Before the election, I did a story for Modern Painters about Shepard Fairey, whose graphic Obama poster became the campaign's unofficial public image:
The article is in the October issue, but it's not online. The spread is nice, so here's the PDF! But sometimes we don't want to wait for Acrobat to fire up and then mess around with that little hand trying to size the text. I get it. Time is short. Who needs art anyway? In that case, here's the article:
In John Carpenter’s They Live, Rowdy Roddy Piper, a former pro wrestler playing an unemployed construction worker, discovers a pair of special sunglasses that reveal a secret totalitarian regime. Glasses on, Piper can see the skull-faced overlords at the levers of power and can decipher the subliminal messages printed on the world’s billboards: OBEY. 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 and graphic designer whose OBEY GIANT sticker and graffiti campaign began in 1989, two years after They Live was released. “They Live was campy and funny but had this oddly profound message, which is that people have no idea how manipulated they are. And that all you need is some glasses to see the truth just below the surface. And what he saw was this pervasive command: Obey. It’s such a compelling word. When told what to do, my instinct is to do the opposite. With my art, I have always been interested in that kind of emotional response.”
Fairey’s vehicle for that emotional response was André René Roussimoff, another former pro wrestler whose 7’4, 540-pound frame earned him the sobriquet Andre the Giant. “Intentionally, there was no message,” Fairey says. “It was supposed to mimic advertising, but without a product.” Fairey hoped Andre’s visage would awaken people to the pervasive realm of real marketing around them. Content-less, Andre was meant as a mysterious muse, an invitation to search for meaning.
This year, Fairey’s has discovered a new muse: Barack Obama. You’ve probably seen the simple but effective poster by now. Stenciled in red, white, and blue, Obama has the distant, upward gaze of a visionary leader. Below him, the word: PROGRESS. “That was the original print,” Fairey says. “Later, when the campaign commissioned an edition for fundraising, I changed it to their slogan, which was ‘HOPE.’”
Fairey is standing over a four-foot tall version of that painting in his expansive studio and gallery facility in Echo Park, near downtown Los Angeles. This is where Fairey and several rooms full of assistants use exactos and computers to manage Fairey’s myriad art and design endeavors, including preparing for his first big retrospective next year at Boston ICA. In this room, a massive table is covered with hundreds of prints from over the years, showing the evolution from Obey to Obama. “I started getting into more explicit political statements in recent years,” he says. In 2003, there were posters against the war, and in 2004 an anti-Bush campaign depicting the President as a smiling vampire. “Needless to say,” Fairey says, as Obama’s stenciled face stares up at us from the massive paper collage placard, “that election didn’t turn out as we hoped.”
Like most of us, Fairey first took notice of Obama in 2004, after his rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. “I saw it on TV, and I was really impressed,” says Fairey. “What Obama said was unusually idealistic. These weren’t the usual safe things politicians repeat endlessly.”
Even before Obama upset Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, setting him on an unlikely path to the nomination, Fairey felt moved to render Obama iconic. When Fairey met someone who worked in the Obama campaign, he made a back-channel inquiry for permission. To Fairey’s surprise, word came back with a green light. “Our print run was before Super Tuesday, when California had its primary,” Fairey says. “Within that first week, there were nearly 5,000 posters out.”
Fairey’s multi-colored Obama gave visual definition to the intangible excitement stirred by the candidate, and soon that face was everywhere. As with Obey, the Obama icon propagated itself. Fairey’s free distributive model fit well with Obama’s bottom-up, technologically-oriented, self-starting organization and base, and Fairey’s web traffic spiked as thousands of people downloaded the image, applying it to their own sites and printed materials. A collaboration with a San Francisco street-wear brand called Upper Playground put the image on t-shirts. The Obama campaign commissioned 50,000 copies of an official poster, raising $350,000 for the campaign. Other artists followed suit, creating limited editions under the banner of Artists for Obama. “This was all very exciting. It went well beyond my usual audience.”
Fairey understands his audience because he was once like them: a disaffected teenager growing up in the remote cultural outpost of Charleston, South Carolina, where punk rock and skateboarding was imported through album art, t-shirts, skateboard graphics, and stickers. While still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey discovered the power of making his own stickers when a few hundred well-placed adhesive images of Andre’s face accompanied by the enigmatic slogan “Andre the Giant has a Posse” quickly got the attention of the town paper and civic establishment. This prompted more stickers. Followed by more reaction. Which brought on bigger stickers, wider reach, an evolving cult of Andre, and a franchise graffiti operation whereby an informal army of surrealist propagandists could send for a pile of stickers, or make their own copies, or copies of copies of copies, and bring Andre and his posse to their town overnight. By the time Fairey came full circle and added OBEY to the Andre image in 1995, he had stumbled into an international interactive public art practice.
The Obama poster represents a significant departure in tone for Fairey. “Street art is made in anger,” Fairey says. “You’re supposed to be against everything. Even in 2004, the statement was anti-Bush, not pro-Kerry. The Obama image is the opposite, and it’s refreshing to create something out of inspiration.” This is a far different kind of political mood than when Fairey voted for Nader in 2000. “It feels like some kind of coup that he’s even running for President.”
