Shepard Fairey - Biography and Legacy
American Street Artist, Graphic Designer, Illustrator and Activist
Charleston, South Carolina
Biography of Shepard Fairey
Frank Shepard Fairey was born in conservative Charlestown Carolina, to Charlotte Fairey, an English teacher, and Strait Fairey, a doctor. Known as Shepard since childhood, he was artistic from an early age, but felt constrained by his conventional surroundings. He said: "My mum was head cheerleader my dad was captain of the football team. I went to a preppy school and I was unhappy but I didn't understand why - until I discovered skateboarding and punk rock which were these anti-conformist, anti-mainstream movements that gave me an outlet for my creativity that I never had."
He attended local private school Porter-Gaud where he found his friends: "We were not the super cool group and we were not the nerd group...What you were made fun of about was if you wore the wrong jeans. My parents always said 'we're not spending money on that type of stuff and if people are mean to you about it then they are not real friends'. I said: 'I know. I need all the help I can get to survive'. Because it was all preppy, spoiled, smart little fucks."
He was difficult to control as a teenager - as his mother noted, "he marched to a different drummer" - so when he decided he wanted to go to art school, his parents agreed. Overnight he went from "studying 14 minutes a day to working 14 hours a day". He graduated from the Idyllwild Arts Academy in Palm Springs in 1988 and earned a B.F.A in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1992. He supplemented his studies by designing and selling skateboards and T-shirts.
While he was at RISD he began experimenting with sticker stencils, a move that would shape his career. He said: "Drawing wasn't culturally cool. There were no hip art galleries. Teenagers don't care about art galleries so making stencils and stickers was very liberating for me. I felt as if I was if not pushing back, I was at least making my own path - which felt like doing something." He took his stickers out in the middle of the night, pasting them over the signposts and walls of New York and Providence. After graduating, he struggled to make ends meet, with his parents "constantly on my back to get a real job". His stickers, however, started to gain him attention and he was inspired to set up his own screen-printing studio which became a success.
In 1995 he came up with the "Obey" slogan, which was inspired by anti-advertising B-movie They Live. It was designed to provoke people into questioning the way they acted, the assumptions they accepted and the way they spent their money. It has since become an iconic symbol of anti-conformity.
Fairey puts his determination and motivation down, in part, to the fact that he is living with type 1 diabetes. Predicting that he will die up to two decades before the average person, he spends more time thinking about the meaning of life. The disease has affected his sight, leaving him needing operations on his eyes and temporary blindness: "It makes me feel as if I'd better get busy" he said.
Fairey spent the late 1990s in San Diego where he, along with Dave Kinsey and Philip DeWolff, founded and ran a graphic design studio specializing in guerilla marketing. It was here that he met his wife Amanda. The pair bonded over a weird logo from a new fast food restaurant: "I fell in love right away". Together they travelled around the world, Amanda looking out for the police while Fairey "bombed" San Francisco, Tokyo, and Hong Kong with posters and stickers. It was a risky occupation, not only did he scale tall buildings and billboards to find the right location for his work, he was also arrested multiple times. He said: "Everyone thinks getting arrested is no big deal. Until it happens and then they realize what it's like." Fairey has listed being denied a drink, prevented from using the toilet, prohibited from making a phone call and having handcuffs put on too tight among his experiences. Most seriously, he has been denied his insulin while in custody.
In 2003, Fairey and his wife set up their own design agency, Studio Number One and in 2005 the couple had their first daughter, Vivien, and two years later, Madeleine. Fairey claimed the experience of having children made him examine the presidency they would grow up under and in 2008 he found mainstream success with the poster Hope, which he created for the Obama campaign. It has since been described as the most effective American election poster in history.
The following year he had his first solo museum show at Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts. As he was about to enter the preview of his show, however, he was arrested on two outstanding warrants for damage to property caused by his graffiti. Amanda described how heavy handed the event was: "I really thought maybe the cab driver had a brick of coke in the car." He said: "I went from having my first museum solo show, the inauguration, my original poster of Obama going into the National Portrait Gallery, to being arrested in Boston." He received two years' probation, after pleading guilty to one count of defacing property and two counts of wanton destruction of property, eleven other charges were dropped.
