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Juxtapoz // Sunday, 02 Apr 2006

Interview and photos by Derek Ihnat

For the past seventeen years the world has witnessed Shepard Fairey's campaign with Phenomenology. Whether we knew it or not, Shepard's strong graphic images have been emblazoned on our psyche via posters and stickers in our subways, on our street walls and stop signs of our hometowns. Shepard's work makes a simple statement when compared to the ever changing industry of advertising: question everything. Derek Ihnat takes a minute to peel back the paper and take a look into the subversive vision of Shepard Fairey.

Do you feel as though your art is best portrayed in a gallery or on the streets?

I feel within art, understanding your context is crucial to understanding how you will succeed with communication. On the street it is really important to keep things bold and simple because it has to cut through the visual clutter, it has to compete with advertising. I love street art because it is a pure form of freedom of speech and expression. I also like to make art that is more sophisticated and precious to show on gallery walls where there is a group of people there to examine the art in detail; however, I want to have continuity with everything I do. I try to have continuity with everything I am doing and I try to retain elements of what I am doing in the streets and in the gallery and I try to bring what I think are successes in experimentation on a fine art level back to the streets. The one thing about street art is that on a career level you can't live off it so you have to figure out a way to translate what you are doing as a street artist into some other art form commodity that is consumable or else you have to take on a job that isn't art related. The tradeoff of being able to sacrifice works to the street is that then you have to find some other way of recouping the time, effort and money you put into it. I feel that I am lucky because I've created a formula to which my career as an artist, designer and street artist are able to feed off each other. There are some people that are purists that probably still live with their parents who say if you do street art and commercial art, you're a sellout, but that is just not a realistic perspective for me.

Do you think street art in general has become repetitive and monotonous, and what do you do to keep it fresh?

I do think street art can become monotonous and I always felt that bludgeoning repetition was an important component of what I was doing. I also felt like I needed to bring new elements and new posters into the mix that had an obvious connection, either color wise or through some graphic language that made it clear it was part of a series. Part of the rationale for repetition when I started wheat pasting was I felt there weren't a lot of people who were showing that one individual can produce enough volume and gain enough presence to cause an impact in comparison to corporately funded advertising. So part of my point was to make sure that people recognized that it was coming from the same source.

How do you feel about the saturation of product advertising in urban communities?

Take the Playstation portable campaign, where they tried to make their advertising look like real graffiti kind of gets on my nerves because it doesn't give back to the culture it is trying to exploit. Scion is an example of a company that has done it right; they hired all artists that have a thorough knowledge in graffiti culture.

Something like the Playstation portable campaign will just make people educated in the culture frustrated and angry, so therefore they will dislike the brand rather than support it. I also don't think it influences the people outside the graffiti scene because these people probably don't even notice. The problem then becomes something where people see images on the street and rather than being excited and feeling as though it may be coming from someone trying to express themselves, they start to question whether or not it is advertising. I believe that people should always question everything, and as a result, they may be writing off legitimate expression as advertising. I have come to realize that companies will always find ways to exploit trends, but that is just mere incentive for me to figure out new ways to differentiate myself.

Do you ever feel that your street posters have doubled as advertising for products associated with your art?

That is one of the things that is the biggest bummer about having a career arc. I feel it is unavoidable unless you are independently wealthy and you never have to make any money from your work. I've made t-shirts from my images since 1989, and when my campaign became a bit more politicized, I felt it was about making fun of how ubiquitous and monolithic advertising had become. It does seem like a contradiction or ironic at that point to have products associated with my artwork. However, for anybody that is creative who resonates with enough people, their work will be exploited commercially by themselves or by someone else. A major moment for me was in 1999 when I walked into Urban Outfitters and saw an entire display of bootleg OBEY products. It made me think that I need to do this myself, and I need to do it right. I look at t-shirts as just another canvas and I believe in affordability of art. I come from a culture built on D.I.Y. ethics and accessibility, not about the elitism of the upper echelon of fine art. Life is about doing things on your own terms, and as long as you do things ethically, I think it is reasonable to try into make a living from what you've created.

Can you remember any particular incidents in your career that gained you significant notoriety?

Well, when I started I never thought I would take my stickering past Providence or maybe Boston, but in 1990 I wheat pasted a billboard of Mayor Cianci's face with an eight and a half foot Andre head. It ended up getting media coverage from every local newspaper and television station. I thought about how many people noticed that billboard, and how much attention it received made me realize the power of the medium in a way I never had. That was a very pivotal moment in my career and after that I started going bigger and getting more ambitious.

In 2003, I also did a show at Sixspace gallery called "This Is Your God." That show was themed around people's obsession with money, fame and the ugly side of ambition. I did a really cohesive body of work for that show and I felt like that was a move toward some of the work I've been doing more recently that has slightly more sophisticated messages and imagery.

I have noticed you have been adding a lot of new textures to your work lately. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yes, all the textures are based on all the work I've produced, and all the imagery that I receive everyday through my own sensibility. I also see all the chaos of different messaging on the street that gets put up and ripped down as well as all the different textures like cracked paint, ripped paper, brick etc. I feel these things are appealing and have a certain charm on multiple levels. I have also been thinking about people who may know nothing about pop culture as well as what images would still resonate and what images can be seen as absolutely timeless.

You've recently started "Swindle" magazine. What are you ideas behind this project?

Roger Gastman, formerly from "While You Were Sleeping," a magazine about graffiti and its subculture, and I had very similar ideas about the problems with magazines and how most of them were too "throwaway" and often pandered to advertisers. We decided we wanted to create a magazine with stories that would put various pop culture phenomena into historical context. I enjoy doing this because I have the opportunity to interact with and represent people I respect like Billy Idol, Steve Jones and Malcolm Mclaren, as well as support people like Jeff Chang who is an amazing writer and knows everything about hip hop. We wanted to create a magazine that people could hold onto and in five years would still be interesting to read.

You've been working on your OBEY campaign for 17 years now, how do you how do you feel you've impacted the world of art?

Well, when I look at other people's art I can never really say that I have definitely influenced any one person, unless they've ripped off a specific device I've created. I do think that, if anything, I've turned people back onto strong graphic influences that may have been overlooked, like Soviet propaganda, Chinese propaganda, or the design of stamps and money. Hopefully through my actions and body of work I have influenced people to say "Hey, I can get out there and rock it, I'm not powerless!"

Shepard Fairey's New Works opening reception is on April 1st from 7-11 at White Walls Gallery in San Francisco.

Whitewalls Gallery
835 Larkin St.
San Francisco, CA


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