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Shepard the Giant

He's gone from street artist to creating an iconic image of Barack Obama and having a solo ICA show

Shepard Fairey and John Lumbang Shepard Fairey (above right at his studio with assistant Philip John Lumbang) working on art for his solo show at the ICA. (Eric Grigorian for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / January 25, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Shepard Fairey is buzzing. The artist, wearing worn jeans and a Ramones T-shirt, has just returned to his design studio here from a gallery show in Washington. But he doesn't boast about how well it went. Instead, Fairey's jacked about his night on the town plastering posters on the capital's walls.

"We crushed it out there," he says, laughing.

Funny thing is, these days nobody would blame Fairey for hanging up his bucket of wheat paste. It's been almost 20 years since Fairey, a restless skate punk from South Carolina, began slathering walls, newspaper boxes, and street signs with his stickers, stencils, and posters as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. His original creation was a crudely reproduced black-and-white image of the wrestler Andre "The Giant" Roussimoff, but he's since moved on to big-budget ad campaigns, the ubiquitous Barack Obama "Hope" posters, and even the official print commemorating the inauguration of the 44th president. Versions of his Obama portrait have graced the covers of Time and Esquire magazines, and this month, the Smithsonian hung his hand-finished version in the National Portrait Gallery. It is the same place, Fairey notes with an in credulous tone, that has hung "the George Washington that's not finished on the bottom."

The world's most famous street artist has clearly gone legit. And on Feb. 6, his first solo museum show opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

So why continue to take it to the streets? Fairey, now 38, shrugs. He has a practical reason: to expose his work to people who won't go to museums. He also has a personal motivation, one that has always driven him to the dark, deserted streets.

"It still gives me a rush," he says.

Fairey grew up in Charleston, S.C., a booming port known for its Southern charm and trees draped in Spanish moss. His father, Strait, was a physician. His mother, Charlotte, booked bed and breakfasts. They recognized their teenager's artistic gifts early but struggled to channel his rebellious energy. Fairey, for his part, couldn't bear going to his private school once he was told his Vans violated the dress code. He enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, but got expelled for sneaking out of his dorm one night, then finally found his place at the private Idyllwild Arts Academy in California.

It was at RISD, in 1989, that he came up with his original crude sticker featuring Andre the Giant. This was before Internet movements or even the widespread use of e-mail. Fairey used mass mailings and ads in skateboard magazines to distribute his stickers. He also traveled regularly from Providence to Boston and New York, spreading art and occasionally getting arrested.

In 1995, he added the word "Obey" to an image of the wrestler's face, a sarcastic statement about what he viewed as an overly consumerist culture. Soon his stickers, posters, and stenciled images were all over the world, and his work had inspired a documentary by Helen Stickler, "Andre the Giant Has a Posse."

Former Black Flag singer-turned-activist and public speaker Henry Rollins saw Fairey's street art in New York first, and then everywhere. He liked its subversive nature, the idea that Fairey was doing his part to fight the ever-present white noise of corporate advertising.

"To me," says Rollins, "the most interesting thing about Shepard is the why. It's a push back of what many people think is a really rude invasion to your day-to-day. You're in traffic and you look up and you're staring at a billboard with Kate Moss's crotch or some Rolex watch on a scrawny arm or some moron chewing some processed food. What he does is very punk rock and very insurgent and a necessary part of keeping society balanced."

Fairey's methods have also drawn attention from Madison Avenue. Moving to San Diego, Fairey helped form a design firm specializing in guerrilla marketing campaigns for, among others, Pepsi, Netscape, and the Andy Kaufman biopic, "Man on the Moon." In 2003, he started his own firms in Los Angeles - Studio Number One for commercial work and Obey Giant for his art, opening a gallery as well. After a recent move, the complex now operates out of a building in the city's Echo Park neighborhood.

In addition to his own art, Fairey has designed a clothing line, skateboards, posters for such films as "Walk the Line," album art for Led Zeppelin and the Black Eyed Peas, and the book cover for Penguin's reissue of George Orwell's "1984," among other things. He oversaw employee Cleon Peterson's recent design of shopping bags, billboards, and other displays for Saks Fifth Avenue's "Want It!" campaign.

