November 25 , 1999
“Stick ‘em up”
London is being flooded with posters of a dead American wrestler. Iain Aitch meets the man behind it
In the past couple of weeks London has been subjected to a whirlwind guerrilla marketing campaign. The image of a face that brings Orwell’s Big Brother to mind has been stuck, spray-painted and fly-posted on to walls, lamp-posts and hoardings. But the image is not selling the latest CD or computer game. In fact, it is not selling anything at all.
The man behind the campaign is 29-year-old Shepard Fairey, a San Diego-based artist who has been sticking the image up in the US for over 10 years, and is currently making 15,000 stickers a month. The face in question is that of obey giant, an American wrestler now deceased who grappled his way through the 80s with the likes of Hulk Hogan. There aren’t many major US cities that have not been covered with the image, and Andre is now more famous as a result of Fairey’s work than he ever was as a wrestler.
Fairey estimates that he has manufactured almost 1.5m of the stickers, which bear the legend ‘obey giant has a posse’ alongside an image of the wrestler with his impressive vital statistics ‘7ft 4in, 520lb’. When he made the first Andre sticker, in 1989, it was simply an in-joke directed at skateboarding gangs in his locale, who were starting to call their cliques ‘posses’. Fairey soon began to overhear people talking about the stickers in supermarket queues. They wanted to know who the giant was; they were waiting for a punchline. When the local newspaper started to run articles asking ‘Who is obey giant?’ he knew he was on to something.
But the choice of Andre was sheer accident. ‘It was very whimsical, not thought-out at all. I was looking through the newspaper to find a picture I could use to teach my friend how to make a paper-cut stencil,’ Fairey explains. ‘I saw this ad for wrestling and this guy was so ugly, so funny -looking.’
The Andre campaign is essentially about the marketing of nothing, and Fairey avoids giving his Giant a political agenda. This may, in part, explain its popularity in the US and the willingness of a band of helpers to get involved with the stickering. ‘I don’t want to be didactic,’ he says. ‘It’s got to have a sense of humour and a certain leeway for interpretation.’
There is, however, an anti-corporate angle to Fairey’s work, and he has hijacked advertising billboards in order to post his own images. His most ambitious project to date is his appropriation of Sprite’s ‘Obey your thirst’ campaign. Fairey altered 13 billboard advertisements for the soft drink by adding a huge, sinister-looking image of Andre’s head and leaving just the word ‘obey’ visible from the original poster. He has been prosecuted in five American states and has already had a number of brushes with the Metropolitan Police since his arrival in Britain; he’s in London for an exhibition at the Chamber of Pop Culture. Perhaps the capital’s oddest arts venue, the gallery is in a former horse ospital tucked away in a mews behind Russell Square tube.
The show’s curator, Ian White, has no qualms about bringing Fairey to London in order to cover it with stickers and posters. ‘I think people should think about what kind of vandalism exists at the moment,’ he says. ‘Advertising is psychological vandalism in terms of having no choice about the images we see every day.’
Film-maker Helen Stickler’s 1995 film obey giant Has a Posse is to be screened as part of the show. Though impressed by his enthusiasm, she claims, ‘It is a little annoying to hang out with him as he stops every two minutes to put up a stencil or a sticker. He can be a bit obsessive.’ obey giant Has a Posse is at the Chamber of Pop Culture, The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, London WC1 (0171-833 3644), Tuesday to Saturday till December 18. Helen Stickler’s film will be screened on Saturday at 8pm. Website: www.obeygiant.com