Fairey Paints the Town: Shepard Fairey moves beyond guerrilla-style art to forge an identity as a heroic figure in today’s pop culture.
Shepard Fairley will be in Dallas participating in a citywide mural project commissioned by Dallas Contemporary. For information, including locations of the street murals, go to dallascontemporary.org.
Punk rock skateboarder turned infamous street artist, Shepard Fairey has become one of the most visible practitioners of a guerrilla-style art that has grown out of the graffiti scene.
A success in the world of street art for nearly two decades (his stickers of the wrestler Andre the Giant earned him top marks on an assignment at the Rhode Island School of Design), Fairey has parlayed his propaganda-influenced imagery into a successful design and marketing company, Obey Giant.
For an artist whose work has been displayed illegally on buildings for years, now being commissioned for public art projects is pretty cool. Although his most recognizable work is 2008’s Barack Obama “HOPE” poster, he continues to deliver his unique perspective on world issues with the most recent commissioned Time cover for Person of the Year, “The Protestor.” The cover depicts an anonymous protestor, serious yet familiar. Simultaneously representing a selection of minorities and a sweeping generality. The protestor is rendered in the artist’s signature style, striking propaganda inspired minimalism with a stencil-esque youthfulness.
Fairey’s desire to spark conversation on social and political issues continue to inspire his career and business. The Dallas Contemporary has invited Fairey to create a series of murals throughout the city, concentrating on West Dallas and Oak Cliff. In celebration of the mural project, Dallas Contemporary will host an over-the-top, neon-inspired dance party on February 4, where Fairey will also be spinning the tunes.
A+C writer Rachel Van Horn recently chatted with the forty-something artist about his visit to Texas and his thinking process.
FAIREY: I will be doing 12 murals around the city. One of the murals will be on the side of the Dallas Contemporary and the others will done on properties offered to me for this project. The cool thing with these murals is they will mostly be paint murals; there will be some wheat-pasted pieces as well. My profile over the past few years is that instead of having to put stuff up really quickly without permission and having it destroyed by weather or being ripped down, now people are asking me do murals that are permanent. It’s cool to be able to do large scale paintings that are free to the public and I can spend more time on.
As for the party, a little bit of wine, a little bit of good music, and some art. I have been DJing for the past 10 years and have done similar things with the Guggenheim, CAMH, and Boston ITA. People enjoy being entertained and this is a great way to create a euphoric association with the art.
A+C: I understand that you will be collaborating with the Sour Grapes while in Dallas. How did this come about?
FAIREY: I worked with Peter Doroshenko (newly arrived Dallas Contemporary director) in the U.K a big street art fair in Newcastle, and while over there he arranged for public spaces to put up murals, which included a subway. For this visit to Dallas, Peter knew exactly the kind of things I would want to do and reached out to people he knew would be receptive to working with me.
A+C: What style can we expect from you as a DJ?
FAIREY: My approach to DJing is similar to graphic design. Graphic design you have a whole arsenal of elements and you want to put together in the most appealing way. There is a lot of trial and error. DJing is the audio equivalent of the same concept. I am not writing the music but I do a lot of my own re-edits of songs so I can blend them with other things. Things weave in and out in unexpected ways. It is that sort of alchemy of mixing the things that you know with the things you don’t know and the end result sort of being the sum of its parts. The DJ that has been a big inspiration to me is DJ ZTrip. He is the inventor of the mash-up. He blends different genres, everything from old school hip-hop to Eagles to Metallic all together an unexpected way. Before DJ Z Trip, I always thought of DJ’s as occupying a genre, like that guy is a dance hall DJ or that guy does house music.
A+C: You recently designed the Person of The Year cover for Time, “The Protestor.” Can you describe the creative process while designing the cover?
FAIREY: I worked on some images that had to do with the corrupt influence of money in government prior to Occupy Movement as well as illustrate different images in support of Occupy. Since I had a previous relationship with Time, having done the Obama cover at the end of 2008, I think they saw an opportunity to work with me again in an area that made sense for what I was doing as an artist. “The Protestor” was about all the protest movements globally in 2011, the zeitgeist of protest was in the air. They wanted it to not be just specific to Occupy, but Occupy was the area of greatest passion for me.
