Interview: Why Shepard Fairey is not a Sellout
by Peter Simek
Last week, artist Shepard Fairey completed a series of murals in West Dallas and at the site of the Dallas Contemporary, which brought the artist to Dallas for the project. Fairey is perhaps most well known for his iconic “Hope” poster of Barak Obama, which became a calling card for the 2008 presidential campaign and also landed Fairey in a legal battle over copyright with the Associated Press. Fairey is used to legal controversy, not only because he has been arrested 16 times for vandalism throughout his career as a street artist, but also because much of his work involves the incorporation and manipulation of images and graphics from various sources, sometimes with permission, other times not.
FrontRow’s Peter Simek sat down with Fairey the day before he DJ’d the Dallas Contemporary’s Phenomenon event. They spoke about the artist’s work, as well as the various tensions, conflicts, and nuances – between image and history, capitalism and renegade art – that arise in a creative practice like Fairey’s. As we have done in the past, the interview with Fairey is longer than typical online content, but it touches on many things that are of relevance to street art, a sub-genre of the art world which in recent years is gaining popularity and institutional interest. So, we are going to take advantage of the unlimited space that the internet affords to run the interview in its entirety. Before we could begin the interview, however, Fairey was interrupted twice, first by a fan with a book he wanted signed, and secondly by a contentious telephone call from a colleague who was working through another project on Fairey’s plate.
FrontRow: So, you’re like the street art rock star. It’s not surprising that we keep getting interrupted. Are you comfortable with that role, are you getting used to it?
Shepard Fairey: [laughs] I’m still amazed that people are interested in what I’m doing, and I’m grateful for it. What some people consider, maybe, situations that would be stressful or chaotic, I look at as a byproduct of me being very fortunate. It kind of comes with the territory, I think. But yeah. What used to be nice about anonymity, if I was working on a wall, no one would come up to me, and there wouldn’t be people twittering about it and groups of people showing up. Because my primary objective is to get the art work on the wall and finished, but I don’t want to be rude to people. So it is great that I have a crew of assistants who are very competent, and if I have to take time to take a couple of photos, say ‘hi’ to people, sign stuff – the work can go on. But I actually really enjoy painting and cutting and making it happen. It’s great to see something develop by your own hand. Then also the process itself is something that is kind of therapeutic. So, there are pros and cons to everything.
FR: Tell me a little about this project. I imagine the Contemporary reached out to you. How was a framed? Was it ‘come down and do a few murals?’ And when you get that kind of commission, how do you go about beginning that process in terms of what content do you want to bring to it, and how much comes when you are already here?
SF: The way this worked, I had already worked with Peter Doroschenko, the director of the Dallas Contemporary, when he was at the Baltic Museum, in the UK. He organized for a bunch of the artists that were in a street art show there to also do works in the subway tunnels and some other outdoor pieces. So I knew that Peter would be someone who understood how I work and what would be a good way to go about it. So I just said, “Hey, reach out to people who might have good walls to offer. Smooth walls are better for me. High visibility locations are better. But give me some options and dimensions and we’ll fine tune it from there.” I mean, to some people who think that art is about obsessive control and micro management, for a street artist, you’re usually working in a very spontaneous way, going to a place, and just adapting, working on the fly. So for me to have the basic dimensions of something and to be able to compose what I think would work there, that’s a real luxury.
The one drawback of working in sanctioned places is that the content has to be approved by the owner. Usually what I try to do is make work that I think is delivering messages I want to deliver but without being vetoed. So for Dallas, I chose the themes of peace and harmony for most of the work. There’s a floral pattern that’s going down on a wall by the Belmont [Hotel]. This piece here by the museum [on Glass St.], there’s a bit of humor to it. It’s the huge arrow that says “attention,” with the peace sign to the left of it. It says, “This has been called to your attention so you’ll know that it has not been overlooked.” There’s humor, but I think there’s something a little bit more profound to that as well, which is the idea of finding common ground with other human beings and ways to live with other human beings, which often seems secondary to these selfish, antagonist impulses that we all have that may be called “instinct” in some scientific conversation. I’m trying to make pieces that I think are visually powerful, inspiring, deliver a message that I want, and will also be approved, so I can go paint them on someone’s building and the mural will stay up.
FR: In terms of the content, obviously the “Obey” and the “Andre” is always there. Some of the other images incorporated the stuff you did in Dallas, where are you pulling those from?
SF: The “Harmony” mural is a portrait I did of my wife, but it is not about her specifically, it’s just about this sort of peaceful female figure as – woman are generally NOT the purveyors of violence in the world and our society, and I enjoy making portraits of women, and I think they tend to be soothing. The other one is a woman I call “Rise Above Rebel,” wearing a scarf – it has a vaguely Russian or Eastern European feel, but she is looking up and it says “Rise Above.” And the idea of rising above oppression rather than having your soul crushed by the bad things that happen in the world, figuring out a way to power through it and be positive. It’s not always easy. In fact, look at any internet conversation. But, anyway, that portrait was made from a sort of amalgamation of different references, it is no one specific. I do my own photography for the reference images for what I do. Some of it is just designed from scratch. Other times I work with other photographers and blend a bunch of different found imagery that will allow me to make an illustration that delivers what I want.
FR: It is interesting the contrast between doing a piece of street art that is not commissioned, so you’re out there and there’s that element of risk, and doing something that is commissioned — and you’re going onto a property that is owned by someone who has given you permission — because it does change context to a certain extent. Do you worry about how your art is being displayed, is there a concern about any sort of exploitative thing that may come off of it if your art is being placed in a context that may be counter to the message?
SF: How would the message that art should be democratic and should engage people publically, how would working with a building that wasn’t – maybe, housing something that I had a philosophical difference with, how would that be contradictory?
FR: Do you mean, in what way could it ever be contradictory?
SF: I just gave examples of how it could be. If I did a mural on the side of a building that was a factory for cigarettes, something that I don’t endorse, yeah, I could see that, but what possible way other than something like that could be contradictory?
FR: Well, I guess that’s what I’m talking about, that kind of thing. For example, the buildings that you’re on in that area of West Dallas are part of a major real estate development that has some underlying tension between the existing community and how they are approaching the redevelopment and the kind of changes that that may make in the nature of that community. So I’m just wondering when you come into a place, do you think that the power of the art in and of itself can rise above whatever the situation on the ground is?
SF: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the guys that I’m working with over in West Dallas, there’s art inside that building – they allowed some people to do an art show in there. I think they’re advocates for the arts. I’m grateful for walls. I think it is really, really incredibly, depressingly cynical to say, “Oh, well, someone gave a wall and it is part of a ruthless real estate scheme.” There are ruthless schemes in abundance in the world. If something is supporting art, I tend to think that that person is better than 98 percent of the other people out there.
What I employ is something I call an “Inside/Outside Strategy,” which is, if there isn’t any sort of channel through the system to achieve what you want to achieve, you bypass it, do it outside the system, which I have done for a lot of years. But I also think that the idea, if you have ever done anything rebellious, that you’ve somehow contradicted yourself to work with the power structure to improve it and infiltrate it and change the culture of it, that’s elitist, isolationist, and stupid. I think that everything that I’m about is about a process of evolution and being resourceful about the different ways that you can achieve that evolution. I got asked a question last night about, “Well what about when rebels become the establishment?” I used Nirvana as the example. When Nirvana came on the radio, I wasn’t an outsider-elitist who was like, “Oh, well, now more than five people know about Nirvana, I hate them, they sold out because they resonated.” Resonating is not selling out. Selling out is compromising your values to pander to the lowest common denominator. That’s not what Nirvana did. In fact, it’s very revealing about the people that dismiss Nirvana because Nirvana wasn’t a secret handshake to the club they made themselves the gatekeepers of.
I loved that Nirvana pushed Warrant and Poison off the radio. I would much rather be in a car without a CD player and turn on the radio and hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But that’s just my opinion. You know, people get mad that there’s a Clash song in a Jaguar commercial. I go, “You know what, I’m not going to buy a Jaguar, but if ‘London Calling’ is playing while I have to endure this commercial, great. I’m happy.” The idea that people aren’t sophisticated enough to recognize that they can experience something in one context even in association with something else without having the two have to be parceled. I mean there are people that are stupid and will have a Pavlovian response to something because it is bundled with something else, but I don’t have respect for those people.
FR: When you come into a situation like here in Dallas, do you still go out and do other stuff that’s not part of this project, are you still interested that?
SF: Yeah, last couple of times I was in Dallas I did a lot of illegal street art. I think that something like this, I wouldn’t say it comes with certain conditions, but I think that as a grateful, reasonable human being, if I didn’t create those conditions, I’d be an asshole. I’m coming here, and I want to do all the walls that I’m committed to doing before I get arrested doing something else and create a bunch of backlash for the museum. If other opportunities present themselves, I always want to take them. It is not that I’ve been co-opted by the museum or de-fanged by the museum; it’s that I’ve made the decision to do this project in this way because the thing that is of paramount importance to me is creating work that the public has access to without having to go into a gallery or museum. The incredible irony is that the museum facilitated that very project.
