Shepard Fairey's RISD Origin Myth Gets Retold in the New Drama "Obey the Giant"

Shepard Fairey's RISD Origin Myth Gets Retold in the New Drama "Obey the Giant"
Josh Wills as Shepard Fairey
(Courtesy Julian Marshall)

America’s most famous street artist got his start not on New York City’s graffiti-covered urban canvas but at the august Rhode Island School of Design and the billboards and stop signs of Providence. That origin story — how Shepard Fairey (A. 1992) began planting stickers emblazoned with the face of wrestler Andre the Giant in response to an art class assignment — will soon be retold in “Obey the Giant,” a 25-minute, lightly fictionalized film by RISD student Julian Marshall, that has the street art great's official seal of approval. The director tells ARTINFO that it will be to Fairey's origins what “‘The Social Network’ was to Facebook.”   

Marshall got to know Fairey as an intern in 2009 helping him produce a documentary about his own work. But that project “got put on the backburner,” the director said, presumably owing to Fairey’s trouble with copyright lawsuits from the Associated Press. Once Marshall started preparing for his undergraduate film thesis at RISD, he got in touch with Fairey and suggested a new approach to immortalizing his exploits: “I told him, why don’t we do a project that’s factually based but technically a narrative, so that it’s based on a true story,” Marshall recalled.

Fairey signed over story rights for that particular period of his life (circa 1983 and 1990). Incredibly, Marshall was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance the production from “people who wanted to see the story get out” — that is, the legions of Obey fans out there — enlisting a professional film crew he knew from working on iconic indie director Wes Anderson's latest production. In February, the team shot for eight hectic days straight on the RISD campus. The school chipped in as well, providing office space, and some housing as well as the locations, plus the aid of over 50 students.

The polished "Obey the Giant" trailer shows wiry actor Josh Wills as Fairey, screenprinting a grid of Andre stickers, braving academic suspension, and plotting to plaster an Andre the Giant face over an unsightly campaign billboard of Providence’s ex-mayor and then-mayoral-candidate Buddy Cianci (played by Keith Jochim). In 1984, Cianci was forced to resign after pleading guilty to assaulting a contractor who he believed was sleeping with his wife. After rehabilitating himself as the host of a local radio show, Cianci ran again for mayor in 1990 — which is what made his ad such a juicy target for the young Fairey. The consequences of his guerilla act of art critique are the subject of "Obey the Giant"'s central drama. 

Does all this sound like something you want to be associated with? Though the shoot itself was entirely financed, Marshall and his team have launched a Kickstarter campaign attempting to crowd-source a minimum of $30,000 to finish editing the film, mixing the sound, and writing a score. Rewards for donations range from a DVD edition of the film to signed Shepard Fairey works (donated by the artist himself) and pieces of the set, including the fake Cianci billboard. 

See the trailer for Julian Marshall's "Obey the Giant" below: