ART PROSTITUTE MAGAZINE INTERVIEW
Q: You were the first person to collaborate with Paul Frank. How did that come about?
A: My wife Amanda was the first person I knew that had anything Paul Frank. She had a really cool over the shoulder bag and I liked the logo. This was about 4 years ago. So the next trade show that we went to, we found their booth and one of the guys that worked there, this guy Jay, when he realized who I was at the booth said, “I’m one of the guys that makes the samples at Paul Frank. I’d like to do some custom Obey thing, just for me to have and I’ll make some for you.” So I said, “I like Paul Frank’s stuff a lot, have you guys ever thought about doing a double label?” They got really excited about the idea, and Paul didnÌt even know who I was. After Ben and Jay and Austin Brown and some of the other guys that work there, brought a bunch of my stuff in, they had me go over there and everyone at Paul Frank got super excited. There is definitely an overlap in the way that we break images down to their simplest elements. Theirs is a little bit more cartoony, mine is more propaganda based, but there still is an overlap. So their art department started making the Obey logo underneath the monkey face with the thick black rectangle around it, like the way that I would do the Obey icon It didn’t end up going like that where it was a literal crossover of the two images. That would have confused people a little too much is what they thought. It was really fun.
Especially then, Paul Frank was starting to get really popular with the “cool” people. I think now there is a little bit of a backlash because they have gotten so big and a lot more mainstream. I still think that theyÌre doing a great job so I was excited to do it. They only made 300 pieces of each item and they all sold out right away, before we even had a chance to put them in the catalogue.
Those pieces crop up on Ebay once and a while. The last wallet I saw went for 155 dollars.
I can’t even believe that stuff. I have one or two of each piece. They’re really cool at Paul Frank. They have fun. I think all their stuff is really clever. You can just see that they have a good time with it. They are really humble for how successful they are. They have no attitude. The whole clothing industry people being competitive with each other and having too cool for school attitudes is really depressing. So Paul Frank, it was refreshing to work with those guys that have a great attitude.
Q: Start at the beginning, for those who still donÌt know. When did you decide you wanted to start the whole Obey campaign?
A: I grew up in South Carolina and there was no graffiti in South Carolina except I love so-and-so on a rock to impress a girl, or go whatever the local sports team is. So I wasn’t really exposed to graffiti, but I did get into skateboarding and punk rock. For my 14th birthday, I got a skateboard that my mom wouldn’t buy completely but she would match my funds. She couldn’t endorse me skateboarding, but if it was all I wanted she would match my funds. So we drove 40 minutes to the closest place that sold them and I got one. Around that time I started listening to Agent Orange, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and all that stuff. I had drawn since I was a little kid–I know I am going way back here, but it’s relevant–That was just what I did when I was in trouble and was locked in my room. I didn’t do it for fun because I was a really athletic and was a hyperactive kid. I was into tennis and soccer and football and all that stuff. I kind of didn’t like always having to hang out with other kids to do it. So when I got into skateboarding I could do it by myself, which I was really into. And it was also creative, and the punk rock was more sugar and caffeine in the form of music. It was like adrenaline pumping music. The cool thing with the graphics in the skateboarding and punk rock stuff seemed like you didn’t have to be Picasso or whatever to do it. It seemed really accessible to a 14 or 15 year old. That is when I got into making bootleg punk rock and skate shirts with paper cut stencils. I couldn’t really get those around. There weren’t any record stores that sold Sex Pistols T’s or anything like that. Even when I got The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, I had to mail order it. They didn’t even carry that. They carried Never Mind the Bollocks, because that was the successful Sex Pistols album. Everybody has their “I had to walk up hill, in the snow, 5 miles, both ways to do what I had to do when I was a kid” story. That was just the way that it was, and that was cool, because not being able to just buy T-shirts and having to make them, I was applying some of my art skills from drawing to making stencils. It was a lot more fun than drawing from a picture. I didn’t even really consider it art and that is kind of the roots of the style that have. That went on through high school and I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. I wanted to be a pro skateboarder, but I wasn’t good enough. I figured if I had to get a job it would be as an artist because I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I did a year of art high school because my parents thought that I was stagnating in public school because all I did was skate and hang out with my friends and get C’s. I think in my junior year I had a 72 average in all my classes, just enough to know that if I kinda fucked up on the exam I had 2 points buffer and I wouldn’t have to repeat. So my parents knew that I was underachieving and thought that I was in a bad environment. They forced me to apply to art boarding school. I had gone to the North Carolina School of the Arts summer program, which is a really good one, the year before. I submitted my portfolio and got in there, for my senior year of High School. I went to the summer program again and I got kicked out for skateboarding repeatedly against the rules, and for spending the night out without permission. So around end of July I had no school to go to for the next year. My parents found a school here right by Palm Springs and the San Jacinto Mountains; this place called the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts. ItÌs a really small school and they accepted me. There were only like 80 kids there and it was out in the middle of nowhere. The only thing to do was skate and work on art. They had an early curfew during the week so I would just work on art all the time. I learned photography there, which was really great. I applied to RISD and I got into RISD. I was just so slack I thought, “I don’t want to go to any school, that’s hard.” I applied to RISD because my parents made me, but then I applied to SVA, the Chicago Art Institute, and a bunch of others. I got into all of them but since I got into RISD my parents made me go there, but I didn’t want to go there. They said, “It’s the best; it’s really good.”
