As I enter Shepard Fairey’s Los Angeles studio on a sunny October afternoon, a considerably large painting of Andy Warhol sits on an easel, eyes focused and looming directly over the shoulder of Fairey as he adds watercolor touches to a series of works on paper. I can’t help but see the significance of the moment, of this scene. Fairey could, rather easily or perhaps too nonchalantly, be compared to Warhol, an ambassador of something we call Pop, an artist who changed the perception and definition of what art could be on a rather large scale. Their work also shares a strong sense of defiance and subversion, punctuated by a powerful use and commentary on media. Here was an image of Warhol overlooking a prodigal son; in the same way, Fairey’s Obey Giant iconography has ominously surveyed the landscape of cities around the world as this ubiquitous message of surveillance, but also in a way, a message of hope and rebellion against predominant forms of political and social control, created by what Fairey dubs the “puppet masters.” That Fairey was putting the finishing touches on a body of work he calls Icons to close out 2023 at his gallery, Subliminal Projects, all feels perfectly aligned with who he is, what he has become to so many, and the lessons of Warhol—so largely prominent in our conversation.
Subliminal Projects, as both a gallery, home base, and incubator for the world that Fairey holds so influential to him, is an ideal home for this new body of work. He shows me a series of mono-etchings on paper that contain a mixture of musical, cultural, and political icons he admires—those who crossed boundaries and genre stereotypes, those who were trailblazers and antiheroes—to become heroes in their own right. I like this dichotomy. Go no further than the roster of shows at Subliminal to find Fairey’s heart. Look at the icons he paints to see where he has come from, and see his masterful technique as a printer, illustrator, painter, muralist, street artist, and visual collage artist to see where he is going.
I’ve spoken to Fairey numerous times over the 17 years I have been at Juxtapoz, and he has been featured even more times in the 30 years that this magazine has been printed. I haven’t heard Fairey more focused on his artwork, more engaged, and more excited about his craft than ever before. The elder statesman of street art has grown up and understands the position of being an icon himself as he creates something iconic for others. But like Warhol before him, Fairey is actively changing the conversation about what can be art, how to receive and place art in the world, and how to use art to investigate both personal and universal truths.
Evan Pricco: Let’s start with something technical. Is there a historical precedent for working with mono-engravings, or are you working in a whole new way?
Shepard Fairey: This wasn't taken from any specific artist. But artists like Jim Dine and Rauschenberg, and, really, Ed Ruscha experimented a lot with weird techniques of staining paper and doing things like that. And then, when you look at my own history, this is like me sampling techniques from my own history in a different way than I've ever used them before. I've done plenty of printing and stenciling, but this is a little bit different in that it's bringing the drawing element back into it. When people are like, "Oh, Shepard Fairey just does everything on the computer," I actually have a traditional illustration background. I studied illustration so I've always really enjoyed texture from graphite and charcoal, and from ink and watercolor.
This new body of work does appear to be a combination of illustration and printmaking.
And stenciling. And engraving with a laser is something that a lot of people have done, but usually they do it in a way that's sort of obvious. They paint a piece of wood black, and then they engrave out of it, and you can look at it instantly and go, "That's a laser-engraved piece." And just the same way you can look at some things and go, "That's obviously the spray paint stencil," or "That's obviously a brush stroke," or "That's obviously a screen print." Where I think it gets interesting is when those things come together with a little bit of mystery.
I think that the name of the show is Icons because I realize that I've been creating icons and iconography and trying to make things iconic, developing a style that people said was recognizable and that you could call iconic. This is part of my mindset, but also, when things go too far in an obvious direction, pursuing iconic, they end up looking like generic international symbols. And that's not really the way I define iconic. So, I like that there's the direct power of the image, which is very graphic, but then there's a mystery in the technique and subtlety in aspects of the execution.
“I think my understanding of what an icon was, what was iconic, and then how you developed a body of iconography, got a lot more sophisticated over the years...”
Do you find yourself walking into a gallery and being like, "Okay, I now feel inspired to make a shift?" Or are you more of a privately motivated shifter? Not in a competitive way, but with more of an excitement to try something fresh? Because mono-etching, to me, has an antiquated but charming shift.
On the one hand, I try to get out of the mode, which I think a lot of people are in, which is of looking at what's hot on gallery sites, what's cool on Instagram, and going, "Let me try to incorporate some of that," because I start to think, "Oh, am I just caught up in the excitement of the moment? Is this going to endure?" And also, I don't want to look like I'm just doing trendy stuff. So I'm always trying, when I feel like I'm sucked into that, which could easily happen, I go, "Oh, you know what? I need to look back at some art history. I need to look back at some of the artists who have inspired me," whether that's Barbara Kruger or Ed Ruscha. I mean, I went to see a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit when I was in Houston, and that was phenomenal. And I wouldn't say Georgia O'Keeffe's like one of my favorite artists, but actually, some aspects - not necessarily her paintings, but her photography—inspired me.
