Sugar skateboard magazine, France
# 21 August, 2000 Shepard Fairey : billposter
Nobody remembers of André Roussimoff, this mighty force had nevertheless led a very brilliant career as a professional wrestler in the United States, under the name of André The Giant. Seven feet four inches ; five hundred and twenty pounds ! If he is coming back nowadays, it is not for hypothetical fights, but in a curious campaign of propaganda signed Shepard Fairey, an artist from San Diego. André doesn’t fight anymore, he died in 1993, but he has a posse. Art of the propaganda or propaganda for the art, Shepard Fairey asks you the question.
Sugar : How did you begin to post portraits of André The Giant’s in the street? Are you a fan of wrestling? SF : No, I’ve never been interested in wrestling ! Everything comes from a joke. In 1989, when I was still living in Providence, on Rhode Island, to pay my courses at the school of art, I was working in a skate shop. I was making T-shirts of rock bands, stickers in photocopy, I was hacking all that I could. A sort of group was hanging around there, next to the drinks machine, called Team Shed. It had become the fashionable place, everybody who was skatboarding in Providence wanted to belong to this team, that was all show off ! As I was running the shop, the others considered me a little as the leader of the team, with Eric Pupeki, who will become the first pride of local skatboarding. One evening, Eric comes to give me a hand to make a series of T-shirts, with The Clash or something like that. Eric wanted to learn how to cut a stencil, so I was looking in a magazine for some document to show him how to do… And it is when I came across an advertisement for wrestling, with this André The Giant’s portrait. ” Here is what you should take! He is so ugly, it is brilliant! ” I decided to remove this horrible face from the category uncool to the cool category, a little to make fun of the other skateboarders. Eric, didn’t really see what we could do with it, then I said to him : ” There is no more Team Shed, man, now it is Andre’s Posse! “. Eric has never finished his stencil, but I had just found my way ! I had immediatly created a sticker “André has a posse”… Rather fast, there was a lot of them in the skateparks, on the roadsigns, then everywhere in the city. They have been noticed immediatly. Reactions were coming from everywone, not only skaters but also musicians, students and even “regular” people, who spoke about it in the grocer’s shop. They were stickers in photocopies, a little bit shitty, but people took time to unstick them to place them at home or restick them on the bumpers of their car!
Sugar : When did you begin to print posters? SF : At the beginning, I didn’t think it was worth printing posters representing a wrestler’s head: who would have been intersted on that? For the street, I contented with spray-painting it with stencils… I had learnt the silk-screen printing at the school of art in Providence, but I was using it only for designs of T-shirts. I’m using it for André’s propaganda only since1993. It had quickly became an obsession, I was stickers more and more posters. Since 1996 I didn’t make more than that : to print series of posters to paper walls.
Sugar : Are you working alone? SF : I’ve always realized the designs myself. In Providence, some friends were helping me for the silk-screen printing. I paid them in posters. When I arrived in San Diego, I have worked in a printing house, after the closing, I was allowed to make my posters. Today, a guy is working for me, but I always do personally the last layer of color, it is the most important, to check that it is faultless.
Sugar : What about the stickers? SF : Stickers had circulated quickly in the skateboarding circle. I was always riding and doing a lot of contests, it has allowed me to place my stickers everywhere on the East Coast, from Boston to Florida. I was giving some to my friends so that they could be spread in the largest number of places. A lot of people stick stickers for me, but I stick most of the posters alone. If you go to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego, I have stuck about 98 % of the posters you will see. People like to stick stickers for me, but less posters because there are more risks to be arrested. I am now living in San Diego, but these past two years, I have travelled really everywhere.
Sugar : Have you been arrested for your stickers? SF : Oh yes! The cops have already caught me five times, for posters or stencils. I have had to pay fines and spend some days in jail. In Rhode Island, I have even been arrested for a simple sticker! But it is probably because they knew who I was and all the other stuffs I could do. The slightest excuse was good to arrest me. I have always defended myself by claiming that I was only a fan and not the man behind all this. Of course, they have never believed me ! If I am caught, the usual defence consists in claiming that André The Giant is a rock band, some friends I am doing advertisement for. You should never say that it is an artistic project, otherwise you are merged with graffiti and then, the fines are harsh because the authorities always think that graffitis are linked with gangs.
