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People Power: the voice of street art

We have all seen the image, a black and white, cut-out rendition of former wrestler Andre the Giant’s face, with the word OBEY printed below. That is if you have walked down a few city streets across America, and some other countries. The sticker, wheat poster, stencil, screen-printed or spray-painted image has been popping up for years in most major cities, and even in many rural areas. But why Andre the Giant and who or what is this placard demanding the reader to obey, and what is the importance of this figure?

The image is far too widespread just to be another punk-kid doing tags, or even a large group of street artists pasting up posters. The OBEY signage has become a worldwide phenomena involving much more than your average pot-head skater. The man behind this design is Shepard Fairey. Fairey’s design status far surpasses the meager OBEY sticker. He is a very accomplished designer and has work in the Smithsonian and MoMA museums as well as many major art galleries. He designed the HOPE poster for the Obama campaign, the dinosaur for, as well as numerous materials for clients such as Pepsi, Netscape, and several musical groups and corporations.

Fairey began the sticker campaign back in 1989 while a design student. The image of Andre the Giant was mostly an inside joke among his friends, and the message OBEY nodded to similar ones in the cult film “They Live”. This simple design quickly gathered its own cult status. Thousands of the stickers and posters started sprouting up across the country and Fairey’s prints soon became a hot commodity. Today you can visit and buy an assortment of stickers, t-shirts, and other propaganda.

Enthusiasts of the image were probably not motivated by the idea that everyone should literally “obey” Andre the Giant, as many parents and teachers might have interpreted it. Rather they were motivated by an image that symbolized a sort of unity, a voice of the people. It rapidly became an icon that graphically represented the power that everyday, street-living people have. The sheer amount of these stickers and posters truly gives evidence that not only is the “underground” art community very active, but that “we the people” still have a voice that does not have to be filtered by corporate boards editing television ads and billboards. I find it both refreshing and motivating that a design made and distributed by average, working class people not only survives in a society bogged down with cookie-cutter images force fed to us; but that an image of this nature can reach the magnitude that the OBEY image has.

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