American Street Artist, Graphic Designer, Illustrator and Activist
Charleston, South Carolina
Summary of Shepard Fairey
One of the most influential and best-known Street Artists, Shepard Fairey is a key figure in the creation and development of modern urban art. Emerging from the skateboarding scene and rising to prominence in the early 1990s, his street campaigns are wide-reaching and prolific, with some sparking international cultural movements. As Banksy noted, "If Shepard Fairey comes to your town, every single graffiti writer gets uptight...I am absolutely positive he has made more reaches [street art interventions] than any graffiti writer in history ever has done or ever will. And that means he's won". Fairey's posters, stickers, and murals are a combination of parody, subversion, and dissent and seek to disrupt the boundaries between traditional and commercial art, asking questions about notions of public space and expected behaviors. He has also made his mark as a graphic designer in both political and commercial spheres, with his work utilized in a number of very high-profile campaigns.
- Fairey is a dedicated political and environmental activist and many of his works advocate for awareness and change across a wide spectrum of areas from gun control to climate change. He provides many of his poster designs for free on his website and through other media so they can be used as a tool by protesters and other activists to challenge the status quo.
- Much of Fairey's Street Art is intended to stimulate curiosity and make people think about their surroundings, placing their own interpretation on the work based on its context and their personal thoughts and experiences. This in turn helps to initiate conversations about social, political, and legal constructs.
- Fairey often fuses appropriated commercial images, in the manner of Pop Art, with strong geometric lines and shapes which are reminiscent of Russian Constructivism. In doing so, he draws parallels between advertising and propaganda, encouraging viewers to question the role that marketing plays in their conscious and unconscious decisions.
Biography of Shepard Fairey
Apartments in this Berlin building are known to fetch higher prices, because Fairey has made these outer walls into colorful artworks.
Important Art by Shepard Fairey
Fairey created this sticker, which shows the face of French wrestler André René Roussimoff (perhaps best known for his role as Fezzik in The Princess Bride), while showing a friend how to make stencils. He spotted the image in a newspaper, created a stencil and added the words "has a posse" as a nod to hip hop culture. He then made a few more "as a joke" and used his fake ID to get into clubs where he would post them, as well as placing them on outside street signs.
He described the stickers as a "skateboarding chain letter" which were just supposed to be seen by the people within his community. They started to gain wider attention, however, with a local paper appealing to find out who the artist was and what was behind them. Fairey said: "I noticed that putting stickers in a few places that were just supposed to be noticed by my friends was actually catching the attention of a lot of people and that started to raise issues of the control of the public space and image absorption...I quickly realized that disrupting the usual semiotics of consumption and control of public space was actually really powerful and provocative." Fairey took the campaign one step further by posting an enlarged version of the design over the head of politician Buddy Cianci in a local election billboard. Fairey added: "The media took hold and everyone read into it. Only a few people knew it wasn't a commentary but it made me realize the power of scale. That really impacted the conversation." The design has now become so iconic, that it is regularly manipulated and parodied by others.
This experiment made Shepard examine the public space, and how people view and absorb what is put in it by commercial bodies and governments. Based on this experience, Fairey wrote a manifesto the following year that reviewed sticker campaigns as an experiment in phenomenology (the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness). This manifesto was later updated in line with his new campaigns. In the manifesto, he noted that "The first aim of phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one's environment...to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings... The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker."
Based on his initial success, Fairey adapted his first sticker to create his Obey campaign, featuring a stylized and simplified image of Andre The Giant's face. This was disseminated as a sticker, but also painted onto buildings through the use of a stencil. Fairey printed the word "Obey" beneath the image, and this word informed his brand both commercially (OBEY Clothing) and artistically (Obey Giant).
Fairey posted the Obey Giant image in cities across the world in a move that he thought "democratized art". He wanted to make art accessible and show that there was room in the public space for more than advertising and government signage. As Art writer Alex Rayner notes: "What sets Fairey apart from other graffiti fanatics is the scale of his Giant campaign. The Andre image predates most other street-poster graffiti artists and Giant heads have been plastered up in Japan, Russia, Italy and Paris, as well as numerous sites throughout the UK and the US. Even British stencil artist, Banksy, cites Fairey as an influence."
