Shepard Fairey: Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989

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Shepard Fairy is a graffiti, graphic and fine artist who has continued to straddle the line between commercial and fine art. His background is that of a street artist but he has always sought to mix up his mediums in order to better spread the subversive ideas that have made him a legend. Very much in the lineage of Keith Haring, Basquiat and Andy Warhol, his work has become a cultural zenith that has gripped people ever since his Obey campaign kicked off in 1992. Combining type and image has often led people to debate his place in the pantheon of fine artists. But his influence and commentary on social and political issues has gained incredible traction in every spectrum of the art world and far beyond that. And this is what has allowed Fairey to permeate the barriers of the art world and into the hearts and minds of the people. His iconic 2008 portrait of Barack Obama entitled ‘Hope,’ was adopted by the former president’s campaign and became literally the face Obama’s march into office.

Shepard Fairey was born in Charleston, South Carolina on the 15th of February 1970. His love of art started in 1984 when he would design stickers and shirts for his friends in the skateboarding fraternity. He moved to California shortly after graduating and graduated from the Idyllwild Arts Academy before enrolling in the highly-renowned Rhode Island School of Design. It was here that the Obey Giant campaign would have its roots,  starting with Fairey’s sticker campaign called Andre the Giant Has A Posse. The beauty of the Obey Giant campaign wasn’t just in the message, but also in its ability to draw creativity from those who saw it. Artists all over the world used Fairey’s designs as a template for creating their own messages and observations and very much with his blessing.

“The first aim of phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The Obey sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings.” -from  Shepard Fairey’s “Obey Giant” manifesto

Fairey has almost single-handedly spawned the sticker culture that today is so prevalent, that if you walk down a street in any city in the world and not see one pinned to a lamp post, wall or door is almost unthinkable. Fairey’s work on Obey mainly reflects the  Heidegger’s concept of phenomenology and the premise that reality consists of objects and events “phenomena” as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, Fairey decided to open a small printing business off the back of the success of the Obey campaign and called it BLK/MRKT. This is where Fairey goes mainstream for a while and does various guerilla marketing campaigns for famous brands like Pepsi and Hasbro leading up to him starting a design studio with his wife Amanda in 2003. It’s here that he flexed his lifelong love of music and designed covers for Led Zeppelin’s ‘Mothership,’ Smashing Pumpkin’s ‘Zeitgeist’ and the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Monkey Business’. These labours of love were to be put on hold, however, as Fairey lent his voice to that of many other artists in protest of George W. Bush’s decision to take the US to war in Iraq. Again, after being highly vocal in the political sphere, Fairey retired to pursue more commercial aspects of the trade and in 2006 he was named creative founder of the New York ad agency 2050.

In 2008 he made his return to politicised art when Barack Obama was running for the presidency of the United States and its people stood on the brink of history. The now iconic poster series featured a portrait of Obama in a beige, blue and red palette and the word ‘Hope’ scribed underneath. The impact was immediate and profound, and the poster was adopted as the official and unofficial rallying cry. The Guardian’s Laura Barton went so far to proclaim that the image “acquired the kind of instant recognition of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, and is surely set to grace T-shirts, coffee mugs and the walls of student bedrooms in the years to come.”