Creative Loafing Online


March 25, 2000
By Jim Morekis
Obey the Giant Manifesto of Shepard Fairey Artist brings ‘absurdist propaganda’ show to town this weekend

You’ve seen the stark, imposing face for months now, stencilled or stuck on bare surfaces around downtown Savannah.

A meaty, shadowy, vaguely sinister visage — usually with the simple command “Obey” underneath in block letters.

Who is it and what — if anything –does it mean? And who put the stickers and stencils up?

The figure is based on the late great obey giant, the 7’4”, 520 pound teddy bear who was one of pro wrestling’s first superstars. The man who put them up is thirty-year-old Charleston-born artist and designer Shepard Fairey, who brings a show of screen and offset prints to Savannah’s York Lane Theatre this weekend.

What does it all mean? That’s the question. Here to answer it is Fairey himself, speaking to Creative Loafing from his office at Black Market Design in San Diego.

Creative Loafing: Did you personally put the stencils and posters and stickers up in Savannah, or do you have somebody that goes out in advance of your shows?

Shepard Fairey: When I was in Charleston over Christmas I did some bombing in Savannah. I hit an abandoned billboard by the bridge and a bunch of other places. My policy is any blank surface not in use is fair game. I’m not going to deface something so that it’s property value is lowered or anything like that.

CL: Much of your artwork somehow involves obey giant. Was there any plan to using his image as a central icon?

Fairey: In ’89 I was going to the Rhode Island School of Design and working at a skate shop. I was doing a lot of screenprinting, but with handmade stencils. I was always at Kinko’s making bootleg band T-shirts or making stickers for the skate shop.

One time a friend of mine was over and he was looking for a photo to start a design with. We came across some photo of obey giant. I told him, use this! It was basically me forcing him to practice on that picture knowing it would have no further use.

So we put “obey giant has a posse” on it, and when people would ask what it meant we’d say, “You mean you don’t know, man?” It was taking something that’s not cool and making people think it’s cool — it was about going against this skateboarder uberhip mentality.

I thought, oh, I’ll give some stickers to friends to put on stop signs at the big skate spots and that’ll be that. But other people besides skateboarders were reacting to it. I didn’t plan it that way — the design just had the right balance of intrigue based on content. Shepard Fairey

CL: You do use other icons besides Andre, like Saddam Hussein and Gene Simmons. So far you’ve resisted the temptation to use really cheesy pop culture images like Monica Lewinsky.

Fairey: I want to use an image that I’m confident is an enduring one. Monica is just too easy. I don’t want to take that route. Frankly, I think the Saddam Hussein print is a little too current. I wanted to use Saddam because we just vilify him — perhaps rightfully — but the poster shows these guys with rifles holding up a portrait of Saddam where he just looks like the sweetest old guy.

CL: A lot of your images are modelled on historically-based totalitarian propaganda. What’s the attraction there?

Fairey: It’s twofold. First, the people that hate it the most are the ones most like those people (laughs).

The second thing is, people become symbols for certain things depending on the agenda of who’s presenting them. So we’re promoting Andre the Giant as this pseudo-fascist leader, but he’s dead, and there’s absolutely nothing to it.

CL: So the point is there’s no point?

Fairey: I like antagonizing people just to get a dialogue going. I’m into the idea of exploiting emotionally potent phrases and images. It’s about presentation and pushing people’s buttons. I don’t want to be too didactic about it. I’m just trying to have fun and make some art at the same time.

My basic message is don’t let yourself get spoonfed — consume with discretion. It’s also just about me being a punk.

CL: A lot of your most potent images are specifically communist: Lenin, Stalin, a North Korean soldier with an AK-47. What do you say to critics who would accuse you of being some crypto-Marxist?

Fairey: People think I have an actual communist agenda, but I’m not against capitalism at all. The point is, we perpetuated the arms race and the military/industrial complex by brainwashing people to think the whole world will be taken over by Soviet communism — when that was never going to happen anyway.

Sometimes when I’m out on the street putting stuff up people get really mad and I have to explain that it’s all tongue in cheek. They say, “Well, these people are bad.” I say, well, Reagan was pretty bad, too. In fact I’m going to do a Nixon and Reagan poster in the same style.

CL: What do you think of George W. Bush?

Fairey: I think he sucks. I don’t want to see him in office. I don’t like his dad and I don’t like him. The two party system sucks anyway. We have a spectator democracy. Nobody has much of a say anymore besides big business.

Some of Shepard Fairey’s ‘propaganda’

CL: You have a lot in common with Adbusters, an organization that uses techniques similar to yours to counter the advertising campaigns — some would say propaganda campaigns — of big multinational corporations.

Fairey: I like what Adbusters is doing. They did an article on me after I did a sabotage of this new beverage Coke tried to put out called OK Soda

That was when the whole Nirvana/grunge/low-fi-is-hip thing was getting big. I grew up in the punk culture, and it was like my roots were being corporately exploited. Of course, now I know it’s just a cyclical thing, but looking back, it’s good that I got so bummed out about it.

Coke test-marketed OK Soda in Providence and Boston, and they had a whole bunch of stickers and teasers about the soda before any was even made. I took one of their illustrations and changed it so instead of “OK” it said “AG” for obey giant. I started putting up my stickers and posters simultaneously.

People got confused as to which one came first. I was putting up some knockoff posters in Boston, switching them out with the real ones, and some people drove by and yelled, “Hey, all right — OK SODA!!!”

Moments like that showed me that people react to things without really processing the information. I thought, I’ve got to deconstruct this process of people not really paying close attention to things.

It’s completely ironic that some of these companies that I kind of make fun of come to me and say “Shepard, we want you to give us some street cred.” I go ahead and work with them. It’s not like if I boycott Mountain Dew they’re not going to get someone else to do their designs.

CL: How often do you do shows now?

Fairey: I do about two shows a month. I travel a lot. My day has two shifts really — I work fulltime as a designer at our firm, Black Market Design, and then I have a screenprinting setup in my garage. I sell prints through the website — my girlfriend handles that.

The thing is, I’m not rich. To do the “Giant” thing, which is really ambitious, I’m giving away stuff like stickers. Revenue from posters doesn’t even cover that. I sell the prints and posters at prices that the people I like to hang out with can afford.

Shepard Fairey’s “Giant” show will be at York Lane Theatre, 15 W. York Lane, this Friday and Saturday from 8-11 p.m. Shepard Fairey will be in attendance. The shows are free and open to the public.

Fairey’s “Giant” website is at www.obeygiant.com.

The Adbusters website is www.adbusters.org. Fairey isn’t affiliated with Adbusters, though he has much in common with them.