Shepard Fairey – using his powers for good?

I’m old enough to remember when modern guerilla marketing had yet to be invented, and random posters and stickers wheat-pasted onto billboards and bus benches in the twilight hours for folks to see the next day were still seen as revolutionary “culture jamming.”  Leading the pack in visibility were the ubiquitous and hilarious “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” posters, which showed up in these public spaces as well as all over bathroom stalls and your favorite DJ’s turntable covers.

I didn’t find out until I was in college and saw the short documentary “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” who the artist was behind the art, and what it was all about.  Shepard Fairey was a guy who had created an advertising campaign that advertised nothing at all, and I loved that the promulgation of an image alone was the point of his obsession.  The ads themselves were the message.  “How meta!”  I thought it was clever and sounded like a whole lot of fun.

I felt duped, then, when around 1997 or so I was driving down Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and saw silk-screened posters of Andy Kaufman’s and Tony Clifton’s heads pasted all over construction sites and bus stops.  They looked suspiciously like Fairey’s style–two-tone, the same size as his OBEY posters (I already kind of hated the new look Andre had taken in these anyway), and definitely not ars gratia artis.  The soon-to-be-released Man On the Moon biopic was just weeks away, and these posters were put up anticipating that–guerilla style, so the hipsters would receive them more favorably than traditional media blitzes.  But no matter what the format, these were movie trailers.  They were paid for by marketing people.  They were real ads, and they were his doing.

Guerilla marketing had been born, and Fairey proved to us that all those original posters and stickers had not been meta advertisements about themselves.  They actually had been his press kit.  He had turned his grand idea of liberating the public space into a marketing gimmick, putting even more ads into our surroundings without even bothering to pay the cities and property owners whose space he was filling with ads.

So for years, when I’ve seen Fairey’s art, it’s just made me mad that someone can take blatant self-promotion and hucksterism and call it pure art.  But then he made this:

I can’t deny now that I really like Fairey’s iconic Obaba poster.  I know it’s still a real ad: propaganda even.  But it’s tasteful, succinct, and visually arresting without being an eyesore (unlike, say, Robbie Conal’s ugly stick-em-ups).  People all over are loving it, too–they’re rallying around it, literally!  Instead of using his self-marketing prowess to push a product, he’s pushing positive political change.  Maybe this is one case where he can drop the meta to promote a solid message and I actually like it.

P.S. BoingBoing beat me to blogging about this, and the folks there had some interesting comments.

P.P.S. This blog makes a pretty good case for the idea that Fairey has plagiarized his designs–and I mean beyond using old posters and artwork from back in the day.  It compares specific designs done by FUCT clothing and ads and then compares them to almost exact replicas done by Fairey and the OBEY team.  If so, then he’s even more scuzzy a dude than I thought.

2 thoughts on “Shepard Fairey – using his powers for good?

  1. Virginia and I seem to be two of the only people I know who are critical of Shepard Fairey, so I’m glad to read your comments about him too. His images are at times arresting, but in my opinion unoriginal and not really that engaging in the long run. Just check out the Soviet Poster a Day site (sovietposter.blogspot.com) for reference. Russian Constructivist artists and graphic designers (also Dada and De Stijl folks) were doing the Shepard Fairey thing better than Fairey and doing it 50-100 years ago. And believe you me these Dada and Russian artists knew a thing or two about culture-jamming and the power of an archetypal image matched with carefully chosen text. OBEY? Feh.

  2. That’s Poster a Day thing is a pretty damned good blog!

    I’m definitely aware of the Soviet influence on Fairey’s work (Constructivism’s limited color schemes are particularly suited to mass-produced posters, and it’s been noted elsewhere the similarities between this poster and Stalin-era propaganda) but I think this poster has the right balance–definitely Fairey-esque in its influences but clean enough a portrait that it looks American, almost warm, not something that most Americans would associate with art history or Russia. That’s one of the reasons it surprised me, because I am not a fan of most of his art, and his lack of originality (except in his methods of distribution) has always been a part of that.

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