INTERVIEW : SHEPARD FAIREY
Shepard Fairey is an old friend, and one of the first artists to plaster the walls at Ace Hotel Seattle with their work. You know his name, your grandmother knows his name (probably), but we wanted to catch up with the dude, not the legend. Above you’ll find a spread from Gingko Press's OBEY: Supply & Demand depicting Shepard wheatpasting a mural in Downtown LA with the United Artists Theater — our new Los Angeles coat hook — in the background. Below you’ll find a few choice words from the artist himself, sans posse.
How are you, Shepard?
Good, just staying busy making crap — adding to the abundance of visual pollution we all struggle with daily.
Likewise. You’ve said that Obey stickers have always been an invitation to question and look for meaning, but aren’t intended to convey an implicit message. The Walrus’ Nick Mount wrote that, “Obey Giant is clever child of Duchamp, ironic conceptual art.” What relationship do you see between disruptive, ironic and humorous street art, and the Dadas who rejected prescribed narratives and embraced irrationality and trickterism to disrupt the dominance of state propaganda? Did you get all that?
Yeah, yeah I did. The project started off with a really silly sticker of Andre the Giant. That was something where I made an inside joke with some skateboard friends. What fascinated me and made it turn into a bigger project was the way that it became like a Rorschach test — in the Dada sense of throwing something out there that seemed like it had any number of interpretations. None of it was explicit. Who’s the Posse? Andre the Giant’s dead, who cares? It sort of invited people project onto it. In that sense the project’s always had a Dada side to it.
I’ve also connected it to various other things — Heidegger’s Theory of Phenomenology, which is the idea that people become so numb to their surroundings that they need novel encounters to reawaken a sense of wonder. It’s also like Situationism — the idea that people are dulled by routine. They need a bizarre spectacle to snap them out of their trance. I always liked those ideas.
The idea of a command to ‘obey’ but with nothing specific that they’re told to obey really seemed to irritate a lot of people. Some people understood that it was ironic. It really meant to question in an overt way how you’ve been asked to obey in a covert way or in an insidious way. All of that, the open-endedness, I thought would maybe get in there and fester a little bit.
Shepard’s 2010 installation on temporary plywood scaffolding in front of Ace Hotel New York.
Recently a piece by Banksy in a working class neighborhood in London was actually chiseled out of the wall of a convenience store and sold at auction here in the U.S. A diverse cross-section of the neighborhood came forward to demand that the piece be returned and Banksy himself kind of broke character and went semi-public to support them. As an artist who has a family, who needs to pay for health insurance and generally make a living for yourself using your creative skills, what do you make of this relationship between street art, money, career and the art world? How does politics play into it? And what about the communities where these pieces live? Does the community have ownership?
It’s all very complicated. Some people say [street art] is all about vandalism and self-promotion. Other people see it as an altruistic gesture democratizing art. I choose to look at it that way.
The name of my book about my twenty-plus year career in art is Supply & Demand. My body of work as a case study illuminates a lot about supply and demand in a literal monetary sense and a cultural currency sense — the arc of how things go overground and take hold. A darker side of our society is that at the moment something can be commodified, somebody will commodify it. You can either understand that and try to make the best of it or you can pretend like you’re not part of it and probably be on the losing end. There’s always the question of when it’s worth saying, “I will turn down the money.” Those are always difficult choices people have to make.
When I see a Banksy on the street I think it’s a gift to the public. I’d rather it stay there. On the other hand, Banksy’s work is worth quite a bit of money. A lot of that has come from the cache of him stealing space. I’m not surprised that people want to steal the work and sell it. I would rather the Banksy piece be out there. He stole the space and they stole the piece, but I don’t look at it in the same way as I’d look at it if someone broke into your house and took the painting off the wall.
As a creative person you’ve been through some tribulations in the battles over image use. What do you think of the work of JR who uses the actual images of individuals without photo release? His work is pretty incredible and clearly has a radical intent. As an artist that’s now being commissioned and shown in galleries how weird is ownership in that context? Where does that usage get blurry?
I mean, I always think it’s great…if all the parties are happy with the situation, but at the same time art’s always been about making strong pictures and not about bureaucracy. A lot of times it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. I see JR’s work as altruistic. I don’t think he’s in it for the money. He may make some money. It may be a by-product of the merit of what he does, but I don’t think he’s going out there trying to find people who he can photograph that are going to be easy to commodify.
One of the things that makes me sad about our society is people love the idea of being involved in something creative until they see somebody else get some benefit.
I work from historical imagery because of various issues I’ve had with the AP. I shoot a lot of my own photographs too. A lot of times this sort of raw material that’s available in our world, whether you’re photographing it or drawing from it, is seen as not having any value until a specific person runs it through their skill set and their vision and then it becomes valuable. For someone to then say that it wasn’t about that person’s abilities I think is wrong.
An Obey piece survives as the gateway to an illicit cat den of sin on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
Yeah, this theme has been taken up in hip hop and DJing a little right?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve always been a huge fan hip hop fan. Regardless of how much I respect James Brown or Parliament, I think that what Public Enemy did with their samples has equal and distinct merit. I’d buy Public Enemy records and I’d buy James Brown and Parliament records. It’s a win-win.
Definitely a win-win. Do you have a hero? In the art world, politics, music or your personal life…
Joe Strummer is probably my biggest hero. I think he was compassionate toward people’s struggles and really tried to represent that in his lyrics and the way he lived his life. Figuring out how to convey humanity through your art form while still being a badass and entertaining people and not sounding like some sort of hippy-dippy wuss is a real challenge. I think he did it really well. That’s my role model.