Shepard Fairey and the Obedience Paradox

Obey artist leaves his mark on Cambridge, Boston

Andre the Giant, Barack Obama, Andy Warhol, Flavor Flav, Noam Chomsky, and the dollar bill have one thing in common: at different points in time they have all been made into a Shepard Fairey image. A street artist whose mixture of black, red, white, and, most recently, blue in stylized swaths makes his images instantly recognizable to the initiated, Fairey has peppered the walls of buildings, electrical boxes, and street signs for the past 20 years with stickers and posters. The text accompanying the images dares the observer to “obey,” seeking to prompt passersby to question the world, and especially the institutions, around him.

Despite his pervasive presence on street signs around America, it wasn’t until the 2008 presidential election that Fairey slingshotted onto the national stage with his creation of the now iconic, red, white, and blue Obama poster. Yet as Shepard Fairey goes from underground to mainstream, and from street to gallery, is his message getting muddled?

THE BOMBING OF BOSTON

Over the course of the last few weeks, the red-bricked walls of Harvard Square—along with its shiny metal surfaces—have been hit. Plastered within an archway on an outside wall of The Garage, a Muslim woman totes a gun with a flower in its barrel. Next to The Gap on Brattle Street, a woman decked in roses stares. Variously themed red, white, and black stickers have also been cropping up in the Square, all adorned with Fairey’s signature image of Andre the Giant and all with the same imperative: Obey.

The works arrived in the Square in conjunction with the street artist’s first solo show, “Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the first solo show of any street artist in a U.S. museum.

The exhibition, which opened last Saturday and runs through August 16, displays over 250 posters, stencils, stickers, rubyliths, and ephemera made by Fairey and members of his studio over the course of the past two decades. Divided into seven themed rooms—Propaganda, War and Peace, Stylized, Music, Portraiture, Hierarchies of Power, and Question Everything—the works trace the evolution of his experiment and its influences through punk rock disobedience, skate culture, pop art, politics, propaganda, and capitalism. A glossary of terms on the exhibition pamphlet, itself designed as a piece of advertising, includes words ranging from “Appropriate” to “Culture Jamming,” indicating the disparate backgrounds of visitors to the show, as well as the mixture of “fine art” and “street art” in Fairey’s work.

“A lot of people are much better than I am at making pretty pictures,” Fairey says. Instead of focusing on aesthetics alone, his work stems from a desire to make people think harder about the authority figures to which they submit and the systems in which they operate. “People tend to follow the path of least resistance,” Fairey says. “‘Obey’ is offensive to their sense of independence. It makes them question.”

TOO LEGIT TO QUIT

Boston was the first city Fairey bombed (“to paint, sticker or post many surfaces in one area” according to the ICA’s “OBEY” brochure) while an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 90s. His work was also brought onto the Harvard campus two years ago by Susan Dackerman, curator of prints at the Fogg Art Museum, in conjunction with the show “Dissent!,” which focused on the use of printing to express protest and subversive messages. Though none of Fairey’s works appeared within the museum’s galleries, it was part of advertising efforts on behalf of “Dissent!” The show’s organizers covered Harvard Yard and the surrounding area with posters for the exhibition emblazoned with Fairey’s Obey stickers. “We wanted to demonstrate that the street was an important part of the kind of work we were putting on in the galleries,” Dackerman says.

Fairey and the ICA’s choice to put up work in outdoor locations throughout the Greater Boston area as part of “Supply and Demand” points to a similarly rooted desire.

“You lose a lot of the elements of the dialogue that the work is in on the street, so the work is no longer in juxtaposition to graffiti and billboards and street signs and traffic signs that create either an harmonious or discordant environment,” Dackerman says. “When [Fairey] realized it was going to be in a gallery he had to complicate images....added] pieces of newspaper and advertisements to create a dialogue internal to the work that on the street is a much more public dialogue.”

[He added] pieces of newspaper and advertisements to create a dialogue internal to the work that on the street is a much more public dialogue.”

The image of the “Muslim Woman,” for example, pasted in a bricked-up eave of The Garage stands in close proximity to a graffitied iron gate and the faded, stained-glass windows of John Harvard’s. The juxtaposition is subtly ironic, as the antiquated windows adopt cultural figures of their own—John F. Kennedy’s head, for one, is cropped onto a saint’s body, with “Ask not what your country can brew for you, ask what you can brew for your country” below. The interplay between Fairey’s work and the preexisting environment reveals the complexities involved in the display of street art.

Within the ICA’s walls, Fairey used mixed media to preserve nuance as his art moved from street to gallery. Glimpses of newspaper and posters show through the paint, complicating the work’s more overt messages. Standing beneath his largest inside work to date, which the ICA commissioned for “Supply and Demand,” Fairey said, “It combines the scale and presence of street art with the depth of what I call fine art.” Countering questions with a humor that also contains a certain biting honesty, he says of the difference between “fine art” and street art, “When it’s on canvas, then it’s fine art, right? I think there are some brushstrokes and drips somewhere.”