Sugar : Have you ever stuck posters on trains? SF : I have never done it by myself, but some people I had offered stencils to have sent me photos of trains on which they had spray-painted it. I have found a way to make stencils with a machine, I have got a lot of them made for hardly anything. I can give them to anyone who ask me for it. The nice thing, it is to send me photos of what is done with them.
Sugar : How do people receive your work? SF : I have heard a lot of different interpretations for my images. What I find funny is to see how every comment can reflect a personality. For skaterboarders, André stands probably for a brand of boards or clothes. For the punks, André suggests certainly a band… Undoutbly because the way I have spread these images in the street looks like the promotion of a new band or a new brand ! Some people more conservative imagine that it is about a cult, others about a gang. Useless saying that these people do not appreciate my job ! I believe that the more my stickers disturb the conservatives, the more people of rebel tendencies like them and help me to spread them.
Sugar : Did you wanted to keep your identity secret ? SF : I had valued my anonymity a lot ! It is the mysterious aspect of my work that lead people to chat a lot about it. Many have hated me because they do not understand the purpose of all this and because they feel overtaken. It was not the fact of somebody who tries to become famous or to sell something. Indeed, everyone understand the purpose of every advertisment , when you see a poster for Black Flag, you know that they are going to play in your town soon. As far as André is concerned, there is nothing to understand, it is necessary to make an effort of imagination. I must have annoyed more of one person with this ! At the same time, people write to me because they have read articles in the newspapers, and suggest sticking posters for me. You have got to find the balance between the mystery and the possibilities of spreading as much as possible. In 1990, I had hijacked a bulletin board in Rhode Island, covering face of a character by a huge André’s head. His hands were oustide the board, and I had installed a banner ” Join the Posse ! ” The radio spoke about it and some articles were published in the newspapers . The image began to be recognized, but nobody knew who I was, so… To touch the media, it is, from time to time, necessary to aim higher than a stickers campaign !
Sugar : You associate André’s portrait to the word ” OBEY “. Where does this slogan come from ? SF : Have you seen ” They live “, a John Carpenter’s movie ? In the story, the characters come up against hidden messages: ” consume; sleep; watch TV… ” For the series Obey I have been inspired by this movie, which I saw in 1995. I like very much the idea that you have got to make an effort to understand the messages. The passage when the initiates decode on a bank note ” This is your god ” is my favorite one !
Sugar : Why this order? SF : I write OBEY to confront people to themselves. I have the impression that many do not realize that they act like disciplined and obedient people. Maybe my posters can bring them to think about their condition. Many people may not stand that ! [Laughter] OBEY’s impact also comes from the treatment in black and red on white paper. I think it is the best in term of visual efficiency.
Sugar : It reminds of Marlboro, doesn’t it ? SF : These colors are very appreciated in propaganda ! [Laughter] But I have been more influenced by the Russian posters than Marlboro. I believe that because I use the red color a lot, people associate my posters to the communism. I am not intersted on ideologies themselves, I work more on their symbolism… When I mix the image of a wrestler, dead for years, with communist symbols, the result can only be absurd. There is no real threat ! I have even been suspected of plotting against capitalism!
Sugar : As long as to use propaganda images, why do you use only images from the communist side, unlike Frank Kozik who does not hesitate to hijack fascist images? SF : I am not intersted in communist propaganda only, I have also been inspired by images of the Black Panther Party, for example. Kozik hijacks portraits of Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson just to provoke people. In an American culture which reacts negatively to these images, Kozik makes me think of a “pop culture joke”. He likes to shock. I would not say that I am more serious than him but I bank less on the provocation. I am more interested in the way the masses absorb the images… Most of the symbols that I use, which they result from the Russian propaganda, Chinese, oustachi, Spanish or Cuban, convey feelings.
Sugar : Is not this emotion reduced to nothingness, when you mix these images with André’s head ? SF : Yes, probably… But I can not prolong the emotion of these images, not having lived myself the fights, the oppression or the misery of the countries where they come from. I try to hijack works, not to protect their authenticity. We think we can perceive the original emotion, the one wanted by the person who had drawn these posters, then André the Giant appears and the poster becomes stupid.
Sugar : You have used a lot of historical portraits, like Lenin or Che Guevara. When you have made this poster with Saddam Hussein, it was a stand on the current events ? SF : On this poster, you can see a group of armed people carrying Saddam Hussein’s portraits, on which it seems very happy and rather nice. I like the ironic juxtaposition of this image: these people brandishing in a hostile way the portrait of a smiling man. I do not claim in my work that Saddam Hussein is a respectable person. My subject is the difference of presentation. America could only see Saddam Hussein as a bastard, as Iraq had certainly diabolized Georges Bush. I have proposed a different point of view.
