“My mantra has always been ‘question everything’ … I’m not just trying to seduce people with an image, I’m trying to snap them out of a trance.” – Shepard Fairey
Shepard Fairey; artist, graphic designer, political activist (and part-time DJ) was born Frank Shepard Fairey, on 15 February 1970 in Charleston, California. Fairey started creating at a young age, sticking his drawings on skateboards and t-shirts – something he would turn into a multi-million dollar business as an adult.
Today, Fairey is responsible for designing, possibly, one of the most iconic presidential campaign posters in history; has created, and been commissioned to create, murals all over the world; has had his illustrations on the cover of Time Magazine and the artworks of many famous musicians (including Led Zepplin, The Black Eyed Peas and Smashing Pumpkins); and book covers (including Animal Farm by George Orwell). On top of all of this, he has also been accepted as a fine artist, with a debut show at the ICA, and galleries and museums such as The National Portrait Gallery and LACMA, the Victoria and Albert Museum collecting his works.
Shepard Fairey is known for his iconography inspired by communist propaganda, and his Obey Clothing imagery from John Carpenter’s film, They Live. In recent years, the influence of Eastern art, particularly the intricate patterns present in mandalas, has been prevalent in his work; as well as graphic depictions of Lotus flowers.
Fairey is known for his standard red, black and cream colour scheme (and even uses one particular hue of red each time, to make it more idiosyncratic and recognizable). However in the early 2000s, fellow street artists and collaborator, KAWS, suggested Fairey change his colour scheme a little. The end result being a limited run of blue, cream and black stickers.
Fairey is notoriously flexible in regards to mediums, as long as the medium has the ability to channel his message, to get his point across, he is open to using it.
The Obama ‘HOPE’ Campaign
Fairey’s HOPE campaign posters for Barack Obama in 2008 have become one of the most recognizable political posters of the millennia, and arguably, of all time. As The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, said as he called the poster “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’“.
During the campaign Fairey also distributed 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters, and funded his own grassroots campaign through poster and fine art sales. “I just put all that money back into making more stuff, so I didn’t keep any of the Obama money”, Fairey said back in December 2009.
However, in more recent years, Fairey has admitted his poster embodies a lot of hopes that were never realized. He said “I worked really hard for [Obama] so I had high hopes – pun intended. I think he ended up probably being very frustrated with the things he encountered. I think history will be fairly kind of his presidency but I want things to move further in the direction that he promised as a campaigner.”
After the success of his HOPE poster Fairey was sued for copyright infringement by Mannie Garcia, the photographer who took the original picture Fairey appropriated.
Obey, Fairey’s clothing line, grew from his ideals, and art and design. The famous Obey logo was created in 1989 while Fairey was still at school; then it was called André the Giant Has a Posse (after the famous French wrestler and actor Andre Roussimoff – known as Andre The Giant), and has been re-imagined by a network of collaborators replicating his original work, which he was only intending to gain fame among his classmates and college peers. As Fairey says,”At first I was only thinking about the response from my clique of art school and skateboard friends. The fact that a larger segment of the public would not only notice, but investigate, the unexplained appearance of the stickers was something I had not contemplated. When I started to see reactions and consider the sociological forces at work surrounding the use of public space and the insertion of a very eye-catching but ambiguous image, I began to think there was the potential to create a phenomenon.”
Now his line in skateboard-inspired clothing, stickers and even wallpaper is a huge international brand; but was really just created as an extension of his artwork (as the site says “The medium is the message.”)
Fairey says of the fashion business: “I’ve always looked at fashion as something potentially awfully shallow, but something that everyone is concerned with. It can be a dark impulse or a creative impulse. It can go either way, but it should be channeled in the best direction possible.”
The Obey Giant website says: “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker”. The website also says, by contrast, that those who are familiar with the sticker find humor and enjoyment from it and that those who try to analyze its meaning only burden themselves and may condemn the art as an act of vandalism from an evil, underground cult.”
As well as street and fine art, clothing and political activism; Fairey has also made a name for himself in commercial branding. He has designed logos for Mozilla, collaborated with brands such as Pepsi, Hasbro, and recently designed a limited-edition bottle for Hennessy cognac; his clothing label, Obey, is also a giant brand itself now. His commercial success has led some to call Fairey a ‘sell-out’, but Fairey defends his decisions saying: “‘This is me taking a very ethical approach to the system we live in—capitalism—and trying to do something constructive.'”
Up there with his presidential campaign poster: in 2015, Fairey was commissioned to design a patch for NASA’s trip to the International Space Station.
Most Expensive Art Works
Fairey’s works now go for tens of thousands of pounds. From his depictions of famous cultural figures, such as Vivienne Westwood and Andy Warhol, to his more politically motivated pieces such as Panther Power – featuring Angela Davis. His most expensive works include Peace Goddess (2007) for which his wife was a model. This anti-war piece sold for $65,000 at Sotheby’s New York.
Guns and Roses (2006) is his second most expensive artwork, reinventing the older, Chinese revolutionary poster. The work achieved $71,700 in 2013 at Digard in Paris. War is Over (2007) is the most expensive work of art created by Shepard Fairey. The central message, as with many of his creations, is peace. The artwork was sold for $71,700 in 2013 at Digard in Paris.