I thought, “Best equals hard and I don’t want to go there, all I want to do is skate.” But I’m glad I went there, because when I got there, we were pretty close to New York. Immediately in the first month of freshman year we took a trip to New York. And I saw just driving in on the freeway 20 miles outside of the city, all the way in every wall was just layered with pieces. There would be really high ill spots that people climbed out on ledges to bomb. Never before had I seen art executed so passionately. What are these guys getting out of this? Nothing but the fame. It was really inspiring. There seems to be this inherent attitude in art school people that nothingÌs cool like, “That sucks, that’s old, that’s wack.” Seeing graffiti and seeing that you’re not the next Warhol from doing a piece on a cross Bronx expressway, you just got your name out there. That inspired me, it seemed so unpretentious. When I went to art school, it was during the 8th grade poetry, I listen to the Cure, I’m Goth and deep, I wear all black, I paint my nails black, dye my hair black and drink a large black coffee. Walk around and scowl at everyone’s work and turn your nose up. Part of it was coming from insecurity; I didn’t really like being a part of all that. I was kind of insecure about my own work. Graffiti seemed very anonymous and liberating, that you know that you’re the one that did it but not everyone else knows. You can actually be a fly on the wall, hear what people say but they don’t know that it’s your nom de guere or whatever and you kind of chuckle to yourself. I hadn’t really thought about how this was going to translate to anything that I would be doing, it was just that these were the things that were inspiring me one way or another.
One of the other things at RISD was that around Providence there was this sticker culture. Every band had a sticker; all the skate shops had stickers so there was a template out there. There were these dudes from RISD that made this dada sticker that had a 50′s picture of a girl with a rolled cigarette, very Norman Rockwell and it said: the hip weed was tobacco. Ha ha. How naive now the hip weed is weed. They made these hip weed was tobacco stickers and put them everywhere. The funny thing was that I started hearing rumors like, “Those guys have made over 1 million hip weed stickers.” Then I talked to them and asked how many stickers they made and they said 2,000. Just how the urban folklore gets out of proportion so quickly. So of course, I didnÌt want to bite them, even though I actually wanted to make a sticker. Seeing all the Hello my name is stickers from the graffiti template. I thought that was nifty too, just steal those and write your name on them, that’s clever. I’d seen those all over New York. I had no idea, and I didn’t have any grand plan or anything. That summer my parents wanted me to come home, but I didnÌt want to go home, so I tried to find a job. I ended up getting a 4-dollar an hour job at the skate shop, which was kind of ideal. When I was working at the skate shop, to make extra money, I would make bootleg punk shirts. At this point I’d learned how to screen-print, I wasn’t just stenciling them with spray paint. They were still paper cut stencils adhered to a screen and printed. I’d sit in the shop and cut stencils all day, listen to the music I wanted to listen to. If it was busy I would help put someone’s skateboard together, but that was rare. Mostly I was working on my own stuff. And it was cool because it was a chain called the Watershed and there were 2 stores, one in Newport and one in Providence. My boss was at the Newport store six days a week and I was at the other store everyday and he only came in on Saturday. So that meant that Sunday through Friday, I’d sell the bootleg shirts marked down, and then Friday night carry them all home, so I’d undercut all his business and take the money (laughs).
Q: They had a screen press at the store?
A:I screen-printed the stuff on my living room floor. I’d sell them at the store. So if their shirt was 15, I’d sell mine for 11. I was paying 2 bucks for the blank T and then screening it myself and making all that. They had to pay for the shirt wholesale and then mark it up.
