Baltimore city Paper

March 31 1999
Urban Legend Shepard Fairey Has a Posse by Patrick Kennedy

Iconography and repetition are tools of both the authoritarian state and the consumer world. Propelled by a campaign that duplicates a central image, the point—whether it is selling Nikes or the Ayatollah—is hammered home endlessly. Overkill is the name of the game. The strange marriage of totalitarian and consumer propaganda is one that Shepard Fairey—with his successful graphics business founded upon the ubiquitous Andre the Giant stickers covering the cities of the Western world—understands quite well. Fairey’s work is visually striking; in bold relief it appears plastered on walls, obscuring ads on commercial billboards, slapped up on phone booths and bathroom stalls, on skateboards and band equipment, on car windows and bumpers. Sharply contrasted in a stark palette consisting mainly of red, black, and white, the clean-lined graphics stand out with sturdy assurance against any urban surface. Andre’s face appears monolithic in Fairey’s art, and the posters’ sheer size and boldness carry a momentous feeling, a sense that this image is part of a movement with massive and lurching power. It’s as if obey giant and Joseph Stalin are part of the same synchronous moment. One gets the impression that the tentacles of this visual campaign are far-reaching but vague, and perhaps it is this vagueness that generates such curiosity. The story is sort of Warhol meets Orwell meets the neighborhood kid with a can of Krylon spray paint and a fairly harmless agenda. In 1989, Fairey was an art student living and skateboarding in Providence, R.I. He wanted to spoof the trend of skater kids claiming to have “posses” and “crews”—groups of largely suburban boys emulating the style of urban gangs. Figuring that stickers bearing the slogan obey giant has a posse would leave fellow skaters scratching their heads, Fairey went forward with his clandestine prank, unaware he was moving inexorably toward something with far greater import. A joke stops being a joke when it evolves into the reflective moment that it always contained; underneath the laughs, there was always an element of seriousness in the Andre saga. It’s a prank gone awry—a minor act of public defacement that now fuels a bustling alternative graphics enterprise, a joke as oversized and exaggerated as its ostensible subject, the late French wrestler and sometime actor Andre Roussimoff. “I chose Andre because he was funny looking,” Fairey says. “I saw him in a wrestling ad, Xeroxed it, X-acto-knifed some details from it, used a ballpoint pen to write ‘obey giant has a posse,’ made stickers, and put them up. Choosing Andre was just luck. This was not well thought out.” But the image works, primarily because of the lack of expressiveness on Andre’s face. Because he seems so impassive, so stonelike, his visage can be inserted into a million different contexts and configurations—from ironic humor to subversive terror. If Andre had been grinning in the original pic, Fairey’s joke would have died years ago. (obey giant himself died in 1993, and Fairey doesn’t know if the wrestler was ever aware of the stickers.) If an agenda has emerged, it is clearly one that followed long after the appearance of the first sticker. The message grew out of the methodology—indeed, the cart preceded the horse, much to the delight of the driver. And the message in the bottle, as it were, is nothing more than the image of the bottle itself. “The whole thing has been an evolution based on me watching people’s reactions and deciding which direction to follow,” Fairey says. “I’m an antagonist by nature. The first way I did that was by not letting people know the source of the stickers. I never realized people would react so violently to not knowing [the sticker’s] origins; I struck a nerve, so I decided to continue. When something affects you no matter how hard you try to ignore it, that’s when it has the power to make you think, make an impression. Even if it starts off negative, that’s what gets a dialogue going. I think people are lazy and apathetic, and I am trying to make them less so.” Fairey is trying to engage the public, hoping to galvanize some sort of interest in the mechanics of consumer manipulation and semiotic systems in general—in the way the average citizen is assaulted daily by an overload of product and lifestyle advertisements. Most advertising campaigns have only illusory value; they are signs that merely refer to other signs, perpetuating a symbolic economy devoid of substance. Fairey’s role is perhaps that of a gadfly—an informed and intelligent nuisance to the existing machine. “The most profound culmination of this would be the Giant thing becoming entirely trendy on a national level—the ultimate coup, and because there is no substance to this thing, people aren’t left with anything to dissect but the process, so they would start becoming more aware of how they are manipulated by the repetition of imagery and aesthetics,” he says. To date, he and his San Diego-based company BLK/MRKT have distributed more than a million Andre stickers worldwide, pasted up countless posters, and displayed in galleries from coast to coast. In Baltimore last year, Fairey’s work appeared as part of the New Blood mega-exhibit. In June he will again display his works locally, this time at Bolton Hill’s H. Lewis Gallery. Additionally, since BLK/MRKT’s inception, Fairey has been working in various other graphics media, including layout and design work for such music luminaries as the Specials, Ben Harper, and Slayer. Further, he encourages public participation in his attempts to delineate the rules of engagement between consumer and advertiser. “I’m trying to make the materials more accessible to people,” he says. “I’ve been mass-producing stencils, urging people to download images from my Web site [http:\\www.]. It’s really a public-domain piece of art; some people think the Giant image is for a band, others think it’s a skateboard company, some think it’s part of a cult. The power of the urban myth is very important to me.” END