Since Fairey’s image first appeared last February, Obama has lost a little luster. Supporters on the left felt betrayed by Obama’s apparent move toward the center once the general campaign started. “I’m not too excited about this wiretapping thing myself,” Fairey says about Obama’s mid-June compromise on a Senate bill that would provide immunity to the telecommunications. “That’s a big controversy,” Fairey says.
Fairey’s met controversy as well, stemming from his hugely successful commercial empire, including Obey clothing, Swindle magazine, and a design firm called Studio Number One, which translates Fairey’s sharp, graphical aesthetic onto product marketing campaigns (Absolut), album covers (Queens of the Stone Age), video games (Guitar Hero II), and film posters (Walk the Line). “People say I’m a sell out,” Fairey says, acknowledging the complaint. “They think I’ve somehow abandoned my roots.”
Fairey is eager to remind everyone that he still goes out and puts up his work himself, risking jail time, just as always. “I’ve been arrested 13 times,” he offers in a display of bona fides, which includes the range of charges: from malicious destruction of public property to criminal mischief. Fairey still cuts his stencils by hand – the yet it is impossible not to notice that his art and the commercial design are produced in the same office, housed in a nice sized building that he owns.
As we’re talking, Fairey is signing hundreds of prints, all of which are already sold. About being tainted by commerce, Fairey offers the Robin Hood defense: “I don’t work for SUV manufacturers, and when I do take money from corporations, I use it to fund Obey and give so much other stuff away. I engage the system on my own terms.”
Still, hard core critics are not convinced. In New York, Fairey’s work, along with that of other street artists, has been systematically defaced by The Splasher, a mysterious detractor (or group of detractors) armed with a xeroxed manifesto and buckets of paint. Fairey accepts The Splasher as inevitable – street artists compete by covering one another’s work – but he’s clearly wounded by the wider chorus of complaints that his art has become toothless. “It hurts my feelings,” he says, “that people don’t recognize that I’m doing my commercial work with the best intentions in an ethical way and still making my artistic point.”
This raises the deeper question as to whether that’s possible. When rebellion is sold on well-fitted t-shirt, is it still rebellion? If you follow the argument from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man to Thomas Frank’s Commodify Your Dissent, the answer is: not likely. Anticipating the 60s, Marcuse wrote how capitalism consumption erases critical thought by immediately incorporating it into the mainstream. Thirty years later, Frank outlined the precise history of how advertisers neutralized the counterculture by transforming it into marketing tropes and selling it back to itself. If this tragic trajectory turns all mass produced protest art into the Che shirt, why should Fairey be an exception?
As someone whose own life was changed by punk rock t-shirts and record covers, Fairey argues that there’s power that there is power in a t-shirt -- even the seemingly neutered Ches on sale at gift shops across the country. “To be honest,” he says, “I started with a surface appreciation of hip graphic nature and rebel posturing. But it sparked curiosity and exposed me to substance later.” One of Fairey’s charms is that he still has the unbridled enthusiasm of a dyed-in-the-wool fourteen-year-old punk rock convert, and when he realizes that our photographer, Ann Summa, is the same Ann Summa who spent the early 80s shooting The Germs, Black, Flag, X, and other heroes of his, Fairey quizzes her at length the epicenter of the movement he idolized. As they enthusiastically discuss the glorious intricacies of a Henry Rollins photo of hers that Fairey happens to own, I realize that his entire approach to Obey is conditioned by the experience of being that kid in Charleston for whom punk and skateboarding provided a telescopic view into a larger world. “The medium is the message,” says Fairy, citing MacLuhan to suggest that illegally posting stickers is by definition oppositional expression. Stickers and t-shirts gave Fairey a way out, and so they can today.
Unfortunately for us alternative seekers, it’s not 1982 any more. Or even 1989, when the first Andre stickers went up. The MacLuhan argument seems a little thin now that Obey shares space on the cities’ lamp posts and billboards with its corporate progeny: “guerilla” marketing, street teams, and other attempts to capitalize on graffiti culture. Fairey is a victim of his own success. The more popular Obey becomes, the more it becomes a brand, fading into the visual background noise of marketing it was meant to undermine.
Interestingly, Obama faces the same problem. If there is a fine line between art and commerce, the division between leader and politician is almost nonexistent. Obama is the first leader in a generation, but in today’s world of political messaging, when campaigns are marketed like products, it seems almost impossible to overcome the inherent tension of selling yourself as the genuine article. As an outsider candidate with sudden broad appeal, Obama must negotiate an ever-trickier path. So far, his not-just-another-politician-proof is in the people-pudding: unprecedented new voter registration, a million small donors, seventy-five thousand citizens showing up at a routine campaign stop in Portland. If the medium is also the message in 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 political mood of the country, it is refreshing to watch drivers craning their necks to return Obama’s massive gaze along Sunset Boulevard. Fairey gives Obama iconic resonance, stripping his image to the basics: edges, colors, impact, hope. And with Obama, Fairey found some content. In the service of an organic movement, Fairey’s aesthetic takes on the meaning missing from Obey. The Obama poster offers a real alternative to a totalitarian world. And you don’t need any wrestlers with special glasses to see it.