pregnant with their second child (their daughter Vivienne is two). “It’s always helpful to have somebody to negotiate on your behalf. I’m such a pushover,” he admits. “I’m always just so excited that somebody digs what I’m doing. Early on I made deals that were not the best terms but Amanda’s a shrewd negotiator.”
Together they run a small empire that includes the Obey clothing line; Swindle magazine; the graphics business and an advertising agency, in addition to Fairey’s exploding fine art career. It’s a far cry from the days when he used to print randomly numbered editions – 15 one day and 79 the next – depending on how much paper he had on hand.
Even so, it’s hard to believe that the massive quantities of work created for this year’s gallery shows were produced out of a relatively modest two-car garage attached to the couple’s Los Feliz home. It’s here that Jason Filippo, an old high school pal of Fairey’s who is his lead art assistant, can be found most days, cutting stencils and crafting the intricately collaged backgrounds that have become the artist’s new signature, his cheeky punk attitude replaced by a more contemplative stance. “I’m a parent now,” says Fairey, who gets home by seven every night so he can spend time with his daughter. “I pay a little more attention to how everything is interconnected – the cause and effect relationships of things with the environment, with our foreign policy, the negative effects of a herd mentality with the populus.”
He is still asking us to question our assumptions about symbols, but where he once transposed Andre’s mug over the classic image of Che Guevara in a beret, or inserted an imposter – a model from a hairstyle magazine – into a “Brown Power” series that included Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis (much to the irritation of those who fell for the trick and mistook the guy for Huey Newton), now Fairey sticks flowers into the muzzles of rifles a la Abbie Hoffman, and comments on toxic sunsets and the decline of our educational system. The proliferation of beatific and glamorous peace goddesses sharing wall space with soldiers and rockers is a testament to the strong female influence in his life. Says Fairey, “I don’t think that the feminine perspective is valued enough in the grand scheme of things. It’s a generalization of course, but the idea that women don’t pick up arms unless it’s to correct an injustice rather than perpetuating one tends to be true. Having a kid makes me realize that the world would be really shitty without the female touch.”
As his wife sums it up, “He’s honing in on his feminine side. He’s done his boy thing.” And he better get used to it, because the couple just found out that their next child will also be a girl. Amanda remembers, “The doctor just looked at Shepard and said, ‘You are officially the king.’” And – big surprise – the doctor also turned out to be a fan, which he cryptically revealed by commenting on the “Mao hat” their baby appeared to be wearing in the sonogram. “We were like, why is he saying our baby looks like a Communist?” she laughs. “This thing is bigger than I or even Shepard realize.”
One gets the sense, though, that Fairey might actually be starting to feel the weight of how big it’s become. After ten years of putting up at least two gallery shows a year, this self-described “creature of habit” has decided to take a year off, to focus on his family and the new baby, but also “to really assess what I’m doing, where I want to take it and what I might be able to do to make some breakthroughs in introducing other stuff into the art.” He’s vague about what this evolution might entail, but knows that he needs enough time to experiment “where if you fail there aren’t really any consequences.”
“At the end of that year,” he continues, “the stuff might look barely any different because I explored a lot of things and decided that the path I’ve been on is the best for the way that I want to communicate, or it might change significantly.”
In the meantime, the exhibitions keeping Fairey busy will be those that will go up at his and Amanda’s new Subliminal Projects gallery space in Echo Park, where Studio Number One will also move in early 2008. “Finally, we have a proper gallery,” enthuses Amanda, who reveals that eight shows are already on the calendar, including Blek le Rat, House Industries, and a French duo called Moto 77.
And no matter what he’s working on, Andre the Giant will always have a permanent place in his jeans pocket, because there will always be a spot just waiting for a sticker. “It’s like that dream,” says Fairey. “I don’t know if you had it but I always had it: I’d get to school and I realized I forgot to put my pants on. If I go out and I don’t have stickers it’s that level of anxiety.”
Roger Gastman, the editor in chief of Swindle magazine, believes it’s his grass roots ethos that makes his partner truly unique. “He is reachable and attainable,” says Gastman. “You don’t have to go to a museum to see Shepard’s work. You might not be able to buy a piece from the Jonathan LeVine show but you can go on his website and buy a sticker pack. And in so many cities across the world there is a constant reminder of that on the street: Here’s a sticker. You can walk up to it and touch it.”
For Fairey, that accessibility and human interaction is as essential to his work as the continuing refinement of his fine art. “I love that I can spend more time on art and make more money off the individual pieces these days.” he says, “But for me, doing the posters and the street art that a 15-year-old walking down the street could see, that is just as important to me. They’re always going to have to be happening simultaneously for me to be happy.”