A fan of punk bands, Fairey has nurtured relationships in Los Angeles with many of the rockers he once worshiped. In November, he hosted a reunion of the original Jane's Addiction at a tiny LA club. Fans, most of them unable to get in, lined the streets waiting for a glimpse of lead singer Perry Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro. Inside, Fairey, as DJ, served as opening act, playing Clash, Kinks, and Eddie Cochran songs to a crowd of some 200 people, including Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier.

After the band's set, Farrell approached Fairey and told him they just had to get together for dinner.

"I love Shepard, and his poster of Obama is really the poster of a generation," Farrell said.

Others in the club were not quite so happy. Fairey had produced a special limited edition poster for the event. He had printed enough to provide one for each guest. Clearly, some people had rushed the stacks and taken more. Aimee Curran, 30, approached Fairey at the back of the room and grumbled when he told her he didn't have any more posters.

"Dude, I'm bummed," she said. "It's a collector's item."

Critical mass
Fairey lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Amanda, and two daughters, Vivienne and Madeline. Only wisps of gray hair reveal his age. He has the same sense of purpose and thirst for mischief as ever.

Sipping continuously on Diet Coke in a boardroom at the Echo Park building, he also refuses to back down when criticized, growing frustrated to hear that anyone - even an anonymous poster on a message board - considers him a sellout. Fairey has been called that (for taking on corporate clients) as well as unoriginal (for incorporating others' images into his own work). In the art world, though, such appropriation is not uncommon, and Fairey doesn't hide his inspirations, which include Soviet-era propaganda, paintings from Works Progress Administration campaigns, and '60s-era psychedelic rock poster art.

"All my work is really based on a style that's designed to lend itself to screen-printing," he says. "You can call Warhol a graphic-art style with some painterly flourishes. You could say the same about my fine-art style."

As much as he wants to let the criticism roll off his T-shirt, Fairey can't. He starts slowly before launching into a response. It is one of several he will give throughout the day, whenever criticism comes up.

"It hurts my feelings a lot that when I do things that are not artist-like, like get up in the morning and have structure in order to empower myself, that I get called a sellout.

"I don't do any of it for the money. Selling out is doing something for the money because that's all you care about. I'm happy to have an office that's a nice space to work, but I still use my garage. I drive a Prius.

"It is extremely difficult to make a living as an artist. They love the idea of artist as martyr. I like the idea you can work as an artist and, if that's not going to make you a living, you can work as a designer. Everybody always loves that Van Gogh never had any money and cut his ear off."

There are campaigns he regrets. "Evan Almighty," for which his studio designed a logo, was not a good movie, Fairey concedes, though "Bruce Almighty," the film that inspired it (and for which he did no campaign), was decent, so he had false expectations. He also wouldn't say yes to just anyone. He'll never push cigarettes or Hummers. "If people want a Hummer, we should give them the money for a therapist," Fairey says.

Art and commerce do go together, he says. The money makes it possible for an artist to empower himself. That way, he can balance out his profits with his altruism.

This business strategy plays out on his website, ObeyGiant.com, where Fairey sells books, hoodies, posters, and stickers as well as offering news updates, tributes to favorite musicians, and free downloadable Andre the Giant images for people who want to make their own stickers or posters.

Most weeks, Fairey releases a new signed print. He sends out an e-mail blast to fans, keeps the cost low ($40-$50), and prints only 450 for each edition. That means dedicated followers can become art collectors as long as they're quick on the mouse. (The prints sell out in minutes.) Fairey feels so strongly about making these prints affordable that when he's caught collectors who buy on his website and then "flip" the works on eBay, he's banned them from making future purchases. (A set of Obama posters recently listed on eBay for as much as $12,000.)