I figured it was only fair when I was only getting paid 4 bucks an hour. The result of this was all the kids that came in and saw me do all that stuff was really fascinated by it. At the same time I was making stickers for the store. I was the captain of the skate team: Team Shed. At first there was the Watershed logo that I made into stickers. I got bored of that so I started making all sorts of derivations. People would come in and ask for the new Team Shed stickers. So I would cut up cereal boxes and make letters, just usual I’m bored and have an exacto knife sort of stuff. There was a copy place directly below, like if I were to cut a hole in the floor, I’d drop into the copy place. Which was convenient; as you can see there are all these convenient things converging that have nothing to do with any master plan on my part. One night my friend was staying over and I was making a bootleg Clash shirt or something. He was bored and wanted to learn how to do that. So I flipped through the newspaper to find something for him to practice on and came across an ad for wrestling, with Andre the Giant as the main image of the ad. So I said, “Why don’t you do this?” He said, “No way. That’s stupid. I’m not doing that!” I said, “What are you talking about? That’s Andre the Giant. That’s the shit!” I was just joking around, like if someone resists, you must persist. I was like, “Come on man. Team Shed, that’s played, we’ll come out with the Andre Posse. Nobody knows what it is and all those kids, at the shop, will be jonesin’ for stickers. When they ask us what’s the posse, we’ll be like, you don’t know about Andre’s Posse? Get outta here.” So it just started as an inside joke. He took the thing out and started to cut it with an exacto knife, got frustrated, abandoned it and I just finished it. I wrote the stuff by hand and it was meant to be an inside joke, just as a reaction to the cliquish skate shop mentality that skateboarders are the coolest and team Shed rules. I made Xerox stickers and gave them to my friends from there and told them not to tell where they’re from. We put them at skate spots, stop signs and the clubs. Immediately it started to get a reaction from a lot of people in Providence that had nothing to do with it. I didn’t think that putting something out there was going to effect anymore of the population other than the audience that it’s intended for. A lot of things about the project have been very eye opening. The more I hear people talking about it in the grocery store, like couples arguing, the guyÌs always gotta be right. The guy’s goes, “What is that?” The girl’s like, “I think itÌs a cult.” He says, “I think it’s a band.” She’s like; “No I think it’s a cult.” He says, “No it’s a band, I’ve seen them!” Stuff like that and I think, “Wow this is a cool little psychology experiment.” So the more people reacted to it, the more I wanted to put it out there. The initial image was so crude that I made no attempt to attach it to what I considered my art at all, it was just mischief. Then I got addicted to the idea that the more you put something out there, the more power it gains just from peopleÌs curiosity, itÌs self fulfilling. It goes back to the whole graffiti thing. The idea that most people didnÌt know it was me but I could hear them talking about it. This thing that IÌm doing has power but I really donÌt have to answer to it. That was liberating because I was really insecure, I didnÌt want to be held accountable for anything that I was doing. It was a way to be anonymous at the same time feeling that I was making my contribution to the world. So that was the initial motivation.
Q: Do you remember the first place you stuck an Obey Giant sticker?
A: On the top of my skateboard. I think the next place was on the stop sign outside the skate shop. Of course there was a very clear trail between my house and the skate shop, which was the path I’d travel every single day. This happened to be on the coolest street in Providence. So just like the Hip Weed is Tobacco thing, after a week of them being out there people were like, “Those things are everywhere!” They were really only on four blocks. I went to Boston and put some up and some people saw it and were like, “That thing’s gone nationwide.” Boston: a city only an hour away. I got very excited about the concept of the coup. Just seeing how little effort it took just getting people actually talking about it.
Q: How long was it before people started making stickers because of you?Within the first summer there were copycat stickers, other people doing something that related to their cat or their band. It’s such a simple formula: A rectangle with some image in the middle, so and so has a posse and the height and weight. One of the early ones was Barry White Gets the Pussy. It said six four and ten inches, referring to his penis and at the bottom it said, “da smoothest.” What I did at first was I got all my friends, who were in college, into it. I went home to South Carolina, the Christmas after I started, with a bunch of stickers. I remember I had a friend; he had a tissue dispenser in his bathroom. I stuck one on there and didn’t say anything about it. We were watching television and he went in there and said, “What is this Andre the Giant has a posse thing? I know it was you Shepard!” So I said, “It’s just this sticker that I’ve been making.” So he says, “Take it off, my parents will be pissed about it.” I said, “Just try to take it off. It’s a paper sticker; you’ll never get it off. It’s a paper container anyway who cares?” Within two hours he was just giggling and he kept going back in there and looking at it. It was weird. It was like a drug. So he and I go out with some other friends that night, he’s like, “Bring those stickers.” So we go out and the whole night we start stickering. These are all friends that go to different colleges all over the country. By the end of that break it was like an epidemic. Everyone wanted stickers and we ran out of stickers someone said, “I’ve got five bucks. Let’s go to Kinko’s and make more.” So I made master copies, so they could take the sticker sheets, Xerox them and make their own stickers. Especially my friend John, who’s wet wipes thing I stuck it on. He went to UGA and immediately in Athens, Georgia he had the things everywhere. So it kind of went that way and spread to a lot of people. I have no real explanation for it; aside from the image has a good balance between goofy and creepy. The idea of making people scratch their heads in wonder is something that I think people are into. I’ve tried to keep that spirit to it always, where itÌs humorous but also a little bit disturbing at the same time. I always thought it was more humorous than disturbing, but other people think it’s the other way around.Q:
Q: How did it go from the humorous to the more propaganda-based imagery?
