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Obama 'Hope' poster artist arrested in Boston

By Milton J. Valencia and Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / February 7, 2009
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Shepard Fairey, the controversial street artist riding a roller coaster of publicity with his red, white, and blue posters of President Barack Obama, was arrested last night on his way to DJ an event kicking off his exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Fairey, a 38-year-old known for his countercultural style, was arrested on two outstanding warrants and was being held at a police station, according to a police official with knowledge of the arrest who requested anonymity.

Police could not describe the nature of the outstanding warrants last night, but said they were based in Massachusetts.

Fairey has been arrested at least 14 times, he has told the Globe.

The artist was arrested at about 9:15 p.m. as he was about to enter a sold-out dance event at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Northern Avenue, known as "Experiment Night." The event is geared toward a younger-age crowd, with techno-style music, and more than 750 people were waiting for him, some of whom had bought tickets for the event on Craigslist for as much as $500.

Fairey was supposed to appear as a guest DJ for the kickoff of his exhibit, Supply and Demand, which will run through Aug. 16. He was scheduled to go on stage at about 10:30 p.m., and an hour later organizers reported to the crowd that he was arrested.

"We're very disappointed," said Paul Bessire, deputy director of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

"Shepard Fairey is a wonderful artist who created some positive work and we were very pleased to present his work here and around the city. We feel he is an influential artist."

Fairey, a street artist, graphic designer, and political activist, is best known for his "Obey Giant" campaign of stickers, stencils, and posters in the early 1990s.

Most recently, he has achieved fame with the red, white, and blue posters of Obama, emblazoned with the words "Hope," "Progress," and "Change."

The president used the posters during his campaign, and one of the displays in Fairey's exhibit includes a typed letter from Obama that read: "I am privileged to be a part of your art work and proud to have your support."

Fairey was recently seen with Mayor Thomas M. Menino in an event to promote his show, and banners raised at City Hall also announce the exhibit.

At the same time, however, anti-graffiti activists complained that a street artist was going to be the subject of a museum show.

But Bessire said, "We feel he is an influential artist. We were just very pleased and felt fortunate to show his work."

The arrest of Fairey -- who cites linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky with a poster that reads, "I lived with the system and took no offence/until Chomsky lent me the necessary sense" -- helped maintain his counterculture reputation.

"I wouldn't say it's cool he was arrested, but I think it shows he has integrity," said Bill Galligan, a graphic designer. Some in the crowd last night speculated the incident may have been a publicity stunt.

Ginny Delany, a 27-year-old graduate student from Cambridge, said, "It makes him even more of a hero to me.

"The fact that he is arrested for his art shows that it is meaningful tohim and he cares about what he is doing."

David Rosen, a 19-year-old from Allston, said last night that he was disappointed with the arrest, but "I understand that his art requires him to take risks."

Christopher Muther of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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