So rather than being one of those artists that, “Oh, yeah, sure I’m going to take your sponsorship money for my art show and then bag on how corporate you are in the work that I do, or the commentary I make.” I actually see it as this museum is doing something cool for me and I’m going to be respectful of that. Now, I’m 41 years old. I’ve been arrested 16 times. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anyone about street credibility. I still love going out and doing work without permission. And even when I was young, I always wanted to integrate that work on the street in a way that was not unnecessarily inflammatory. You are going to make somebody mad when you do anything on the street because some people are just worried about, “Oh my God, somebody did something without permission; we’re slipping into chaos – anarchy! And the next thing you know it’s Lord of the Flies.” I don’t have that sort of paranoid, apocalyptic mentality.
I always felt there’s room for street art out there, and it is great that it is an alternative to all the advertising we’re assaulted with. But I also think that there are a lot of different platforms for art that are valid platforms, whether they are galleries, museums, a t-shirt, a album package, a sticker, street art. People get into this, sort of, “genre fascism” that I think is holding them back and incredibly unhealthy, and I just refuse to be part of that.
FR: I like that phrase, “genre fascism.” What do mean exactly by that?
SF: I mean, if somebody says, “This is how you define street art, and it is a genre about breaking all the rules” and then all of a sudden the cultural gatekeepers create a bunch of rules for it. The fine art world does the exact same thing. It thinks certain things, and that becomes the status quo. And then, all of a sudden, anything outside of that is unwelcomed by certain people. The same thing happens in music. You’ve got, “Oh, well that ain’t real hip-hop.” Real hip-hop? Rick Rubin was putting AC/DC guitars in Run DMC – a white dude with a beard from the ‘burbs in 1986. Nobody can tell you what real hip-hop is because real hip-hop broke the rules from the beginning. Punk rock, that so-and-so is not punk rock, so-and-so is punk rock. I’m interested in making things that are powerful, and ignoring these sort of categories and boundaries that other people put up. Melting those things is something I’m interested in.
SF: Illicit stuff has to be done more quickly, but I’m using a lot of the same iconography, a lot of the same images that you’d see in these painting murals would be in an illegal mural, but it is going to be put up quickly. And maybe the same colors, because I try to make my work recognizable by using a cohesive color scheme. But I would paint the pieces ahead of time in my studio and put them up with wallpaper paste and a huge brush, basically a broom with glue on it. That can be done quickly. But it’s a very, very similar approach. Some of the things that I do that would maybe be more topically about police brutality or the environment – things that might not find favor with a lot of people in anywhere, but maybe especially inTexas, are things that I would put up illegally but I probably couldn’t do legally. But there is an overlap between whatever I do outside, legally or illegally. That’s part of that Inside/Outside strategy that I was talking about. The entire program works together, but there are just different routes to putting everything across that I want to put across.
FR: Do you think of yourself as a political artist?
SF: Street art is political by nature, because it is an act of defiance: saying I’m a citizen that’s paying my taxes, I deserve a little chunk of public space, it shouldn’t just be reserved for people who can afford to put an ad in a space because they have a product to sell. And, I mean, it’s a microcosm of exactly what happens in congress with disproportionate benefit going to people who make the largest campaign contributions. I’m saying, as a street artist, and other street artists are saying, “Hey, we want to be part of the cultural dialogue even though we financially can’t pay to buy in to being part of the cultural dialogue.” But a lot of my work is about getting people to question obedience, question the control of public space, question the nature of propaganda, whether it is advertising or anything else. I’m questioning aspects of capitalism.
Everything’s all or nothing with a lot of people. I don’t want to dismantle capitalism. I think capitalism needs people to scrutinize aspects of it a little bit more, and it needs to be monitored and there needs to be ethical protections because it is a system that’s geared so that the more power you accumulate the more you can exploit it to generate more profit and subjugate more people – if you’re participating in capitalism in an unethical way. I feel like I use what I would call a “socially conscious” capitalist model in which I put money in things I do into causes I believe in. And even though my book is called Supply and Demand, I actually supply a lot the art I make under market value. And people turn around and flip them on the secondary market. But I want my work to feel accessible and I want to feel good about how I am sharing my ideas and making a living from it.