A: At first I had made the Andre the Giant has a posse and I was scared to make any off shoot because that had been such a spur of the moment happy accident. I thought I couldn’t replicate it because I didn’t even know what I did. It was like I threw a bunch of chemicals together and something great had happened. So I am not going to try to do anything that replicates it or is an offshoot of it. But then you get bored and a little bolder, so the next step eventually was I would just make stickers of the head. I was like, “I don’t know how people are going to react to just the head, but I am going to dive off the cliff here.” People were all right with that, so I thought IÌm gonna take the head and put a funny hairdo on it (laughs). So I do the Hendrix Afro with AndreÌs face with a psychedelic background. People thought that was really funny, so I started getting really confident. I did the KISS thing. At first it was a lot of pop culture associations. I figured the way you make something seem more important than it is, is to associate it with things that are bigger and more successful than it is. So I latched on to all sorts of other pop culture stuff. Neal Armstrong’s first moonwalk I set Andre’s face inside the helmet. It said, “One small step for man, one GIANT leap for mankind.” I started making stencils; I figured the bigger the representation, the more important people think it is. I started to go to New York and but stencils up there, but hadn’t started making too many posters, until ’93. What I did notice that when I put stickers on a sign, where there was a bunch of other stickers, that even the original Andre the Giant has a posse sticker would be the only one that had been violently scratched away. One of my friends, that happened to be Jewish, his parents had a store and he worked there, and I would always put a sticker in the corner of the window. I noticed everyday the sticker would be so perfectly removed, I thought that was funny, that they went to the trouble of taking it off, when it was kind of in an inconspicuous spot. I’d put another one up and then I found out his parents had called the cops because they thought it was some anti Semitic thing. I thought whatever you have a complex about this is going to bring it to the surface. The whole idea that people fear what they can’t figure out, what they can’t explain, was really interesting to me. I had this guy once, when I was putting an 11×17 paste up in Providence, big Guido guy, with a girl, with teased up hair really high, on each arm, come up to me. He was like, “Yo dude! What’s that about? What’s that thing all about?” So I said, “I’m just working for somebody, getting paid to do this, so I’m not really sure what it’s about. Do you know what it’s about?” He says, “No you’re the one that’s doin’ it. You know what it’s about, don’t lie! What is it?” I was like, “I have an idea what it’s about, the saturation of advertising, putting something out there that doesnÌt have a commercial agenda. What do you think about advertising and people being brainwashed by repetitive imagery and things like that?” Then he looked at me; he looked at the girls and they were like, “I donÌt know.” He looked at me and said, “Dude tell me what it’s about right now!” I was like, “What about the brain washing?” He was like, “Brainwashing! You’re fuckin’ brainwashed!” He pushed me into the wall so hard. But when asked, the cornered animal, to interpret the thing with the ladies on each arm, he might embarrass himself with the wrong interpretation, not be cool and show off for the girls. It was like something out of a Kevin Smith movie. So after he pushes me he looks at the girls (all tough) and they were like, “Yeah! Right on!” It was pretty fascinating. Seeing all the reactions like that I thought what are people really paranoid of? Communist stuff, just the symbolism of it, whether it means anything or not. Not that the Soviet Union was that much of a threat to the United States anyway. I think a lot of it was McCarthyism, a lot of it being perpetuated to maintain the arms race because it’s so lucrative for all the companies who have those contracts. The other thing was, I’d thought about that, and at Kinko’s I figured out how to rig the copy machines to get free copies. The reason that I hadn’t been doing a lot of posters was I was so broke, running my little screen-printing business that was barely squeaking by. I couldn’t justify printing posters; I knew I couldn’t sell them. I hadn’t done any art shows or anything and I didn’t have that market for my stuff yet. Kinko’s copiers had a red toner and a black toner, so I figured I could run the copies through twice and get red and black, so I if can work with that palette, I’m chillin’. So what immediately popped in mind was Barbara Krueger’s work, Soviet propaganda and the Hello my name is format. Anything that worked well in red and black I was like, “How can I knock off this style?” So as much as it was the concept of that I had seen that people were a little scared and paranoid of this image, that I think is goofy and funny. I was going to exploit that; it was also my budget determining my aesthetic too. Once I started working in that vein, exploring that style, I felt that I kinda got that graphic language down, of the propaganda stuff, really quickly. It just seemed to work so I started doing screen prints of that stuff too.
