Shepard Fairey was 19 when he made the sticker that changed his life. Twenty-five years later, he’s a street art legend. But he’s not done fighting to be heard.
“It’s me against the world, but I have the tools,” Fairey said in an interview with Fusion. “And all it takes is a very small amount of money and my sweat and I can do things that allow me to share my art and my ideas.”
Fairey marked the 25th anniversary of his OBEY Giant project, which began as a lark among college friends at the Rhode Island School of Design and grew into a global movement questioning authority and consumerism, with a video about the line his clothing company created for the milestone.
“Even [through] financial struggles, failed relationships, a lack of resources, and 16 arrests, I was always determined to keep OBEY Giant project growing” Fairey wrote in the video caption. “I succeeded at building something from nothing and creating a demand for it by exploiting the semiotics of consumption.”
OBEY Giant’s inspirations cut across pop culture, film, literature, and philosophy. It turned a stylized face of wrestler Andre the Giant into a propaganda-esque image that was paired with various messages and settings around the world as it was reproduced by Fairey and other artists joining the movement.
“What I think of my work’s had the most impact is not my style,” Fairey told Fusion. “It’s more my technique of distribution, the tools of empowerment, I would say. Using stencils, stickers, posters, things that can be reproduced and distributed… I think my work’s more about a cumulative effect of ideas rather than specific images.”
Before he went away to college and took his work into the streets of the urban Northeast, Fairey was a teenager in Charleston, South Carolina obsessed with punk rock and skateboarding. He used the energy and aesthetics of both cultures to fuel his art.
“I’m really about making things that I think are the visual version of three chords in a garage, punk rock,” Fairey said. “You don’t have to be a virtuoso, you just have to get in there and do it. Make it happen, put it out there.”
Fairey’s emphasis on quick and prolific production are tied to his belief in the power of appropriation and remixing, especially in the internet age.
“I think artists and activists should always stand up for their belief that it’s fair game to comment upon and transform existing material out in the world when you’re commenting on things that are really out there in the world,” Fairey said. “But also, be careful about doing things that will end you up in the crosshairs.”
It’s a lesson Fairey learned well during the saga of his “Hope” poster of then-Senator Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race. The image became omnipresent and iconic as Obama’s support grew, and today the original collage for the poster is held by the Smithsonian. Yet Fairey faced years of legal battles over whether he employed “fair use” of a copyrighted AP photo as the basis of the poster. The fight ended with an out-of-court settlement over the copyright dispute and probation and a fine for Fairey for tampering with evidence.
Six years later, the image itself won’t go away. It’s still referenced by everyone from Republicans creating attack flyers to Time magazine covering Democratic losses in the midterms. Ironically enough, Fairey wasn’t happy with Time’s cheeky use of his work. Now, he often finds himself balancing his success with his street art roots.
“For me, it’s always about seeing the good about being creative and rebellious and not turning into the very thing that you despise about the dominant culture,” Fairey said.
In addition to his clothing line, Fairey has worked with ad agencies to produce campaigns for brands like Nike and Boost Mobile, and he’s also done posters and covers for mainstream movies, recording artists, and magazines.
“I’m always willing to do things on the terms that I believe in philosophically as an outsider, but if I have an opportunity to infiltrate the system and change it for the better I think that it’s my responsibility to do that in a way that is as constructive as possible,” Fairey said.
He sees much of his work through the lens of activism and spreading a subversive message that will change the way people look at the spin and influence of government and corporate structures. Fairey cites George Orwell and his call for intelligent people to restate the obvious as a guiding inspiration.
“The manipulation that happens to people, that much of activism is about combating, happens because people have become numb to the obvious and it’s allowed people to have a specific agenda to sort of get around the obvious,” Fairey said.
As an artist who has regularly explored and tested freedom of speech and freedom of the press in his work, Fairey is particularly excited about the new outlets of the internet and mobile era. His DIY approach to distribution align with the speed and potency of digital sharing, not to mention the web community’s deep connection to remixing, rebelliousness, and empowering everyone with something to say.
“What I think is great about what’s happening now in global activism is that people can connect much more easily through social media,” Fairey said. “Now I think people that are motivated can make things happen as quickly as a corporation can.”