Time sent me a bunch of different photo references they thought would inspire a cover. I gravitated towards the woman with the bandana because I felt like I knew she was at an Occupy rally. I felt like her intense eyes, suburban, goofy knit cap combined with the handkerchief gave it an intensity and seriousness but also didn’t make it seem scary like she was a terrorist, it could be the person next door. Balancing all the different concerns was something really important as well as making an iconic image. That is sometimes a tall order for one two-dimensional image. Incorporating other scenes from around the globe in the collage in the background was a way to make it about a general representation of a protestor by embodying several different movements rather than just Occupy.
The cool thing about the photograph is it turns out the women in the photo worked at a cafe next door to a gallery while I was showing there last Spring. I had no idea while I was designing the image and now we have become friends. I made a screen print of the image with proceeds going to Occupy LA and we both signed the print, so it was really serendipitous. The original photo was taken by Ted Sequoi.
FAIREY: Time licensed a bunch of different photographs that they thought they would use in the magazine or as inspiration for the cover. They turned over 100 images. Ted’s image was the one I felt best represented an iconic protestor. He wasn’t directly involved in the process. From what I have read, Ted was really happy with my illustration. He licensed the image out to Time for whatever they wanted to use it for which included being illustrated. I am psyched he was happy with it because there would be no source photo for me to work from without what he did. It was a strong photograph by itself, but the way it was composed wouldn’t work on the cover. Also, doing an illustration takes it from being about a specific person and makes it more about an idea.
A+C: You won counterculture acclaim in the ‘90s for your iconic Andre the Giant Has a Posse, a street art and viral marketing campaign that was dubbed “an experiment in phenomenology.” This influence in your art to question authority has continued, can you talk to us more about this idea and where it came from?
FAIREY: Power tends to look out for its own best interest and not the best interest of everyone else so it always needs to be scrutinized. I am not just saying rebel to be contrary or rebel to be cool, it’s about keeping the goal in mind to progress in positive ways. It started off with skateboarding and punk rock for me as rebellious outlets with a lot of creativity and a lot of lyrics and ideas about questioning the status quo and that is where it developed.
I am 41 years old now and I run a business and I have dealt with corporations. I think that I have a good perspective on what I call, ‘the inside outside approach.’ If you aren’t achieving what you want to achieve through the normal channels, you can work resourcefully to work around the system and make things happen for yourself, the ‘do it yourself’ approach is great but it can become outsider elitism in and of itself. When people think they are superior because they don’t engage the mainstream. I am a populist. I think that the idea of being able to relate to your fellow human beings is really important, Engaging the system, infiltrating, and improving it from within, is also an important strategy to utilize. I am looking at all the different ways I can use my talent and my influence for good.
A+C: Looking ahead what can we expect from you as an artist?
FAIREY: I think that the most important thing for me is to continue to build scale and quality of the of my work. I try to make inexpensive prints for people who don’t have a lot of money for art. I think its important for art to be populist. Also doing bigger and better projects, both on the street with bigger murals that are awe-inspiring to people, as well as doing more ambitious pieces in the studio with my paintings. There is this balance to make sure I stay true to my core philosophies which are that art should be for everyone.
The therapy and empowerment of art should not be something only virtuosos are granted access. Anyone can make things which can be good for them to use as a communication tool and enjoy as a problem solving experience. Creating something tangible is so rewarding but then at the same time art is sort of put on a pedestal and is expected to give the public something special. These are different things which I am trying to reconcile in my work all the time.
I am finally at a point where I don’t have to take every art show or every project someone throws my way. Now, I am focusing on the best creative opportunities. I am out there finding ways to work with organizations and causes I believe in, applying my art to charities and political movements like Occupy. There is a laundry list of charities I have supported thru my art like Tsunami, Oil Spill in the Gulf, building wells in Africa, Urban Farming in the US, saving the Alaska Wildlife Preserve, etc.
A+C: I understand you have any mentorship programs working with youth and inspiring the next generation through learning about art.
FAIREY:Every quarter I have school groups come through my studio where I give them a tour and talk about what I do. There is not enough room to do an actual mentorship. I do internships with people coming from either high school or college. It is great because people figure out for themselves if art and design are something they really want to do because they get thrown right into the mix. There is always a lot of stress, some of the work is tedious and some people are better than others. The baby on the cover of the Nirvana album “Nevermind” works for me. He started as an intern at 17 and is now 20. He is a great illustrator, cutting stencils, and helping with screen printing. Basically he helps on all sorts of projects.