Street Cred


In John Carpenter’s film They Live, Rowdy Roddy Piper, a former pro wrestlerplaying an unemployed construction worker, discovers a pair of special sunglassesthat reveal a secret totalitarian regime controlling the human race. Glasses on, Pipersees the skull-faced overlords at the levers of power and can decipher the subliminalmessages, such as “Obey,” printed on the world’s billboards. And that’s how a wrestler began his tongue-in-cheek war against the establishment.

“That movie had a big influence on me,” says Shepard Fairey, the artist andgraphic designer whose “Obey Giant” sticker and graffiti campaign began in 1989,one year after They Live was released. “They Live was campy and funny but had thisoddly profound message, which is that people have no idea how manipulated theyare. And that all you need is some glasses to see the truth just below the surface. Andwhat he saw was this pervasive command: Obey. It’s such a compelling word. Whentold what to do, my instinct is to do the opposite. With my art, I have always beeninterested in that kind of emotional response.”

Fairey’s vehicle for that emotional response was André René Roussimoff, anotherformer pro wrestler, whose size—reportedly somewhere between 6'11" and 7'5" and309 to 565 pounds—earned him the sobriquet André the Giant. “Intentionally,there was no message,” Fairey says. “It was supposed to mimic advertising, but withouta product.” Fairey hoped André’s visage would awaken people to the pervasiverealm of real marketing around them. Contentless, André was meant as a mysteriousmuse, an invitation to search for meaning.

This year, Fairey has discovered a new muse: Barack Obama.You’ve probably seen the simple but effective poster by now. Stenciled inred, white, and blue, Obama has the distant, upward gaze of a visionaryleader. Below him, the word PROGRESS. “That was the original print,”Fairey says. “Later, when the campaign commissioned an edition forfund-raising, I changed it to their slogan, which was ‘Hope.’ ”

Fairey is standing over a four-foot-tall version of that painting in hisexpansive studio and gallery facility in Echo Park, near downtown LosAngeles. This is where Fairey and several rooms full of assistants useX-Acto knives and computers to manage Fairey’s myriad art and designendeavors, including preparing for his first big retrospective next year atthe Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. In this room, a massive tableis covered with hundreds of prints from over the years, showing theevolution from “Obey” to Obama. “I started getting into more explicitpolitical statements in recent years,” he says. In 2003, there wereposters against the war, and in 2004 an anti-Bush campaign depictingthe president as a smiling vampire. “Needless to say,” Fairey says, asObama’s stenciled face stares up at us from the massive paper collageplacard, “that election didn’t turn out as we hoped.”Like most of us, Fairey first took notice of Obama in 2004, afterhis rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.“I saw it on TV, and I was really impressed,” says Fairey. “What Obamasaid was unusually idealistic. These weren’t the usual safe thingspoliticians repeat endlessly.”

Even before Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses,setting him on an unlikely path to the nomination, Fairey felt moved torender Obama iconic. When the artist met someone who worked in theObama campaign, he made a back-channel inquiry for permission. ToFairey’s surprise, word came back with a green light. “Our print runwas before Super Tuesday, when California had its primary,” Fairey says.“Within that first week, there were nearly 5,000 posters out.”

Fairey’s multicolored Obama gave visual definition to the intangibleexcitement stirred by the candidate, and soon that face was everywhere.As with “Obey,” the Obama icon propagated itself. Fairey’s free distributivemodel fit well with Obama’s bottom-up, technologically oriented,self-starting organization and base, and Fairey’s Web traffic spiked asthousands of people downloaded the image, applying it to their own sitesand printed materials. A collaboration with a San Francisco streetwearbrand called Upper Playground put the image on T-shirts. The Obamacampaign commissioned 50,000 copies of an official poster, raising$350,000 for the campaign. Other artists followed suit, creatinglimited editions under the banner of Artists for Obama. “This was allvery exciting,” says Fairey. “It went well beyond my usual audience.”Fairey understands his audience because he was once like them: adisaffected teenager growing up in the remote cultural outpostCharleston, South Carolina, where punk rock and skateboarding wereimported through album art, T-shirts, skateboard graphics, and stickers.While still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Faireydiscovered the power of making his own stickers when a few hundredwell-placed adhesive images of André’s face accompanied by theenigmatic slogan “André the Giant has a posse” quickly got the attentionof the town paper and civic establishment. This prompted more stickers.Followed by more reaction. Which brought on bigger stickers, widerreach, an evolving cult of André, and a franchise graffiti operationwhereby an informal army of surrealist propagandists could send for apile of stickers, or make their own copies, or copies of copies of copies,and bring André and his posse to their town overnight. By the timeFairey came full circle and added obey to the André image, in 1995, hehad stumbled into an international interactive public-art practice.

The Obama poster represents a significant departure in tone forFairey. “Street art is made in anger,” he says. “You’re supposed to beagainst everything. Even in 2004, the statement was anti-Bush, not pro-Kerry. The Obama image is the opposite, and it’s refreshing to createsomething out of inspiration.” This is a far different political mood thanthe one Fairey was in when he voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. “It feelslike some kind of coup that Obama is even running for president.”

Since Fairey’s image first appeared last February, Obama haslost a little luster. Supporters on the left felt betrayed by his apparentmove toward the center once the general campaign started. “I’m nottoo excited about this wiretapping thing myself,” Fairey says aboutObama’s mid-June compromise on a Senate bill that would provideimmunity to telecommunications companies that assist in governmentsurveillance. “That’s a big controversy.”