Another really crucial thing, what brought the Obey thing into play, I had seen this movie by John Carpenter called They Live. This was a perfect metaphor for my whole experiment. It was a really goofy movie, starring a wrestler but the underlying premise is somewhat profound. Everyone’s sleepwalking through life not realizing that aliens are actually controlling the earth. They are the authoritarians, the cops, the lawyers, the rich people and kind of herding the blue-collar worker around. You don’t know, unless you have the special sunglasses to see that all the advertisements say consume, sleep, and watch TV. All these things that kind of keep the bewildered herd in line and keep the mechanisms of society running smoothly. One of the things that he sees, when he puts the glasses on, is obey. The money instead of being money it says this is your god. Everything is controlled by keeping consumption going. So putting something out there that was an alternative to advertising, with my image, I realized how much advertising controls the public space. Advertisers try to get rid of anything that is not advertising. Even people, who own stores, you don’t want distractions from people coming into your store. The first thing that made me realize that, was a group of merchants lobbied the city to get rid of my stuff. That was when I first got to San Diego, back in 1996 that was pretty intense. That’s where I started to incorporate Obey into my work, the whole idea about people having to confront their obedience instead of whining about the situation theyÌre in and being obedient talking about, “Yeah I’m gonna fuckin’ burn the capital down. I hate the government.” Not that you should do that, people they always speak very dramatically and act very undramatically. I thought that it would be cool to make people have to deal with it. It’s seems really Fascist, but it’s actually reverse psychology. I simplified the Andre face, into the icon face, because I wanted it to not reference something as silly as wrestling, for a more serious effect. I looked at that, as the Orwellian big brother face.
Q: How did you get from Rhode Island to San Diego to LA?
A: When I was in school I got really into screen-printing. You don’t have one precious original, you can make multiples and you can experiment. I tended to never know when a piece was finished, but if I had a million versions of it then it’s like, well somebody liked this version and someone liked this version. When I got out of school I knew that I wouldn’t have access to facilities, so I decided, when I was a junior, that I was going to buy equipment. I actually started my business the summer after my junior year, thinking that I’d make money screen printing, and have the stuff there to make art. What happened was that it is such a competitive business; people push your prices down so low, that it’s really hard to make any money, unless you do huge volume, which I was not interested in. So I was getting further and further into debt because I was also doing the Obey Giant stuff, as a side project, and trying to figure out ways to finance that. I was making and selling T-shirts. That is something that should be mentioned there, a lot of people think that my clothing line is new. I made T-shirts the first week I made stickers. Coming from skateboarding and punk, where T-shirts are emblematic of the culture, I never saw it as a conflict of interest. I saw it as another canvass, another way to get the images out there. Now people are like, “Yeah that dude used to be anti-advertising, now heÌs a sellout.” What I try to emphasize is the street art as the primary focus, not the clothing line. The clothing line is designed to augment the street art, not the other way around. I got so far into debt; eventually I started getting a lot of notoriety and started getting some press, but still wasnÌt selling shit for posters, selling some T-shirts, but not enough to make it. When my friend Andy Howell, who used to be a pro skateboarder, asked me to come work for him in San Diego, manage his production and he wanted to sell the Giant T-shirts also as a licensing thing through his company. I jumped at that opportunity and that was in ’96. When I got out there I realized that he wasn’t in a whole lot better shape than I was. We did T-shirts for a while but we decided to bag that. But we both, because of the art we had been doing for ourselves, had been getting a lot of people asking us to do freelance design. I didn’t even know how to use a computer. But he [Andy] knew how to use a computer and Dave Kinsey, my partner now, was friends with Andy; he worked for Treefork Skateboards but they folded because they lost their backing. Now he needed a job. So we all decided now that we are winding down the clothing business, let’s start to do graphics as a serious company. Even though I had scaled down my whole facility, I’d had people working for me in Providence; I still printed every night. As soon as work ended I started printing. I had stacks of posters and all I would do is put them up on the street. I wasnÌt selling anything. Then finally Juxtapoz did a piece on me, I set up my website in ’97 and the posters started selling. Simultaneously we started the design company and at first it was called the FBI (First Bureau of Imagery). That was when it was me, Andy, Dave and Phillip who was just a business guy. We all had bits and pieces of stuff we had done for other companies or ourselves, but we weren’t a real agency. When we came up with the FBI concept we went out and hired Mike Ballard, who’s a really good skate photographer. We got gray suits from the Salvation Army, rented a gray Ford Taurus sedan, wore mirrored sunglasses, brought art tools and went out and did this whole FBI photo shoot. We mixed in images of us, our profiles, stats and thumbprints. We mixed this in with a portfolio of our art and did a printed piece. We sent that out to tons of people, we targeted clients we wanted to work for and we were like, “Okay I hope that works, because we just spent our money on all this thing and we are not going to be able to survive.” Fortunately, immediately we got work from Netscape, Pepsi and all sorts of big companies. It was lucky timing, it was when the whole X-Games thing was starting to blow up, so they had been sleeping on this demographic. They were like, “Every time we try to target them with a really bad skateboard photo that doesn’t look anything like the real culture, it doesn’t seem to work. Maybe we should get someone to do this that is actually a part of this, but are professional enough to execute it for a big company.”