So my work is political in several different ways. Sometimes it is topically political. But definitely not all street art is topically politically. A lot of it is about getting attention. I wouldn’t be being truthful if I didn’t say there was an aspect of that when I started. The feeling of powerlessness that I think motivates a lot of street artists to get out there and say, “Hey, I exist.” It is so basic, it is such a basic existential thing: “Please acknowledge my existence.” I took that impulse, and I tried to satisfy that but bundled with commentary on things that I think apply to more than just me and have some social value. There’s political commentary and social critique in most of my work.
FR: It seems like there is an innate tension between capitalism and street art precisely because, like you said, you are taking part of the public space and reclaiming it without the means to do so legally. So there is an inherent infringement on property rights which are, in one sense, the underlying basis of what allows for capitalism. So you’re saying there is a way to run capitalism ethically, but at the same time, sort of off-the-record – on the side – it’s positive for society to have people who flaunt property rights and flaunt advertising and the entire economies that surround that.
SF: I think the idea of property rights, it just needs qualification when I’m talking about street art. Not all street artists have the same sort of approach and analysis of where an appropriate place to put street is. For me it was always public property, which is paid for by taxpayers, which, I’m a taxpayer. Yet taxpayers have very little say usually in how that space is used. And abandoned property, run-down property: things where I feel that what I put on that building or that space is not creating a huge problem for the property owner – and that’s because I do respect property. But I also think that there are not enough outlets for people to express themselves publically. So it is the tension between those two ideas. There are certain people who are like, “Oh, I tagged on the front of Bank of America,” or whatever. And as many ethical problems that I have with Bank of America, I still think doing that just because it’s about saying, “Screw you, I do what I want,” that’s very selfish.
I try to be constructive with what I am doing, that’s all I’m saying. And so, finding the grey areas in things, there’s a justification without saying that you’re completely negating the concepts of capitalism and property. But, you know, some people would prefer to feel good about doing as artists, they have to because they aren’t sensitive in that way – they have to negate it all, because otherwise they’d feel guilty all the time, because they are being really rude to people. I just refuse to do that. I’m not a Marxist, but the Marxist philosophy that “from each according to his or her ability; to each according to his or her need,” I think is actually a really beautiful philosophy. There are people that have very little power that still want to have a voice. Society having the sensitivity to understand how important it is for people’s mental health and wellbeing and trying to address those needs: to me, that’s a mark of a civilized, advance society. And so the less compassion and sensitivity there is for everyone, not just the people with the most power and influence, the less evolved and less civilized I think society is. But capitalism seems to be really promote that, this “survival of the fittest,” which I think is incredibly primitive.
SF: A lot of the earlier posters that I did from around the mid-90s to around 2000 that were inspired by Russian constructivist propaganda and Cuban propaganda, Chinese propaganda, those images are really powerful in their design. Propaganda has a sinister connotation because it is so powerful it has the ability to manipulate. However, what I was actually trying to do was riff off of a lot of that design, but in a way that was so obviously using the aesthetics of propaganda that it would encourage the viewer to question the role of propaganda. A lot of people didn’t understand that irony in the work. They thought I loved Mao and Lenin. What I was really trying to do, putting my work up in public space next to advertising, was making a side-by-side comparison that a lot of things are packaged in advertising that are propaganda in a benevolent way, wants to make you have a euphoric association of some sort of feeling, of “if I’m not into this, I’m un-American; this is a part of my identity; to keep up with the Joneses I have to feel this way when I see this.”
So, underneath that there is something very manipulative and in some ways sinister going on. Not that I think all advertising is bad, but that is the most pervasive form of American propaganda. But what I was trying to do was put work up that was obviously supposed to be propaganda, but with a wrestler in a star so that people could say, “Oh, that looks scary, that looks soviet or something,” but totally altruistic and benevolent. And say, “Somethings look benevolent, but if you peel back the layers, it is somewhat sinister.” Other things look sinister, but they are actually benevolent. Encouraging analysis of the agenda that anything presented to the public might have.
FR: When you take historical images, some context is lost to the casual viewer. So if it is a cartoon from the Prague Spring, an American would not likely notice or know the context. But there’s the famous example of when you used a skull and crossbones which was actually an SS emblem. In that case you are using the power of that image, you are re-contextualizing it, so it doesn’t have the association explicitly, but that image still retains something of that historical context. How do you deal with that, because on a certain level you can extract these images for their pure stylistic power, but on another level they are real historical images and they have real historical connotations and connections?