Fairey has met controversy as well, stemming from his hugelysuccessful commercial empire, including “Obey” clothing, Swindlemagazine, and a design firm called Studio Number One, whichtranslates Fairey’s sharp graphic aesthetic into product marketingcampaigns (Absolut), album covers (Queens of the Stone Age), videogames (Guitar Hero II), and film posters (Walk the Line). “People sayI’m a sellout,” he says, acknowledging the complaint. “They think I’vesomehow abandoned my roots.”

The artist is eager to remind everyone that he still goes out and putsup his work himself, risking jail time, just as always. “I’ve been arrested13 times,” he offers in a display of bona fides, which includes a rangeof charges, from malicious destruction of public property to criminalmischief. Fairey still cuts his stencils by hand—yet it is impossible not tonotice that his art and the commercial design are produced in the sameoffice, housed in a nice-size building that he owns.

As we’re talking, Fairey is signing hundreds of prints, all of whichare already sold. About being tainted by commerce, he offers the RobinHood defense: “I don’t work for SUV manufacturers, and when I dotake money from corporations, I use it to fund ‘Obey’ and give so muchother stuff away. I engage the system on my own terms.”

Still, hard-core critics are not convinced. In New York, Fairey’swork, along with that of other street artists, has been systematicallydefaced by the Splasher, a mysterious detractor (or group of detractors)armed with a xeroxed manifesto and buckets of paint. Fairey accepts theSplasher as inevitable—street artists compete by covering one another’swork—but he’s clearly wounded by the wider chorus of complaintsthat his art has become toothless. “It hurts my feelings,” he says, “thatpeople don’t recognize that I’m doing my commercial work with thebest intentions, in an ethical way, and still making my artistic point.”

This raises a deeper question: whether that’s possible. Whenrebellion is sold on a well-fitted T-shirt, is it still rebellion? If you followthe argument from Herbert Marcuses One Dimensional Man to ThomasFranks Commodify Your Dissent, the answer is: not likely. Anticipatingthe ’60s, Marcuse wrote how capitalist consumption erases criticalthought by immediately incorporating it into the mainstream. Thirtyyears later, Frank outlined the precise history of how advertisers neutralizedthe counterculture by transforming it into marketing tropes andselling it back to itself. If this tragic trajectory turns all mass-producedprotest art into the Che Guevara shirt, why should Fairey be an exception?

As someone whose own life was changed by punk-rock T-shirts andrecord covers, Fairey argues that there is power in a shirt—even theseemingly neutered Ches on sale at gift shops across the country. “To behonest,” he says, “I started with a surface appreciation of hip graphicnature and rebel posturing. But it sparked curiosity and exposed me tosubstance later.” One of Fairey’s charms is that he still has the unbridledenthusiasm of a dyed-in-the-wool 14-year-old punk-rock convert, andwhen he realizes that our photographer, Ann Summa, is the same AnnSumma who spent the early ’80s shooting the Germs, Black Flag, X,and other heroes of his, Fairey quizzes her at length. As they enthusiasticallydiscuss the glorious intricacies of a Henry Rollins photoof hers that Fairey happens to own, I realize that his entire approachto “Obey” is conditioned by the experience of being that kid inCharleston for whom punk and skateboarding provided a telescopicview into a larger world. “The medium is the message,” says the artist,citing Marshall McLuhan to suggest that illegally posting stickers is bydefinition oppositional expression. Stickers and T-shirts gave Fairey away out before, and so they can today, too.

Unfortunately for us alternative seekers, it’s not 1982 anymore.Or even 1989, when the first André stickers went up. The McLuhanargument seems a little thin now that “Obey” images share space oncity lampposts and billboards with their corporate progeny: “guerrilla”marketing, street teams, and other attempts to capitalize on graffiticulture. Fairey is a victim of his own success. The more popular“Obey” becomes, the more it becomes a brand, fading into the visualbackground noise of the marketing it was meant to undermine.

Interestingly, Obama faces the same problem. If there is a fineline between art and commerce, the division between leader andpolitician is almost nonexistent. Obama is the first leader in a generation,but in today’s world of political messaging, when campaigns aremarketed like products, it seems almost impossible to overcome theinherent tension of selling yourself as the genuine article. As an outsidercandidate with sudden broad appeal, Obama must negotiate an evertrickierpath. So far, his claim that he’s not just another politicianseems to have won people over: unprecedented new voter registration,almost 2 million small donors (as of early September), 75,000 citizensshowing up at a routine campaign stop in Portland, Oregon, and a200,000-strong crowd in Berlin. If the medium is also the messagein politics, then Obama may have already revived the Republic.

All of which is why Fairey’s iconic Obama image works so well.At a time when artists make little, if any, contribution to the politicalmood of the country, it is refreshing to watch drivers craning theirnecks to return Obama’s massive gaze along Sunset Boulevard. Faireygives Obama iconic resonance, stripping his image to the basics:edges, colors, impact, hope. And with Obama, the artist found somesubstance. In the service of an organic movement, his aesthetic takes onthe meaning missing from “Obey.” The Obama poster offers a realalternative to a totalitarian world. And you don’t need any wrestlerswith special glasses to see it.

"Street Cred" originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' October 2008 Table of Contents.