I'm always looking at what's out there that I think is strong. It could be brand new, but it could be 500 years old. And with this series, I wouldn't say that looking at Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo's drawings were the primary driver, but as far as how a very subtle highlight on the bridge of a nose or a negative space area that's left a little bit looser can add a charm to a piece. There's no doubt that that was part of what was feeding these works. But then, there are aspects of these works that have absolutely nothing to do with their aesthetics or the way that they worked from a technical standpoint. I think everybody ends up being an amalgamation of a lot of different influences and I try to keep my eyes and mind open to that stuff.
I’m curious. In this show and many of the shows you have made over time, has your idea of icons changed over the last, let's say, 20 or 30 years since you've been making work?
Oh, absolutely. I think when I was young, my icons were like the Santa Cruz Skateboards logo, the Black Flag logo, the anarchy symbol, and the peace sign. That's what I sort of understood as icons. Symbols that people could recognize, whether they were mainstream culture or subculture. And then, as I got more sophisticated in looking at art, I started to see style as something that was iconic. Raymond Pettibon's work is iconic, it's instantly recognizable, and there's nobody else who makes marks exactly the way he does. Keith Haring is iconic, Warhol's style of execution, though copied by many, is still iconic. You could even say that, independent of who Warhol is as an icon himself, even for somebody who doesn't know his name, the artistic style and imagery have that kind of weight to them.
So I think my understanding of what an icon was, what was iconic, and then how you developed a body of iconography, got a lot more sophisticated over the years. Now, having to work in the streets where stuff has to jump out instantly and be legible, I was intuitively developing things that I would consider icons. And so the simplified Andre the Giant face, which I call The “Icon Face,” was very, very intentional.
That original face, that original icon.
It was January 1996 when I made that image. I made the star at the same time, the star icon. Later I made the industrial gear around the star, which became another icon, sort of referencing the idea of empowerment through reproduction and also referencing Russian propaganda.
But what I started to realize was that sometimes something, just by its nature within the visual or linguistic vernacular, has more potential to become an icon. But sometimes what's amazing, through sheer force of unique style and repetition, is that you can make something iconic. So, sometimes I think that I was going with things that were obvious, to take advantage of what would have more universal resonance and become an icon. And then other times I was like, "This is important to me to try to push out there, to make it become an icon in people's eyes."
And so in a way, I think that the most exciting thing about the concept of the show is to not just show things and people that I would consider icons. You know, a lot of people think Bob Marley is an icon already, but maybe this depiction of him is even more iconic as a representation than how most people think of him. There's an amplification that happens there. And when I look back at some of the images like John van Hamersveld’s image of Jimi Hendrix, it's the one that pops into my mind when I hear Hendrix. That image pops into my mind. So that's the iconic one.
It's almost like this idea that not just the person who is responsible for being an icon, it's the people around them who create the imagery who can also be responsible for that, which you have done in your career.
Exactly. So that's why I think all its many layers are really, really fun to explore.
Do you find that we live in an era where it's harder to define what an icon is?
Yeah, I do because I think that success coming really quickly through social media for some people is both good and bad. Every now and then it means that somebody is bypassing the normal gatekeeping bureaucracy that would otherwise prevent recognition for their symbol of merit. Other times it's just the good luck of that moment in the zeitgeist, something controversial they did. And it's a more crowded field in terms of people that are getting attention. And I think only time can tell whether somebody is genuinely iconic or something is genuinely iconic. For me, my aspiration is that I'm doing this because I believe it can become iconic. But, ultimately, that's up to the public to decide.
But it seems harder nowadays for somebody to make something last the test of time because everything seems so fleeting.
The rapid metabolism of everything makes it challenging. And whenever people ask me, "What should I do to succeed?" I say, "Well, you really have to try to make stuff that stands out." And that's harder and harder, but it's very, very essential that you make something that doesn't feel like it's the same as everything.
Would you have found it really difficult to start an art career the way that you did back in the 1990s if you were to start in 2023?
I do think it would be difficult because one of the challenges I had, which ultimately became an asset rather than a liability, was that I was anonymous at the beginning. People knew my images, but they didn't know me. And I think that when things are demystified, it's easy to dismiss them. The anonymity test component actually gives things power: everybody gets to interpret it without necessarily knowing the precise answer, which I think has value for artists.
The fact that you've done this for 30 years, as opposed to being new among this contemporary art explosion, means that you're able to foster experimentation for yourself. Whereas, a lot of younger artists now, they're in the machine and really up against so many other great young artists making their way. You have that privilege of time to be able to kind of experiment in ways that maybe a lot of younger artists can't do at the moment because the contemporary art machine just grabs people so strongly.
Part of the strength of youth, and then part of the problem, too, is that there's a very short history in your life that you're drawing from. You don't have the same perspective, which means that there's the excitement of everything seeming possible and new, but also maybe that desperation to keep chasing what's succeeding in the short term. I really liked that short video that you had on Juxtapoz, of the art critic from the 1950s saying something closely to, "You know, in today's media landscape, with a constant pressure of observation, an artist doesn't have the space to fail. Artists need space to fail." And I was thinking, "It’s the 1950s, and this guy is saying that! Imagine what he would be thinking now."
