By the early 1990s, vinyl stickers with a two-tone silhouette of a viciously looking supervillain-alike character turned up on pretty much every big city-street corner in the US. The man with his eyes fixed on the horizon solemnly gazing just above the head of the spectator seemed ready to go to war, which also was emphasised by black paint covering his eyes similar to war paintings of native tribes. The sense of ‘going-to-war’ also was strengthened by the word ‘OBEY’ printed in an uppercase slanted sans-serif in white on top of an orange background visible just under the portrait.
Shepard Fairey started to make screen printed t-shirts at sixteen using his mum’s photocopier with motifs inspired by punk record covers. He quickly developed a distinct style which got him accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, from which he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992.
During his time at Rhode Island, Fairey worked extra in a skate-shop, and to supplement his income, he also made punk influenced screen printed t-shirts. A late night teaching a friend the art of silk-screening, he found an image of the wrestler ‘Andre the Giant’ in the local newspaper and used it to create a stencil. One of the world’s most recognised street-art campaigns was born.
Placing his sticker all over town as nothing but a fun way of spreading his art, friends started to ask if he had some extra stickers that they could put on their skateboards. Soon skateboarders all over the country were spreading the sticker, which became an underground phenomenon—or as Fairey himself describes it, a kind of secret handshake (Marshall, 2017).
Fairey was intrigued by what was happening. Whatever reason people had for spreading his art, he had infiltrated the public space, which normally was reserved for government messages and advertising by businesses with no other purpose than to make a profit. Did it matter that his portrait soon was seen on t-shirts worn by people whose ideals might not be shared by his own? Fairey didn’t think so.
A dialogue was happening, and that someone who didn’t share Fairey’s political ideals founded in the ideas of Marx (streetartbio.com, 2017) could be seen with an Obey sticker on their bags or on a homemade t-shirt only proofed for Fairey the power of art and that the beauty of an image can make people forget about their ideals (Novak, 2014). For Fairey, this was a proof that art can change the world; a belief which has come to shape his art and career and which has made him one of our times most controversial and influential street artists represented in the collections of some of the world’s most prestigious institutions of art, including The Smithsonian, MOMA, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (En.wikipedia.org, 2017).
A hope 2008
Fairey’s art has a cohesive colour palette of mahogany-red, washed out orange, sepia-marigold yellow, vintage beige and sometimes a cerulean/sapphire blue. A star icon often is incorporated in his work, and arrays of colors similar to what can be seen in contemporary Japanese art and illustrations often is given a prominent position. Another hallmark is solid backgrounds of vintage blue or red, which also can be seen in the Obama ‘Hope poster’ from the 2008 US presidential, and which has become one of his most recognized works of art.
What is interesting to note is that these characteristics of Fairey’s art are not the consequence of habits and idiosyncrasies unconsciously subordinated to his intellect and the result of artistic development. Unlike, for example, Picasso whose early art from his blue or red periods is strongly influenced by the post-impressionists and which bears little resemblance to the cubist paintings that he are recognised for and which resulted from years of experimentation and discovery; Fairey’s style and visual vocabulary are a conscious choice made from the outset of his career (Marshall, 2012).
A casual constructivist
While Fairey’s art often is described as pop-art influenced by the work of Lichtenstein, Warhol and Haring, his early work is comfortably founded in the postmodernists and the work of David Carson and Neville Brody. It is also interesting to note that his work—intentionally or unintentionally—is strongly influenced by the Russian Constructivists with whom he shares the notion that art needs to be democratised and that art galleries are institutions of elitism. The constructivist influences in many of his paintings is also particularly notable in the light of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1924 ‘Knigi-poster’; figure 4, below.
Fairey regards his art as an important tool of communication and a reclamation of public space. Seeing his art, he wants you to consider your position in society and the role of your government. He wants to pleasure and provoke you—simultaneously. He believes he has something important to tell, and that it is more important that people reflect on his work, than finding his art visually appealing. So whether you encounter his art in a gallery, on a bumper sticker, or on a poster in the next presidential, take a minute to reflect on what you see,—maybe Fairey is trying to tell you something.
Art by Shepard Fairey
- En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Shepard Fairey. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepard_Fairey [Accessed 21 Jun. 2017].
- Fairey, S. (2008). Hope. [Print on paper].
- Marshall, J. (2012). OBEY THE GIANT – The Shepard Fairey Story (2012). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcSBr4ZKmrQ [Accessed 21 Jun. 2017].
- Marshall, J. (2017). Obey the giant. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fd918A4DGtc [Accessed 21 Jun. 2017].
- Novak, B. (2014). Obey this film. [image] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcSBr4ZKmrQ [Accessed 21 Jun. 2017].
- Picasso, P. (1905). Madre e figlio. [Oil on canvas].
- Rodchenko, A. (1924). Knigi. [Photomontage and Gouache on Paper] Private Collection.
- Shepard Fairey: Obey This Film. (2017). Directed by B. Novak.
- Shepard, F. (1990). Obey. [image] Available at: https://soldart.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/obey-icon-offset-poster-screen-print-shepard-fairey-graffiti-street-art-urbain-serigraphie-obey-giant.jpg [Accessed 21 Jun. 2017].
- streetartbio.com. (2017). About Shepard Fairey. [online] Available at: http://www.streetartbio.com/shepard-fairey [Accessed 21 Jun. 2017].