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Apr 27th
¡Presente! Home arrow Shepard Fairey
Shepard Fairey PDF Print E-mail

obamaprogress.jpgShepard Fairey created the Obama image (based on a photograph by Mannie Garcia) that we used together with Tom Mahoney 's people-powered White House image in the Winter 2009 issue of Presente to illustrate the Close the SOA Petition to President Barack Obama. 

Fairey created two distinct images, "Change" and "Vote," for use by the official Obama Campaign, since his original images, which bore the word "Hope" and "Progress," could not be seen to have any official affiliation with the presidential campaign since it had been "perpetuated illegally," independently by the graffiti/street artist. Fairey distributed a staggering 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters during the election campaign, funding his grassroots electioneering through poster and fine art sales.

The following interview with Shepard Fairey was conducted by Liam O'Donoghue and published in Mother Jones magazine

Interview with Shepard Fairey

Five questions for the pop-art provocateur of Andre the Giant poster fame
by Liam O'Donoghue

In the late 1980s, stickers and stencils of an ominous black-and-white face

Shepard Fairey
Shepard Fairey
started mysteriously appearing on walls, poles, and utility boxes along the eastern seaboard, eventually showing up in cities across the country and globe. The ubiquitous images, based on a photo of pro wrestler Andre the Giant, established Shepard Fairey as a creator of iconic street art and a pop-art impresario. Today, the 38-year-old's Obey Giant company (motto: "Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989") churns out posters, clothing, and limited-edition skateboards; his Studio Number One specializes in corporate branding. His recent work includes packaging for Led Zeppelin's greatest-hits box set and a poster for the "Shut Down Guantanamo" campaign.

In his prolific output, Fairey has tapped into the conflicting impulses of rebellion and entrepreneurship. He's comfortable with the contradiction. Yet he bristles at critics who say he's simply repackaging leftist propaganda and the work of obscure or anonymous artists for profit. Fairey spoke with Mother Jones about his art and the blurry line between appropriation and appreciation.

Mother Jones: Ever since the Andre the Giant posters, your art has resonated around the world. Why do you think people are so receptive to your style?

Shepard Fairey: I never set out to be a groundbreaking artist, in the sense of doing something that's never been done before. I set out to make stuff that communicated quickly and effectively, playing off of advertising, pop art, and pop culture. I thought, "If I'm going to put my work in the street, it really has to stand out from all the clutter." I wanted it to be analogous to the way advertising functions. I based the images, the style, the color palette on things that had worked on me. For example, the Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols cover really grabbed my attention; Russian Constructivism grabbed my attention. Barbara Kruger's work, Marlboro ads—you name it.

MJ: You've been criticized for using images from social movements of people of color. Do you feel that's based on your race?

SF: Of course. I think it's stupid, and I'm friends with Chuck D. If there's a militant black guy out there, it's him, you know? I'm working on a clothing collaboration with [Public Enemy] for the 20th anniversary of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I give money to the Zapatistas for all the prints of Subcomandante Marcos that I made. I just raised almost $100,000 for Darfur. I challenge anybody to fuck with that, know what I mean? It's not like I'm just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit. People like to talk shit, but it's usually to justify their own apathy.

I don't want to demean anyone's struggles through casual appropriation of something powerful; that's not my intention. I met a girl who was Mexican, who got totally in my face about my parody of Che Guevara's image, which was based on the fact that it's already been really exploited to the point that it's become somewhat meaningless. And she was like, "You desecrate my compañero." I was like, "For one thing, he wasn't Mexican; he was Argentinean..." It's like me saying that you insulted someone from Europe and I'm of European descent. It's such a stretch. She wasn't in the mountains with Che eating squirrels. It's just ridiculous.

MJ: Some of your critics say that the images you use weren't meant to be owned or commercialized, such as images from the Wobblies, or communist propaganda.

SF: I can see that gripe, but that's coming from a perspective of insiders. If they are getting upset, it's generally for nostalgic reasons. A lot of the stuff that I do is designed to try to circulate things that I think are awesome back into a new crowd. Even if I'm like a hip-hop artist recontextualizing a piece like a sample, I'm not going to say I own it, because I don't feel that way. When I'm using someone else's work as a reference point, I'm just trying to give them props.

There's a piece by [Cuban artist] René Mederos that I used, thinking, "Well, how would I ever pay this guy anyway because he's in Cuba?" All I really changed about that graphic was I put flowers into the gun and put a peace logo in it. With Castro and Che on horses I was definitely manipulating the original intention, but at the same time, it was a really beautifully done poster and tweaking it for my anti-war agenda was a way to pass that graphic along. (See "Scan Artist?") So when [Mederos' estate] contacted me, I immediately paid him the exact same royalty rate that any artist would be paid.


Shepard Fairey's critics accuse him of plagiarizing other artists. He says he's giving props to propaganda. Some examples:

China Original China Fairey

Fairey's "Guns and Roses," right, tweaked a 1968 Chinese cultural revolution poster, left.

Korea Original Korea Fairey

A '60s pro-Pyongyang poster, left, is made to Obey as a limited-run print, right.

Cuba Original Cuba Fairey

Fairey paid less than $1,000 to the estate of René Mederos, the source of "Cuban Rider," right.