When was the first time in the last 10 or 15 years with social media, you thought "Goddamn, I did this by hand on the street around the world with wheat paste, and now people are just doing it with a button they're pressing?" Did it kind of seem slightly ironic to you?
It’s something that I've thought about a lot. I've always considered the balance of quantity and quality, being realistic about how most people just don't really care to take any time out of their day for art or what it's trying to say. You have to kind of put it in front of them and force them to engage with it. For a lot of people, it's not a choice. When I was putting work on the street constantly, that was an expense, and stuff I was sacrificing that might be very ephemeral. It might last a year, but it might last two days or two hours. So I was thinking about, once again, balancing quantity and quality.
But what I really do think about in terms of people experiencing art in person, whether it's on the street or in a gallery and not through a screen, is that the thing that they might not even consciously consider is how the light plays off a surface, how tactile it is. When you see something on the street, you can't help but understand that a human took the time and risk to do this. When you see something here, there is a brush stroke that's done by hand, especially now that AI is getting so advanced and making some pretty sexy images.
I think that the artist's hand, somewhere in the process, is important. And there are things that I'm so grateful for. When I started, I didn't know how to use the computer. So, when I made screens to make my prints, a lot of it was me imagining in my head how it was going to work out color-wise and things like that. And I would get going and sometimes be very disappointed with the physical result. Now that I’ve learned how to use the computer, I still make my illustrations by hand and scan them, but then I can work out things digitally with some of these more advanced pieces that I'm doing with the collage backgrounds and spray paint, where the spray paint is translucent and reading through the background.
These are things that I can experiment with digitally with the mock-up so that I think of the computer as a tool. Or, say, the laser cutter. I used to cut every single stencil by hand. I cut the illustration by hand, then printed it out at the scale I wanted for a painting, then cut the stencil by hand. And some of this stuff is actually contributing to the quality of the end result. Cutting my illustrations by hand, I think, is very important for the aesthetic. Then re-cutting it for the stencil makes absolutely no difference to the aesthetic of the piece. So I'm trying to be smart about not putting the effort where it's inconsequential, and I’m finding that balance of mechanical and analog strategies to yield the best result, the result I want, efficiently.
That's the thing about art: some things that are great can take an hour, and some things that are great take weeks, months. I'm willing to give the time to it, whichever one it takes. But, when I can figure out how to make something really strong efficiently, I'm very happy about that because that leaves more time for me to do other new things. I think that I've watched videos of Keith Haring making an incredible painting in 45 minutes. I can't make a painting in 45 minutes, but I don't think it diminishes Keith Haring's art value that he could do it in 45 minutes. He's just smarter than I am. He figured out a technique that he could do in 45 minutes.
Well, how long did it take you to do the OBEY logo?
Well, the original Andre sticker took like 10 minutes, but the icon face… that took me a couple of nights of hanging out at Kinko's until the wee hours. Because first I illustrated it, the whole face, based on the two sides of the analog Andre face. And then I decided which half of the face was more appealing, simplified that, mirrored it, and then I cut it out. You know, I did this all without a computer. I cut it out of a window, out of a piece of paper, then I would scale the image up and down and leave the window the same size, and look at what cropping looked the best. These are all things that I can do very efficiently on the computer now, but it was all done by hand.
Can you shout out the Kinkos where you made this?
Angel Street, Providence, Rhode Island.
Is there a sketchbook that no one sees? Are there parts of your practice that you keep to yourself?
I've said to some people that the only reason I'm a decent artist is because I experiment relentlessly. And there are a lot of failures that people never see, and it should be that way. When I look at some artists who I think are very brave and experimental, like Basquiat, it’s a lot of work for somebody who was really only active for maybe eight years. But there are a lot of pieces that aren't as strong as the ones that have become really well-known because it's like all his work has been made public. They became public experiments in a way. I just don't show people the stinkers. I just don't.
I really think that if anyone wants to know who I am, there's not a lot of mystery because I'm sharing who I am through the content of my work, the style of my work, the methodology, and my sense of humor. The only thing you might need to catch at some point is maybe one of my DJ sets. Street art is visceral, and going out and doing stuff illegally, there's an adrenaline rush to it—a total thrill. But for the most part, art creation is about focus and solitude. And so music, especially when I’m DJing, gives me that communal experience.
You are still actively painting murals around the world. How important is it for you to continue with public works?
The iconic applies to landmarks as well. Because when I think about how a large mural with a memorable image just changes the cityscape, it's so profound. We were talking about street art earlier and why I still think that street art and physical things are important. There are all sorts of digital gimmicks that I think have their appeal. But there's nothing like a monumental piece, whether it's a piece of architecture, a mural, or what Christo would do with fabric and the landscape. I mean, these things make people think about the power of effort and possibility. So many of us feel like spectators in someone else's world, like we're just ants milling around while these puppet masters are doing their thing that we can't compete with. But, every now and then, you see something that a creative person does, and they don't have the resources of a corporation or a government, yet they do something that makes an impact. And this is what drives me…
Shepard Fairey: Icons will be on view at Subliminal Projects in Los Angeles through December 30, 2023. This interview was originally published in our current WINTER 2024 Quarterly.