? So we just fit right in there. That’s how we got going, was action sports based stuff. We had all come out of skateboarding and skate clothing. We got a lot of aggressive inline work, because it was trying to emulate skateboarding and was really big at the time, they had a lot of money. People were like, “Why are you pimping out your style to companies?” My answer was, “Because I have to survive!” People thought, “But aren’t you paid? Your posters are everywhere.” Ther’Ìs this total misconception that people have, that because your work is known that you make money. It’s the same way music. You talk to bands and they still drive their own van and sleep on people’s floors. But every college kid has their album, but that’s because they burned it from somebody. At every turn I did whatever I had to do to survive and keep making the art that I wanted to make. I was very determined not to give in and have a regular job exclusively. Some people they want to do art, but their job wears them out, so they don’t have any energy for their art at the end of the day. Now weÌve made it over the hump where most of the jobs we get are pretty cool, but we had to take some pretty crappy design jobs back then. Eventually Andy and Dave stopped getting along and that’s when we changed the name from FBI to BLK MRKT. ItÌs basically the same company that we started at the end of ’96. We keep a lot of the same clients, but people go in and out of business. We had a lot of clients during the dot com boom, that are gone now. We do a lot of album packaging and stuff like that.
Q: How did you move from San Diego to LA?
A: We had a lot of clients in LA. New York and LA they think they’re the shit. Anybody from those places were like, “San Diego? That’s the boon docks. I’d never go there.” So if meetings were going to happen, unless people were playing golf in San Diego, we’d have to drive up there. San Diego’s nice, but it’s really boring. Our partner Phillip had a house there and he didn’t want to sell, the market wasn’t good. So for two years he was like, “It’s not the right time to sell the house.” We wanted to move there for a long time and we finally found this space, and we were like, “We’re moving right now!Ì We had a gallery there; we’d always wanted a gallery. I had been coming up here every weekend since ’98 to put posters up. I just knew that there was a lot more going on in LA. When you disseminate images, entertainment whatever; if you start where all the other stuff is starting, it’s a lot easier to get it out to people. Being a populous with my work, I am trying to get to as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible with little wasted time. The same principle applies to screen-printing. For every color you print it takes the same amount of time. So if you get the same impact in a one-color print as you can in a three-color print, you can print three one-color prints. I always try to challenge myself to keep my prints at three colors or less. When I do a four color, feel incredibly indulgent like I gotta go on a color diet the next week. That’s my MO. I don’t think that’s an ethic that applies to everybody. I’m just trying to maintain as much quality and quantity as I can, and stay sane, to achieve the biggest coup possible. If I could just work on my art all the time I would. I still can’t afford to do that and I don’t want market forces in the art world to dictate what I am doing with the poster project or any of the other art that I am doing. So working as a graphic designer for an income base, I know that I will not have to rely on selling art. That means I can do whatever I want, even if it’s not popular. I lost a lot of fans with the Bush Hitler thing. It’s not even an Obey Giant poster. It doesn’t say Obey, Giant or even have one of the icons on it. People still know it’s me. I have tried to keep the project a-political. I wanted people to kind of interpret it and get them thinking about what it’s about. The more that you can pigeon hole something as coming from a particular perspective, the easier it is to write it off and the less challenging it is. I was really mad about the war, I have this audience and I am in a unique position to communicate with a ton of people. This was something that I had to make the compromise and be outspoken about it. Just weighing the pluses and minuses it was very worth it to do.
Q: Do you think those fans you lost will come back around?
A: I hope so, I hope they’ll come around. Sometimes a particular way of thinking is so engrained that it might not effect you immediately to see a contrasting viewpoint, but you see one, then another one, then another one and thereÌs a cumulative effect, an eventual osmosis maybe. That’s what I’m hoping for.Q: Are you going to tackle Homeland Security?I am pretty blown away by concept of the war on terrorism. That’s an oxymoron. War breeds terrorism. Why don’t Switzerland and Sweden have terrorism, when they don’t have big armies to protect them? It’s not like ruling with an iron fist prevents terrorism. In fact, look at the situation with Israel and Palestine. An eye for an eye just keeps going; it’s just a domino effect. It’s just so true; it’s so obvious. When you look at human psychology, people are upset about something that happens to them, there’s going to be repercussions. I probably will address all that, all the surveillance and people’s rights. This isn’t even relating to 9.11, it was going on before 9.11. The idea of having cameras at the Super Bowl to randomly find people and match them up to their mug shots, trying to find people that had outstanding warrants. You could have outstanding traffic violations and the next thing you know you’re getting cuffed. I don’t believe in anarchy, I think there needs to be some order. At the same time a lot of laws exist because people don’t behave with common sense, but at the same time the cops don’t enforce with common sense. You get this escalating effect. I always make fun of stuff with my little surveillance warning stickers.
