The Big Idea Issue: Shepard Fairey

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We love Shepard Fairey, and if for some reason you don’t already, you should too. He is the mastermind behind influential political campaign graphics, a clothing line, street art, movie posters, magazine covers, music albums, business propaganda—the list is really endless. With the Obey Posse as his brainchild, and notoriety around the globe, the only place to go is up.

What’s it like being larger than life?

Notoriety has actually been very humbling for me because I feel I have a responsibility to do things with the understanding that people are paying attention. I also feel that I need to make every project as strong as possible because many people would be grateful to have the opportunities I’m getting. In some ways it’s a lot of pressure, but most of the things I’ve achieved have come from a blend of trusting my instincts and maintaining a dialogue with my audience—so I like to hear what people have to say, but I don’t base every decision on what other people think. Primarily, I’m grateful that I have a large audience and I get to make art for a living.

What did you draw your inspiration from when you were younger and beginning to play off of your creative intuition?

When I was very young I was mostly driven to improve at drawing and painting technically. Subject matter wasn’t something I was super emotional about. When I got into skateboarding and punk rock, and the art/graphics that went along with those two cultures, I became more interested in how to fuse art and social commentary. I was also interested in the idea of art as a tool of empowerment and a way to define a specific culture. Later when I discovered graffiti and artists working in public spaces, like Robbie Conal and Barbara Kruger, my understanding of how to take the punk rock ethos further evolved.

You were one of those kids that colored on the walls, weren’t you?

I drew, painted, made models, built tree forts, made homemade skateboards and t-shirts, etc. I’ve always liked to tinker creatively and what I do now is just a version of that built upon a lot of technical training and progress.

The Hope campaign around Obama’s election has been descripted as nothing short of “iconic.” How did it feel to be involved in such a monumental movement?

The Hope poster began as just another piece of grassroots activism. It was not commissioned by the campaign so I was pleased and amazed when it became a viral phenomenon. The most important thing to me about the success of that poster is that it demonstrates that in a world when many of us feel like spectators, someone outside the political or corporate power structure can make a difference. Democracy works better when more people participate and I hope that that poster inspires people to use their voices in the future.   

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What is your own personal favorite art piece that you have created?

I don’t have a single favorite piece. My body of work is really about the cumulative effect of all the work. All the works are my favorite as I’m working on them because I find visual problem solving very therapeutic. I also enjoy using my wife as a model for many of my pieces because it enables me to have a strong personal connection, but also make an image that is meant to feel more universal.

Your art has influenced everyone from the local kids at the skate park to the voting populous—what would you say the underlying message is within your art?

The general message in my art is “Question everything”—how the status quo is maintained can be very insidiously manipulative and requires vigilant scrutiny.

What’s something that you’re questioning right now?

The main themes I’m questioning right now are climate change, environmental destruction, the disproportionate power of the oil and gas industries, and campaign finance reform. These things are all related. Corporations who benefit from destroying the environment have too much sway in politics.

You’ve also said that you genuinely care about the subjects you depict in your work, that they have profoundly inspired you. Who’s next on the docket?

I have not been doing as much portraiture of specific individuals because I have made portraits of most of my heroes already. Lately I’ve been focusing on principles rather than personalities but I do enjoy portraits. I will be doing a portrait of Tomas Young, the Iraq War vet who recently died after 10 years of slow deterioration from his wounds after being paralyzed by a sniper in Iraq 10 years ago. He became a peace activist upon his return from Iraq and his story is heart breaking and one that people need to know.

With the onset of the digital age, do you feel that the “viral factor” associated with this technological upturn has helped or hurt the proliferation of your art and its associated messages?

I think the ability to go viral with the web is great but it also means that there are a lot more distractions for people. I’ve used this as a motivation to try to make my images visually powerful and immediately memorable so that they rise above the white noise. One of the things that I always liked and still do about public art is that it creates a more visceral impact with an unexpected encounter. A computer screen tends to homogenize it’s content and make everything a little more bland. A computer is a great tool but it’s not the best way to experience a lot of things.

There’s a lot of controversial activity going on in the world today, do you think we’re on the precipice of another cultural revolution?

One thing the web has done for activism is made it easier for like-minded groups in disparate places to communicate and amplify their messages. I’m seeing some inspiring pockets of resistance to environmental destruction and the darker side of capitalism. I’m hoping that more people are realizing that with diminishing resources we need to choose between whether we value people and the planet, or the potential for profit most of us will never see any way.

You’ve now taken a handle on the music scene as well, delving into being a DJ. How do you feel about the differences in creative expressions through music in comparison to the other art you have created?

There are a lot of similarities between art making and DJing in that my process of art making involves a lot of trial and error to bring elements together in a pleasing way. Mixing songs together requires a lot of trial and error also. Both art forms require the curation of raw material and then careful transformation.

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The piece that you created in Detroit is huge. Far from subtle. How do you feel about the scale at which your art has accelerated to?

Working on the scale of my mural in Detroit, it’s a great opportunity but also comes with the responsibility to understand that it changes the landscape of an entire neighborhood. I’m always trying to find the balance between personal expression and liberty, and what actions make the most sense for the community. My mural in Detroit was an attempt to create something appealing but also to embed the principles of peace and justice that are important to me and I think should be important to everyone. Whenever I do public murals, I donate my time and my staff’s time.

Detroit has been through a lot over the last few decades. What are your thoughts around where the city is today?

Detroit is an amazing city and despite its struggles the people are very friendly, and my experience with the creative community there has been very positive. It is encouraging to see artists and other business owners using art to revitalize neighborhoods.

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Any advice for those looking to start a trend/movement/social initiative?

You have to make your content and your imagery as memorable as possible and then stay persistent. Because there are occasionally overnight successes facilitated by new technology, many people give up too quickly if their success doesn’t happen immediately. Most things don’t work like that. Most things take time as well as an honest analysis of what’s working and what isn’t working so they can be refined.

Where do you see your creative ventures taking you next?

I’m always happy doing murals and I’m being offered more and more great walls so I’ll be doing a lot of public work, but I’m also always creating new fine art, prints, and graphics for t-shirts.

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