This “more refined depth,” these brushstrokes and drips that Fairey says he adds to prints intended for sale in galleries, are the result of a freedom from the time constraints of the street, where Fairey runs the risk of arrest if he dallies too long. The artist has been arrested 15 times, most recently right as he was about to enter the ICA last Friday on his way to DJ part of their Experiment series. The outstanding warrants for vandalism on which he was arrested and his constant drive to bomb cities he visits have helped to maintain his street credibility as some of his original fans feel more and more distanced from his art.

A number of these longtime fans now accuse Fairey of selling out as they feel less and less a part of a unique phenomenon. Over the course of the last 20 years, Fairey’s experiment has grown into Obey—a large company based out of Los Angeles that comprises a clothing line and a design studio. The clothing line has become more mainstream (it’s being sold locally in Urban Outfitters), and his design studio, Studio Number One, has contributed to advertising campaigns for Saks Fifth Avenue and Toyota. For these disenfranchised fans, Obey is taking on the unsavory glow of “radical chic.”

Michael C. Soto ’09 says that such a backlash is inevitable in the world of independent art. “There is a temptation to feel slighted in some way by people who have a high regard for street element. But it’s great for not only them but for art and people outside of art.” Soto continues, “I feel like it’s coming from people who feel like they were losing something that was special and only for them.”

Soto cites Fairey’s generosity to charities as being among the factors that save him from the same degree of condemnation with which other more avaricious artists have met. The sale of limited edition posters on his website for as little as $20, despite the fact that he could easily inflate prices to match going rates of his work on ebay, is another sign that he has made an effort not to lose touch with his roots.

Dackerman also argues that Fairey’s commercial work should not necessarily be seen as detracting from his art. “I don’t think his commercial work undermines his other work; it supports it; it enables it to happen. The commercial work sometimes mirrors the street work but actually gets within the corporate structure.”

Addressing the reason why corporations might want to take on the images of an artist who was best known for his subversive, anti-establishment stance prior to the Obama campaign, Dackerman says, “I don’t think that Saks actually loses anything by circulating that kind of subversive imagery, and it makes Saks look hipper and cooler than it usually does.”

WHO DID IT?

In 2008, Fairey made a series of prints depicting then presidential hopeful Barack Obama in shades of red, white, and blue with the word “Progress” printed below him as an expression of Fairey’s support for the candidate. Within days, posters had spread all over the internet and the streets. The Obama campaign soon contacted Fairey about making the image an official art of the campaign and changing its tagline from “PROGRESS” to “HOPE.”

“Wherever I went in little towns in Ohio, posters by Shepard Fairey, and other artists, were everywhere,” says Rose Styron, a political poet and current fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics who canvassed in the swing state during the campaign. According to Styron, the poster had a tangible, positive affect on her and on fellow campaigners. “It gave us conviction that Obama’s message could be conveyed to young people, a feeling that this was possible.”

The Obama poster was a key moment not only in the campaign, but in Fairey’s artistic oeuvre as well. It marked a transformation from political dissident to supporter of a constructive message—the volunteer creator of the presidential election’s most iconic image.

Ironically, Fairey’s work has itself become an instrument of political satire. The website Obamaicon.me, on which anyone can create an image in the mold of Obama’s poster, has increased the presence of his stylized imagery as students replace Fairey’s image with their own, appropriating his creation for humorous ends, decorations and House Council campaigns. However, most are unaware of the work’s provenance outside the presidential campaign.

Christi E. Morrissey ’10, whose “dark horse” Adam’s House Council campaign also played off of World War II era Uncle Sam posters geared towards recruiting, used the Obamaicon.me website to transform an image of herself in Naval ROTC gear. “My whole campaign was based off of spoofing iconic images,” Morrissey says.

In the poster, she stands in full combat attire with gun raised, unknowingly evoking an image of Fairey’s own in which he depicts a combat-ready soldier. “I actually didn’t find out where [the Obama image] came from...until I tried to make it myself,” Morrissey says. “I actually don’t think that a lot of people know where it came from. I think a lot of people think that it was created by the campaign for the campaign. It’s the work of art that’s become famous, not necessarily the artist.”

X’s and O’s

Outside the Tannery, the eyes of the mural have been X’ed out in marker; on an axle of the Obey symbol, someone has written “intentional?” with an arrow pointedly aimed at a misplaced seam, suggesting an ambiguous reception to the work. Even as the perpetrators express differing degrees of animosity towards Fairey’s work, they are caught in the catch-22 underlying all he does. Knowingly or not, they obey his command: they are questioning.

—Staff writer Anna K. Barnet can be reached at abarnet@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Joshua J. Kearney can be reached at kearney@fas.harvard.edu.