No artist has ever come to me and said, "Hey, I'm unhappy that you took this and used it." Most say, "I really like what you're doing; I'm glad you did that. Now that we know each other, let's do a more official collaboration." They see the way I'm using the images is not disrespectful, and they dig it. A lot of people are just taking cheap shots at me because it's an easy way for them to say, "He made it because he lifted this image, but I'm doing all my shit from scratch because I'm keeping it motherfucking real, dog." Meanwhile, they're eating pizza and smoking weed and not touching any art materials, whereas I just worked a lot.

MJ: You've written that there's no specific politics behind what you do, but street art by its nature is political if only because it redefines public space. Are you being coy when you say that your art isn't political?

SF: What I've said is that I don't have a specific political affiliation. I've been making a lot of work that opposes the war. But it's a slippery slope when people start saying you're an activist. Street art, of course, is political, because it's illegal, so the very act of doing it is an act of defiance. The argument that most lawmakers make about graffiti is that it's illegal because it's an eyesore, but you could easily argue that a lot of advertising is an eyesore.

MJ: How do you feel when stores like Wal-Mart sell T-shirts that rip off your images?

SF: One of the reasons I started my clothing line was because I went into an Urban Outfitters and they were bootlegging my star logo on T-shirts. To see it in there, just ripped off, was definitely upsetting to me, because I was still totally broke at the time. And the reason I get pissed off about stuff like that is because I didn't build up the resonance for that image just to hand it off to someone to exploit.

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Dear Shepard Fairey
written by Aura Bogado, January 04, 2009
Dear Shepard Fairey,

My name Aura Bogado. Remember it. The fact that you have chosen, on more than one occasion, to incorrectly describe an exchange we had several years ago provides an opportunity for me to set the record straight; and it should result in an opportunity for you to move beyond your self-victimization. Although you assume I am Mexican, I am Argentine. Although you assume I am someone else's nameless property I am my own human being. And although you assume I am a young, dumb girl, I am intimately close to what I write and talk about.

Instead of using my name in your book, "Obey: Supply and Demand", you refer to me instead as an artist's girlfriend when you describe an email I sent you about a decade ago regarding a parody you created of Che Guevara (although I remember it instead as a public exchange we had at a gallery). In your book, when you describe me as "an outspoken Mexican girl", you write that I said that I referred to Che as "my compañero", and that I felt that you were desecrating my culture. You then go on to explain that "Che wasn't Mexican, he was Argentine." It's baffling that you would write that, as it is widely known that Che is considered a "compañero" throughout Latin America, including Mexico.

Suddenly, two years later, you tell a very different account of the conversation. In an interview published in the March/April 2008 issue of Mother Jones, you talk about me in this way:

"I met a girl who was Mexican, who got totally in my face about my parody of Che Guevara's image, which was based on the fact that it's already been really exploited to the point that it's become somewhat meaningless. And she was like, 'You desecrate my companero.' I was like, 'For one thing, he wasn't Mexican; he was Argentinean ...' It's like me saying that you insulted someone from Europe and I'm of European descent. It's such a stretch. She wasn't in the mountains with Che eating squirrels. It's just ridiculous."

I have to credit the fact that you do have one thing right in your latest tirade: I was never in the mountains with Che eating squirrels. Other than that, you are dead wrong. That brown girl whose name you seem to forget is not Mexican. That brown, nameless girl was instead born and raised in Argentina. That girl's father is a Communist who survived the atrocities of a brutal dictatorship. That girl has a brother who lectures on Guevarismo - a political teaching of communism derived from Che Guevara that focuses on radical social change through armed struggle. That girl grew up hearing story after story about El Che, and although she is not a Communist, she learned at an early age where Che was from and who he represents to her people. That girl is me, Aura Bogado, and it's no stretch to state that I never turned to you to learn my Che 101 - that would be ridiculous.

My apologies: did I say you only got one thing right in your rant? It seems I left something out - you mentioned that I said that you desecrate Che. I will write now what I said then: your work disrespects icons of color. That is what I remember about our conversation, I was trying (and obviously failed) to explain the way in which you culturally appropriate the images of icons of color, like Che and others, for capitalist gain. That was the crux of what I talked about. You never schooled me about where Che was from - his nationalities (we sometimes consider him Argentine and Cuban, not to mention that he was an Internationalist) never came up when we talked; yet somehow, nearly a decade later, something about the event just seems to stick with you. It seeps into your book, it seeps into your interview. I can only hope that an accurate account of our conversation will seep into your consciousness as well. As an artist, you are not forced to agree with my interpretation of your images - but as a human being, you should be held accountable to tell the truth. Good luck with that one.
That Brown Girl (also known as Aura Bogado)
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Fairey takes from culture and twists messages for his own needs
written by Chesta, February 28, 2009
Shepard Fairey should be called out on stealing from minority artists and for twisting the message of other artists. I read articles that open my eyes to how horrible he is as a man. He does not allow artist to comment visually on his art but takes, takes, takes all he can from minority artists and photographers. If he thinks that fair use is creative freedom he should accept that artists will comment on his work visually and profit from it just as he does. He is a hypocrite and steals culture for his own profit and messages. Please read and see,

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Fairey has some cool stuff but....
written by Don Durrito, February 19, 2010
.... I don't think that he's very genuine. He basically rode the coat tails of Obama to fame. I've lived in Boston for 13 years and got so sick of his "Obey" symbol around. In all honesty I think that he took the "obey" pary off his image a long time ago b/c all I remember is the Andrea the Giant face, which is meaningless, and that's fine. But couldn't he have plastered the entire town for 10 years with something more meaningful. I don't see him as someone who is concerned with solidarity, he seems to be more about himself.
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