The arrest was compounded by the fact that Fairey was in dispute with the Associated Press over copyright at the time. He had created the image for the Hope poster from a photograph that he'd found online - stating that he had adapted it enough to constitute fair use of the copyrighted work. Associated Press and Mannie Garcia, the freelance photographer who took it, disagreed. The case was complicated by the fact that Fairey had allegedly confused which image he had used, and had subsequently deleted files on his computer in an attempt to cover his tracks. Whilst the initial case was settled out of court with the details undisclosed, Fairey found himself back in court in 2012 on charges of destroying and fabricating documents during the original legal battle. He pleaded guilty to criminal contempt and received a sentence of two years of probation, 300 hours of community service, and a fine of $25,000.
It was a difficult time for the artist and his young family,"dealing with the case in Boston was very stressful. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown from that. Then I had the AP lawsuit...I felt overwhelmed." He continued that "It was a dark time for me. It was very, very, very stressful and depressing." Matters gradually improved and in 2010 art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch asked Fairey to present a show on America, featuring underground and political heroes of the time. Entitled May Day, when it opened on New York's Wooster Street, people queued around the block to get in.
Throughout his career, Fairey has been a committed activist; as well as protesting the Iraq War and supporting Occupy Wall Street, he has advocated gun control and more recently environmental protection. In 2012 he created a portrait of African American teenager Trayvon Martin, and he designed a T-shirt for Senator Bernie Sanders's 2016 Democratic presidential campaign.
In 2015, he produced a 3D installation on the Eiffel Tower during the Paris Climate Conference. The large globe was suspended between the first and second tiers of the tower. Fairey said: "I am the first artist in history to do it. That is really incredible for me. To have the entertainment value, the spectacle and serious content come together is rare. I was proud of it, and it was getting attention in a really amazing place. I think the idea that art can become a symbol or a starting point for a conversation, that is very valuable to me." This work placed Fairey in the same arena as Olafur Eliasson, Agnes Denes, and other artists that are foregrounding the vital issues of climate change in their work.
Fairey has donated proceeds from his artwork to campaigns including Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union and he also produced three posters entitled We The People in opposition to the Trump campaign. Featuring minority women as their subjects, they were used in women's marches across the world. While Fairey was a strong supporter of Obama, he has shied away from addressing Trump's politics directly, who he describes as "the worst president the USA has ever seen". Instead, he uses his art to examine what he sees as the problem: "I am taking on the underlying issues, racism, sexism, xenophobia, environmental destruction, climate change. I am looking at Trump as a symptom but I would rather appeal to people in a way that doesn't make it about partisan politics, but rather which side of history do you want to be on. Pro-planet, pro-human, pro-equality, pro-justice."
Fairey's wide portfolio, however, has made him a controversial figure in certain circles. He has received criticism from some members of the urban art community for his commercial projects, which they believe are 'selling out'. On the other hand, he has been challenged for targeting public spaces with his campaigns. This resulted in a further legal dispute in 2018, when he was charged as part of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's aggressive crackdown on graffiti and unauthorized street art. The case later dismissed.
The Legacy of Shepard Fairey
Fairey's Street Art adorns the walls of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, New York, London, Johannesburg, Berlin, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, but the very nature of it is that it is ephemeral. While posters and prints survive, his murals often disappear. He noted that: "I've been in street art 30 years. Most of my pieces don't last that long. As an artist you have to be comfortable with enjoying the process and not being precious about the product. I am always happy when something lasts but it's a world of many transgressions, the least of which is someone writing over my mural. People will tag me or write over my mural because they think I am too mainstream now, that I'm a sellout, or they know that my work will be photographed and it will get them attention. I consider myself an ally with all the other people doing things on the street."
Fairey has become one of the most influential Street Artists working today, and has been dubbed "this generation's Warhol". He was the subject of James Moll's film Obey Giant, has appeared in Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop and took on a guest role in the Simpsons episode Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart. In 2019 a retrospective of Fairey's work, Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent, was opened at the Over the Influence gallery in Los Angeles' Arts District. He has influenced a new generation of Public and Street Artists including Franky Aguilar, Jack Devereux and Hungry Castle. An unintended consequence of Fairey's work is that it has boosted property prices; an apartment in Costa Mesa, California sold for more than double average value in 2019 thanks to an enormous Fairey mural on its side.