Q: Would you consider yourself an activist then?
A: No not as far as any affiliation with any groups. I’ve done a lot of environmental stuff for the Sierra Club and the paper campaign. I believe that we should preserve all the natural resources that allow the human race and every other species to continue to exist. Activists have such a martyr symbolism, that I’m not really into. I donÌt feel that I should be telling people what they should be doing, because I don’t always know what’s right. Sometimes I address things that I feel like addressing. What I am trying to do with the project, rather than be an activist about certain issues, is put stuff out there that gets people just questioning everything a little bit more. Propaganda that doesn’t lead you to a specific conclusion, but gets you to question the process of propaganda absorption. So much of the way people behave has to do with their assumptions about everything they see and read. The US government can leak out false information. The media is in such a hurry to jump on it to have the newest scoop, that when it surfaces it’s inaccurate. Then they’re on to the next thing rather than making the lead story a correction of the false information they have already reported. To get people to take everything with a grain of salt is my objective, but also I have fun doing what I do getting my art out there. I want to feel like I mattered in some way. I do feel like it’s a positive contribution, I hope. You never know, maybe I am thinking too deeply about it. Is every single thing that every person does something that they can justify? Every now and then I’ll admit I am wrong, like if I am in a bad mood and yell at Amanda [his wife]. For the most part I feel that I can justify everything that I do. So who knows? You be the judge, decide whether it has merit. My opinion’s a little skewed.
Q: When did you start receiving negative feedback from authorities?
A: In 1990, a year after I started, I had an illustration class at RISD. The first assignment, my teacher passed around fortune cookies to the class. Whatever your insert said you had to illustrate it. I hadn’t done any billboards yet and I had been eyeballing this billboard at the base of the hill by the school at a really busy intersection. It had former mayor of Providence Cianci, who had been kicked out of office for beating up his Ex-wife’s lover. He had the cops go in there and hold him down while he peed on him and put out cigars on him. I didn’t know this, but it had a picture of him on the billboard waving and he was really small and it said huge: Cianci. He never stopped caring about Providence. Because I didn’t know the story I thought what the fuck is that about. I thought it was stupid and he was so small on it. So my fortune cookie said, “To effect the quality of the day is no small achievement.” I thought, perfect I can effect the quality of the day with humor. I had the class on Friday. The following Monday, I went and measured the head and I needed a four foot head. So I made a four-foot head. I went down in the early evening around nine o’ clock, and I glued the head on there with spray adhesive and changed it to Andre never stopped caring about Providence. The reason that I had been motivated to do it in the first place, was the billboard was huge, but Cianci was kind of small and low enough to get to. I didn’t even get a chance to photograph it. Wednesday, they changed it. They cleaned it, but they took the same figure of Cianci waving but they made it three times as big, with his hand going off the top of the billboard. I guess they realized that it was kind of stupid to have this tiny guy on a huge billboard, with the type big and him small. So I was like, “Now it’s on, I ain’t going out like that!” So I went back, climbed up to the top with my tape measure and figured that I needed an eight and a half-foot head. So I went to Kinko’s and made 64 11×17 copies all tiled together, taped together. The face became so abstract that I had to number them where they tiled together. It took me a couple of hours to make the copies and put it together, I called some friends. I had never done any pasting before so I figured ElmerÌs glue and water will work. I mixed that stuff in a jar, took a rolling pan, went up to the top of the billboard, my friend was across the street and brought duct tape and some broom poles. This was total ghetto rig, taped that stuff together rolled the glue on and held the poster over; my friend was giving directions. I made sign too that said, “Join the Posse” and put that in is hand, did the 7’4′ 520 on his lapel and changed the words again to Andre never stopped caring about Providence. The next day they had it on the radio, in the paper all this crazy stuff. Everybody at RISD was going nuts. Only a couple of people had noticed the first one because it was small and had stayed up for only a day. But the new one was bigger. An important point here is that I never would have gotten into doing bigger billboards had I not done the easy one and getting shut down on that, I had to do the bigger one. Everything is a step. All the reaction to that, sure it was some work, but not that much work. The reaction proportional to the work was like, “Holy shit man, what a return on my investment.” I started thinking if that created such a stir, the people that have a real financial interest in what gets pushed through in terms if government policy towards, logging in the northwest or factory pollution, it’s a domino effect. It doesn’t take much to get people to noticing a certain thing or sweep something under the rug. I started thinking about when your responsibility when you do have that kind of influence and how if youÌre not responsible how unethically that power can be used. In terms of activism I thought that was an important thing. I also didn’t know that much about Cianci. I thought, if he doesn’t get elected because I am making fun of him and I would have wanted him to get elected, then that sucks. He got elected anyway, everybody loved him, but he was crooked as hell.
