Shepard Fairey is easily one of the most recognizable names in Contemporary American Art. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most respected art and design schools in the world, he gained popular fame not by showing the gallery circuit and climbing the ranks of the art world proper, but by producing iconic street art.
Years before Fairey made international headlines (and scored a spot on the wall at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.) with his image of Barack Obama, he became a sensation with his ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ street art campaign. First seen on the streets of Providence, RI, the stickers, stencils, and posters began appearing in cities all over the east coast. Eventually, the image was pared down this:
Without making a concrete socio-political statement, the image infers a general subversion of complacent consumer culture and authoritarian establishment. Naturally, this struck a chord within counterculture. Conspicuously placed on interstate overpasses, building exteriors, billboards, and signs, the image created a buzz and sparked instant intrigue and enthusiasm.
It was the viral spread of this image that really launched Fairey’s career. He began showing (and selling) work at galleries in major cities internationally. In 2001, Fairey launched OBEY Clothing, a street wear line now sold around the world. All of this commercial fallout is, to me, one of the most interesting things about Fairey.
As I interpret it, his initial intent was the subversion of this commercial culture he now participates in…and profits from. We’ll grant him that – artists have to live too. Maybe instead of questioning his artistic ethic, we should be inspired. After all, Fairey did make his way to the top by virtue of his work and through self-promotion. In addition, unlike many street artists cum designers/entrepreneurs, Fairey maintained his political message throughout. None of this was solely aesthetic, and what better way to propagate a (worthy) socio-political agenda than integrating it into a consumerist paradigm? I would love to hear your take on Fairey’s road to success.
Note: If you want more Shepard Fairey, watch him speak at a recent PSFK conference in L.A. Here, he goes much more in depth about his art, life, influences, and politics. Its pretty interesting.