Sugar : These portraits linked with the current events evoke necessarily the Pop Art, do you accept this classification? SF : Yes, I think that my work corresponds to the Pop Art [artistic movement centred on the popular images. Cf Andy Warhol]. It is obvious when I use images like Gene Simmons’ [the singer of Kiss] make-up. The propaganda symbols which I use evoke politics, nevertheless I am only doing a comment on the popular culture.
Sugar : Are the posters of gallery the same that in the street? SF : Unlike those that I stick in the street, I sign posters intended for galleries, because people prefer to buy a signed work. The printing of posters is expensive. To earn this money, I am obliged to pay attention to the demand of the public. I also paint on canvas, to show my images in bigger sizes.
Sugar : Showed in a gallery, does not your work lose its irony? SF : If I were very rich, I would not make exhibitions in gallery, to protect all the mystery ! But it is necessary to find the money to print the posters which I stick in streets. I believe people understand that my work takes its value in its context, that is on the walls of the city.
Sugar : How did you set up you firm, BLK / MRKT ? SF : There was at first FBI, with Dave Kinsey, Philip Dewolff and Andy Howell, ex pro-skatboarder for New Deal and creator of Element. Andy has preferded to continue by himself. Three years ago Philip, Dave and me have set up BLK / MRKT. We have developed our graphic identity, we have done some design for the Internet, for companies as Rythm Skatboards, sole Technologies, éS, Emerica, Etnies, Plan B and War Effort, Vinnie Ponte’s new brand. We have realized all the designs for Expedition. Moreover they bring out a board OBEY. Dave has drawn DC Shoes’s logo… Adidas, Puma or Mountain Dew have also called on us.
Sugar : Someone has already asked you to use André’s face? SF : An Internet site has already asked me for it : listen.com. I agreed to make them a sticker and a poster. In a sense, I do not like very much that because there is a risk to see my job associated to a company, but these lads are very cool and they allowed me to print a good stock of free stickers.
Sugar : Have you ever wanted to put André in a subliminal way on the other products? SF : It is a temptation… In a project of design for some cans which we have proposed to Moutain dew, there was a very blurred background in which we had hidden an André’s head and a face of the BLK / MRKT Man. It had not been adopted.
Sugar : Don’t you think it is strange to work for companies such as Moutain Dew, a Pepsi-Cola’s subsidiary? SF : That does not bother me to work for them. Nobody obliges you to drink Mountain Dew, wether the bottle is signed BLK / MKRT or not. Millions of people will drink it anyway and it is their own decision. On the other hand, the money which I reinvest in the OBEY posters maybe allows these same people to ask themselves questions on the impact of the images, and potentially on the advertisement… I think that my posters are more powerful than an appeal to the boycott of Mountain Dew ! I would refuse to work for some companies, as the manufacturers of cigarettes. I could not glorify the fact of smoking, the tobacco is too much rotten. I have no problems with the smokers, it is their decision to smoke, but I shall never do anything which can encourage them. Moutain Dew invests a lot of money in the sport, for the X-Games and the skateboard, and it is good.
Sugar : Exactly, you had an unfortunate adventure with the X-Games, hadn’t you? SF : During the first X-Games in Providence, I intended to put André’s face on the television. I spray-painted three stencils of more than two yards in height along the sledging run, in spite of a very important security. I thought that the race of the next day was going to be filmed from the top. But the cameras were placed at the level of the road, and we have seen nothing! [Laughter] I have nothing against the X-Games, I do not understand the extremist skateboarders who only complain about it, because it is not underground enough for them. They also complain about being arrested as soon as they are riding in the street. I would not say that the X-Games are perfect, but it is necessary to know how to take the advantages of this kind of structure.
Sugar : Do you know what you would have done if you had not developed all this work with the success which everyone knows? SF : When I was a kid I was only intersted on riding my skatboard and to listening to punk – rock [laughter] ! I understood that I would never earn a living as a professional skatboarder, so I have made everything I could to combine my passions in the drawing. It is cool to work today for the groups with which I had grown up, like the Specials. I don’t think I have had to change, I always ride my skatboard and I go to concerts. I do what I like.