Q: Talk about the designer/artist movement that is going on right now, and why you think that is so successful.
A: I am really into that movement. One of the reasons we started the gallery was because we wanted to mostly show people that did fine art and design. For so long they have been two separate worlds. I feel like there are a lot of people in fine art that have great design sense. It’s helped us as an agency because we can do our own illustrations and people want a style that no one else can provide, but yet we can do all of the technical side of design too. With graffiti and street art becoming more accepted by the mainstream that whole style has become more commercially viable. I hope there’s not a backlash against it, there eventually could be. I think for now that itÌs really helping people commercially. Evan Hecox doesn’t do street art but his work is very much in tune with that movement. I want to support someone like that. I know that people that do that kind of work don’t make a lot of money from their art so they have to do commercial graphics. Rather than looking at this as a conflict I think people should look at it as semiotic I think. I have been trying to explain this concept to a lot of people but they are very resistant to it. It’s so engrained in people that mainstream equals bad and underground equals good. Sometimes stuff’s underground because it sucks and nobody likes it and that’s why it stays underground. People say, “Yo, IÌm keeping it real” it’s like, “No you’re wack.” The idea that you can make the mainstream good is pretty Utopian to me. Stuff’s always going to be marketed as long as we are a capitalist society. You could market it in a way thatÌs not patronizing, not condescending thatÌs authentic to the culture to which itÌs trying to reach. Even Sprite, people are always giving them shit for getting all these hip-hop guys and the slogan, “Taste is everything, image is nothing” is completely opposite of what they are really saying; at least these real hip hop guys are getting paid. I don’t really have a problem with it. Everyone has the choice of whether to do it or not. I’d rather watch Eric B. and Rakim in an ad than Britney Spears, even though they’ll use both. I just want the consumer to be a little more discriminating. I think that would eliminate a lot of the problems that exist with advertising and marketing.
I was talking to Haze about being high profile and still maintaining credibility. In the end he said, “The artists that step into the light and don’t get burned have the most credibility.”
Q: How have you maintained yours being as high profile as you are?
A: Well I’ve lost some credibility with some people. They think that if you are in a magazine that you are trying to get your rock star on. My work speaks graphically to a certain level, but there are a lot of people that don’t really know where I am coming from. To be able to articulate my ideas in print and reach an audience of my peers is really good. There’s different groups of people that I am communicating with. There are people that are totally clueless as to what it is, and are probably not going to pick up the magazines that I’m in. Then there are people that have an idea what IÌm about and want to know more. Then when they read the interview and find out what I’m about, then hopefully theyÌll get motivated to support and put some stickers out. To get the stuff going as far as I can is really important to me. Being above ground and being a spokesperson for my own stuff as well as some of the principles of the street art movement is really valuable. To say that I can be above ground and not have to hide, because what IÌm doing shouldnÌt be illegal. I’m a taxpayer. I own every bit as much of the public space as any other taxpayer. Anything that is owned by the public that is rented out by the city to a company that rents it out to advertisers, why don’t I have any say in that?
Q: What does everyone do when they are done Obeying?
A: I haven’t figured out what the logical conclusion of it is. It either gets so big in the mainstream that it has run its course and then I do the book that examines the entire process. People maybe feel a little duped, but they won’t be as susceptible about this sort of thing next time around. Maybe that same sort of logic will apply to everything else, whatever the newest trend is. The interesting thing about my stuff is that it’s not the get rich quick marketing scam. At the same time I am not preventing it from being embraced that way by some people. There are some people that when I find that they are fans of my stuff I am completely embarrassed because I can’t even relate to them at all. At the same time I am not trying to filter out those people because part of taking it as far as it can go, is not discriminating against those people. ItÌs just a constant dialogue with the public. I have never been able to predict how it was going to go. What I did was put something out there and got a reaction and put new stuff out there based on that reaction. Eventually I will do other stuff thatÌs in a similar vain. ItÌs like anything, once you have a name for a movement itÌs probably getting stale. Once the mystery is completely gone it will be time to move on. I don’t think itÌs run it’s course completely yet. I just hope I’m not the last to know.
Q: What is your business card title?
A: I think it says creative director. I don’t even remember. Actually it says “Shepard Fairey, Purpose: Create.” Maybe it could have been create and annoy or print and destroy.