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Shepard Fairey

“To be honest, I started with a surface appreciation of hip graphic nature and rebel posturing. But it sparked curiosity and exposed me to substance later.” Shepard Fairey, on his evolution from deviant punk to political graphic artist.

With a rap sheet featuring thirteen arrests and as founder of an international graffiti operation, Shepard Fairey seems like an unlikely participant in any presidential campaign. Like most political artists, his work tends to negatively critique the current political state, creating a number of propaganda posters in his signature style. Although his work has been in the public eye for nearly twenty years, he has recently gained recognition in a rather unexpected way, by endorsing a politician. As creator of the iconic Barack Obama Hope poster, Fairey has gone from producing disposable street art to creating a graphic that will go down in history as part of this unprecedented election.

Fairey attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he received a BA in Illustration in 1992. During his sophomore year, in 1989, he began his infamous Andre the Giant Has a Posse campaign. While showing his friends how to make stencils, Fairey used a newspaper photograph of the professional wrestler Andre Rene Roussimoff, also known as Andre the Giant. Next to the wrestler’s face, he wrote the phrase “Andre the Giant Has a Posse: 7′ 4″, 520lb” (Figure 01). Fairey, along with fellow designer, Ryan Lesser, then had stickers printed and started sticking them around Providence, Rhode Island. As others started to take an interest in his design, the image circulated around the Eastern United States as well as several other locations around the world. In addition to stickers, he began using spray paint stencils and wheat-pasted posters in his campaign.

According to an interview in CMYK Magazine, Fairey says, “It was like a lesson in sociology or anthropology…to see how things spread by word of mouth and how people’s interests were piqued. To me, it’s like the biggest coup in history: the branding campaign with no product.” After being threatened with a lawsuit from Titian Sports, Inc. for using the trademarked name, Andre the Giant, Fairey changed the text, renaming his propaganda campaign, Obey Giant (Figure 02).

During the mid 1990’s, the campaign expanded to a website, where Fairey posted the Obey Giant logo, available for free download. He also posted instructions for printing stickers and cutting stencils as well as his technique for wheat-pasting posters. With the help of the internet, Obey Giant went from being a small street art campaign to interactive public art on an international scale.

Moving into the realm of commercial art, Fairey, along with Dave Kinsey and Phillip DeWolff, founded the Los Angeles based BLK/MRKT Visual Communications in 1997. Fairey left BLK/MRKT in 2003 to start the design firm, Studio Number One. A year later, in 2004, Fairey, with the help of designer Roger Gastman, rounded out his growing commercial empire with the creation of Swindle Magazine, a bi-monthly arts and culture publication.

Another significant event occurred in 2004 when Fairey heard Barack Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. He was inspired by Obama’s speech and, four years later, in January 2008, created the Obama Progress poster (Figure 03). Referencing a news photograph of Obama, he simplified and stylized the image, rendering it in red, beige, and pastel shades of blue. One side of the poster is predominately blue, while the other is mostly red, symbolizing a merging of the red and blue states. Underneath Obama’s image is the word Progress set in uppercase, boldface type. The Obama O logo is located on Obama’s lapel, with Fairey’s Obey Giant logo in its counter. In a Washington Post interview, Fairey says “I wanted the poster to be recognizable as my work, and to be appealing to a younger, apathetic audience, yet tame enough not to be seen as radical or offensive to the more mainstream political participants.”

Since this was Fairey’s first time creating positive political art, he did not want to be a liability to the campaign, so he asked for their permission before spreading the image around. He was given the go-ahead and was subsequently asked to create an additional poster for the campaign. The second poster was done in the same style as the first, except that the Obey Giant logo was removed, and the word Progress was replaced with the word Hope (Figure 04). This poster was sold on Fairey’s website, where he also made the image available for free download, as well as on Obama’s campaign website. With 50,000 official posters printed, the campaign raised $350,000. With the help of the internet, the Hope poster became internationally recognized in a manner much greater than Fairey’s original Andre the Giant Has a Posse campaign. Fairey states, in an interview with the Washington Post, “I’ve seen [the image] on stencils, fliers, shirts, websites, places we had nothing to do with. This is exactly what I wanted to happen.”

Fairey then created similar posters, featuring the words Change and Vote and the phrase Rock the Vote, and after Obama’s victory, Yes We Did. He also organized the Obama-inspired exhibition Manifest Hope at the Andeken Gallery in Denver, Colorado. The exhibition was open from August 24th-28th, coinciding with the 2008 Democratic National Convention. While wheat-pasting Obama’s image around Denver, Fairey was arrested for the fourteenth time, appropriately for “posting unauthorized posters.” Although he has become internationally recognized for his influential designs, Fairey still prefers to display his work posted on the side of a building.

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