SF: I think the way I always looked at is was some people are sensitive to historical things and they are going to feel that a presentation of it is an endorsement automatically. That’s never the way I looked at it. I looked at it as if you don’t know what this is about, maybe you are going to be inspired to do some research about it. The swastika was an Indian symbol; it probably can never go back to being anything other than being associated with Hitler and the holocaust. Over the course of my career I’ve learned what things can create a dialogue that’s healthy and what things just make people mad. I think it’s all comes down to figuring out how to achieve what you want to achieve, what’s creating a dialogue that is a good dialogue, even if it is contentious, and what stuff just makes people so mad they just shut off any further conversation. That’s been part of my learning curve over 20 years.
FR: Well, with specifically with that image of the skull, which is unique because a lot of what you are taking from are Marxist posters or classic workers’ rights imagery, and here you stumble into this hornet’s nest. . . .
SF: The funny thing is I’ve now looked at the SS skull and the skull I used side-by-side and they are actually not the same – they’re similar, but not the same. I didn’t even realize when I made what I called “the biker-rock graphic,” because I was appropriating it from Hells Angels culture. So I didn’t realize that that was based on the SS skull. Other things that I have done have been inspired by the color scheme and the design sensibility of German propaganda, but it was about a general sensibility not specific iconography. I’ve never used a swastika in my work or anything like that. That graphic came and went until that guy Mark Vallen, “Oh, Shepard Fairey, plagiarist,” that’s when it really. If you do anything that becomes well-known, you’re going to have your detractors. So there is an audience that is looking for things to discredit my work. And that was in there: “Oh yeah, Shepard Fairey is a Nazi sympathizer,” whereas the context of my use of that image was based on rock and roll and biker culture.
Of course I’ve seen the SS skull before, but it is not exactly the same skull, and based on when I saw it, it didn’t trigger, “Well let me go see if that is like the SS skull.” It’s funny, there are certain people who get really mad when I present images of Angela Davis, because she is a communist, or Lenin or Castro. Nothing that I do is about an endorsement unless it explicitly says so, like the Noam Chomsky series, or the Bobby Seals series, where I’m saying, “Most of my heroes don’t appear on stamps.” That’s an endorsement. A lot of the other images that I make are about getting people to question how a dictator rose to power – and look at, historically, the tool of manipulation that they used with propaganda. So that image is kind of an anomaly.
FR: The Angela Davis is sort of the flip side of that. People who are familiar with that history will recognize it, and so you are aware of that, I guess, when you are using her, but you are playing off of her character to a certain extant. But then at the same time you are removing some of the historical context, you are not explicitly endorsing. Is there responsibility – I don’t know if that is the right word, I’m trying to get at it – to certain images, to certain images that still retain an element . . .
SF: I always looked at it like when the Clash covered Bobby Fuller or Lee Perry, or the Sex Pistols covered Eddie Cochran. I didn’t know those things before, so I’m being introduced to it through a second generation reference or endorsement from those acts. You think somebody has a band they probably aren’t going to cover a song unless they like it. But there are always people who are like, “Well that rendition is totally disrespectful.” Like when The Clash covered “Police and Thieves,” it was like, “White guys don’t have any business covering a reggae song.” But I love Lee Perry; I love Bob Marley.
I look at it like, once images enter the public lexicon, you’ve got to let go of a little sensitivity about it. In fact, I made my Che Guevara image, where I mixed Andre [the Giant]’s face with Che Guevara’s face, as a commentary on that exact phenomenon. That image had been replicated so many times – by Rage Against the Machine, a vodka company, every left wing college campus organization – how many of the people who know that image actually know any of Che Guevara’s real history? It has become a symbol of rebellion, but probably to most people not something that leads them back to a sophisticated understanding of the history. Making that piece, I was like, “Ha, hah, I’m commenting on that, I’m adding in to that,” and hopefully revealing it by doing it, critiquing it by being part of it.
But also, if a byproduct of that is that people are like, “Yeah, that’s kind of silly, maybe I should know what’s up with Che Guevara,” then possibly looking back, too. So there’s layers to a lot of things I do. But I’m not a historian. If I’m encouraging people to look at the history of what something is, I certainly don’t think that making the kind of work that I make that I undermine the history of anything. If anything I’m hoping that I’m keeping interest in history alive.
Portrait of Shepard Fairey at top by Elizabeth Lavin