"My goal is to make my work affordable to people who intend to keep art," he writes in a letter to one eBay flipper. "I am sacrificing a huge amount of money I could be making by selling the prints below market value. I do that for the people. . . . Your perspective is very selfish"

Best of both worlds
For Fairey, an artist admittedly driven by dual desires - to be accepted by the art establishment but also to agitate the powers that be - the ICA is an exciting affirmation.

"The museum show, in some ways, legitimizes things for what I do in art history," Fairey says. "I'm excited about my art being passed down. I've made my own books. But the institutions still have a lot of sway as to what is seen as valid in art history."

Independent curator Pedro Alonzo, who organized the show for the ICA, had tried and failed to convince several other institutions to do a large solo show featuring Fairey's work. But the ICA, he said, understood the artist's importance, his connection to New England, and his following with a young, indie, politically savvy crowd that doesn't normally head to art institutions.

The ICA show features 200 works, including stencils, stickers, screen prints, collages, and pieces on wood, metal, and canvas, including his Obama-related work.

Alonzo is not surprised that Fairey connected with the candidate's campaign.

"If you look at his model as a grass-roots model, as someone who helped galvanize support, no wonder the Obama campaign loves him," said Alonzo. "They have a very similar operating process in some ways. It's hyper-efficient and very well thought out."

The "Obama Hope" campaign began simply because Fairey wanted to support the Democratic nominee. He did not get hired by the campaign. In fact, he was concerned that his support might reflect poorly on Obama. Fairey has been arrested 14 times - the most recent in Denver at last August's Democratic National Convention - for his street art excursions. He's also openly opposed George W. Bush, at one point producing a print of the president hugging a bomb.

Fairey created an Obama poster on his own and, using his network, began to distribute copies, some through sales, some through giveaways. He estimates that he's printed and distributed 300,000 posters and 500,000 stickers, rolling any profits he made back into the project.

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") saw the image when a friend e-mailed him a picture. He immediately pegged it as one of Fairey's works.

"That image is now beyond being an artwork," says Spurlock. "It's almost like the birth of brand Obama."

Scott Goodstein, who was in charge of social networks and text messaging for the Obama campaign, noticed the posters.

"That image was what all of us were feeling around the campaign and why guys like me joined the campaign in early February when Obama was down by 20 points," says Goodstein.

After vetting Fairey, the campaign asked him to volunteer to create a version of his poster with the word "Hope," then later variations with the messages "Change" and "Vote."

Fairey's Obama images are now everywhere, and they have landed the artist nearly 100 interviews in the last month, ranging from CNN and The New York Times to "Inside Edition." During his Jan. 15 appearance on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," the host grilled Fairey on the financial implications of the poster. When he learned of Fairey's decision to refrain from making a profit, Stephen Colbert leaned over the table between them.

"Come on, turn a buck on this, man," he said.

"I benefit from this in other ways," said Fairey. "For one, Obama's going to be president in a few days."

Fairey would be there. Last Monday, the night before the inauguration, he hosted a party in Georgetown with, among others, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe and actresses Rosario Dawson and Heather Graham. On inauguration night, he attended the Youth Ball, his inauguration poster shown on the big screen before the sworn-in president made his appearance.

With that poster, featuring the words "Be The Change" and an image of the White House in the background, Fairey will finally earn money off the work. He will be paid royalties for the limited-edition prints, which are being sold for $100 to $500 when signed by the artist.

Fairey says he is looking forward to the attention dying down. But he also appreciates that he's got a moment to get attention.

"What I want people to realize is you don't have to be an artist that's connected in politics to do things that make a difference," he said. "I did the Obama thing on my own, grass-roots style."

He also still believes in Andre the Giant.

Standing backstage at the inauguration-week party as Santogold performed, Fairey acknowledged that he still spreads his original stickers wherever he goes.

Really?

Standing up, Fairey reached into his pocket. There they were. A handful of stickers, some for Obama and some with the late wrestler's image.

"I believe in that sticker symbolically as a spontaneous but somehow impactful starting point," he said. "It's the roots."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo caption accompanying a story on artist Shepard Fairey in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section provided an incomplete name for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Barack Obama (Shepard Fairey) Fairey's Obama portrait has been installed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.