Inspired by the dissenting music of the Dead Kennedys, and the fiction of Ray Bradbury and George Orwell, Fairey wanted to question the "homogeny, hegemony, conformity and systems of oppression" within the US. He was struck by the word "Obey" and how people follow the path of least resistance. He said: "People are told 'This is the right way to do it, these are expectations, these are the rules'...But when 'Obey' confronts you it makes people question: 'What makes you the authority? Do I want that? Do I want to buy that?'"
With Obey Giant, graphic artist and designer Barbara Kruger's influence is clear in both the color scheme and the Futura typeface. Fairey wrote: "Kruger's style was eye catching and seemed to universally say 'pay attention and take this seriously'". He has described the image as his own propaganda, and the style also looks back to Russian Constructivism. Art professor Dr. Hwa Young Caruso notes that: "Fairey's Obey series stands out as an example of the authoritarian influence of propaganda poster art. In Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy the credo of the Fascist party was 'believe, obey, fight'. Fairey's posters combine elements of world history, blending fascist symbols with the communist propaganda art of the former Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Vietnam, and the imperialistic goals of modern Japan."
In Hope we see a close up of presidential candidate Barack Obama's face, as he looks into the distance in an optimistic and noble stance that is reminiscent of imagery of JFK. Rendered in the colors of the American flag, the image also reflects notions of patriotism. The work has become one of the best-known and most successful election posters in the Western World. Fairey created it from his own initiative after he was inspired by Obama's speech at the Democratic National Committee conference. At the time Fairey was protesting the Bush agenda and the Iraq War and when he learnt that Obama was supporting free healthcare and environmental protections, he decided it was time to promote something, rather than object to it. As Fairey remembers: "Obama was facing the challenge of being non-white. So my idea was to use red, white and blue to portray him as someone with vision in a stylized and idealized way." Originally he had used the word "progress" as a caption, but when the image began going viral, the campaign requested that he change it to "hope" and adopted it as an official image. Fairey added: "In the Bush years people felt hopeless, so it was aspirational."
Eventually, 300,000 posters and 500,000 Hope stickers were printed. Fairey didn't request payment for the work. He also put a free download on his website, so that people could print it out for themselves. Art writer Janelle Zara wrote that: "Hope, a gold version of which is now in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, entered an art-historical canon of indelible political slogans, up there with Kruger's 'Your Body is a Battleground', and Jenny Holzer's 'Abuse of power comes as no surprise'." The piece catapulted Fairey into the mainstream, leading to claims from some quarters that he had "sold out."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Shepard Fairey
- Covert to Overt: The Under/Overground Art of Shepard FaireyOur PickBy Shepard Fairey
- OBEY: Supply and DemandBy Shepard Fairey
- Shepard Fairey Inc.: Artist/Professional/VandalBy G. James Daichendt
- The Philosophy of ObeyThe Philosophy of Obey
- American GrafittiOur PickBy Alex Rayner / By Alex Rayner / November 3, 2007
- Hope and Glory - A Shepard Fairey MomentOur PickBy Peter Schjeldahl / The New Yorker / February 15, 2009
- Shepard Fairey calls for unity with street art installation at Eiffel TowerBy Rooksana Hossenally / Wallpaper / November 23, 2015
- Shepard Fairey: Controversial Contemporary Street ArtistShepard Fairey: Controversial Contemporary Street Artist / Culture Trip / November 20, 2016
- Shepard Fairey - I'm not going to be intimidated by identify politicsOur PickBy Janelle Zara / The Guardian / November 14, 2017
- Shepard Fairey Is Fined and Sentenced to Probation in 'Hope' Poster CaseBy Randy Kennedy / The New York Times / The New York Times
- Shepard Fairey on Barbara KrugerBy Eugene Kan / Hypebeast / November 23, 2010
- Shepard Fairey Releases 'We the People' Series to Protest TrumpBy Amah-Rose Abrams / ArtNet News / January 20, 2017
- The Art of Shepard Fairey: Questioning EverythingOur PickBy Hwa Young Caruso / Art Review / 2008
- Shepard Fairey: Obey This Film (2014)Documentary about Shepard Fairey by Brett Novak
- Exit Through the Gift Shop (2017)Banksy's Street Art Documentary
- Obey Giant - The Art and Dissent of Shepard Fairey (2017)Our PickDocumentary about Shepard Fairey
- How can street art change the world? (2019Our PickInterview with Shepard Fairey on Channel 4 News