Itâ€™s more than likely, that if youâ€™ve ever visited a major city youâ€™ve seen Shepard Faireyâ€™s work. You may not have realize it, but it was definitely lurking somewhere near you. Nineteen Eighty Fouria is Shepardâ€™s first real fine art show. We caught him as he was preparing for the opening. Unstretched canvases are laid out on the gallery floor as the man behind the Obey movement, slowly paces the space, explaining his work and artistic process. Ninetenn Eighty Fouria sees iconoclasts such as Joe Strummer, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Bob Marley, elevated to their rightful place as icons. Not of a New World Order, but of a Different One.
As Iâ€™m ushered in, a photographer speaks of Shepard in awed tones. A bit like Dennis Hopperâ€™s photojournalist character in Apocalypse Now, talking about Colonel Kurtz. â€œHeâ€™s a deep guyâ€ he says, as Fairey wraps up another interview. On the way home, after the meeting I see a row of Andre The Giant faces staring at me from a wall by Clapham Common. A week later, I notice more Obey posters on the wall of a bar on Ladbroke Grove. His ubiquity is equal measures impressive and spooky. Not bad for someone who, despite his obvious influence on modern street art does not rate himself at the top of his profession.
Heâ€™s also a fan of the establishmentâ€™s new favourite anti-establishment figure, Banksy and digs the London take on the artform and what it has to say about the city. The next time I see Shepard again in person is four days later. Heâ€™s spinning â€œMade You Lookâ€ by Nas at his own private view and looking like heâ€™s having the time of his life. One city at a time, Shepard Fairey is inducting the world into his posse.
â€œOnce the art world has validated the art to where itâ€™s worth thousands of pounds or dollars, people go â€˜Well, here it is for free on the side of this building, itâ€™s an outdoor museum, we should protect this.â€™â€
Format: When did you first realize you had a flair for design?
Shepard: I liked to draw since I was a little kid, so I think it was maybe around first grade I won the art contest and that was when I realized, maybe I was good at drawing. I guess art was the only thing I was really interested in making a career out of through high school and I donâ€™t think that I ever necessarily thought that I had a super big talent, but I just couldnâ€™t think of anything else that Iâ€™d rather be doing. I still donâ€™t think that Iâ€™m anything spectacular. I think that Iâ€™m a competent designer and an OK artist, but I think the strength of what I do is that I figure out what the best way to communicate an idea is and pair that down to its essence and keep things simple but appealing. I think thatâ€™s my real skill and Iâ€™ve worked really hard at building up my design vocabulary through multiple images and sticking with it. I think that Iâ€™m the perfect example of the idea that if you really focus, lack of technical virtuosity will not hold you back. That youâ€™ll still be able to accomplish what you want. Kinda like punk rock, yâ€™know? Those guys who maybe couldnâ€™t play that well, but they had something to say and they learned how to play, just well enough to say it.
Format: Who would you say your dominant influences are?
Shepard: There have been several influences. In the art world, Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger and a graffiti artist named Twist, whoâ€™s made the transition from the streets to the galleries. Thereâ€™s a poster artist who lives in LA named Robbie Conal, who was one of the first guys to combine his art with political commentary and humour that was influence, but going further back in design, the Russian Constructivists are a big influence.
Format: What made you choose Andre The Giantâ€™s face as the image for your best known sticker campaign?
Shepard: The Andre The Giant sticker was just a spontaneous, happy accident. I was teaching a friend how to make stencils in the summer of 1989, and I looked for a picture to use in the newspaper, and there just happened to be an ad for wrestling with Andre The Giant and I told him that he should make a stencil of it. He said â€˜Nah, Iâ€™m not making a stencil of that, thatâ€™s stupid!â€ but I thought it was funny so I made the stencil and I made a few stickers and the group of guys I was hanging out with always called each other The Posse, so it said Andre The Giant Has A Posse, and it was sort of appropriated from hip-hop slang â€“ Public Enemy, NWA and Ice-T were all using the word.
What happened was, after putting a few of the stickers around, a lot of people were saying â€œWhatâ€™s this Andre The Giant Has A Posse thing about?â€ and I started to realize that an image in public has this power to be provocative and the more that itâ€™s out there, the more important it seems and the more important it seems, the more people want to know what it is and perceived power because real power and a platform and I decided that it was fascinating and I wanted to push that as far as I could and at the time, just putting a bunch of stickers around Providence, Rhode Island seemed like taking it far, but then after a while that became really easy, then going to Boston and then New York was like the next step. Each small level of accomplishment led to a greater level of ambition.
Format: Whatâ€™s the strangest place youâ€™ve ever seen one of your stickers?
Shepard: I was at Bells Beach in Australia, near Melbourne. Iâ€™d been in Melbourne for an art show and Bells Beach was about an hour away and we got in the car to drive there just to take a day off for a scenic trip. And I got out of the car, went to go put a sticker up on a pole, got to the pole, went around it a little bit and saw there was already a sticker there. That was one of the first times and definitely the only time outside the United States where I had never been and there was a sticker already there and I thought â€œThis is kinda out in the middle of nowhere and that was really interesting.â€ But I hear about it from people all the time. Theyâ€™ll say something like â€œI was in Singapore and I saw one of your stickersâ€ and they kinda work like a chain letter because I give so many away and even when I do sell them, theyâ€™re so inexpensive, people want to participate, they want to put them around, so that was always part of the goal; to encourage participation.
Format: Did you ever expect people to get your work tattooed on their bodies?
Shepard: No â€“ that was really surprising. Thereâ€™s a lot of them now. I think maybe those people are being short sighted [laughs]. Iâ€™m very flattered by that.
Format: Are there any up and coming artists whose work you admire?
Shepard: Yeah â€“ there are several. Thereâ€™s a young guy named Neckface who I like, who is a graffiti artist that is doing stuff thatâ€™s sort of primitive but really, really fun and spontaneous and totally breaking the rules of graffiti. So many graffiti artists are engaging in an artform that was always supposed to be about rebellion but completely adhering to all the stylistic rules that have been in place for almost 30 years now. Neckface is a guy thatâ€™s just doing it in his own way and I like that. Thereâ€™s Ryan McGuinness, Rich Coleman, David Ellis, Swoonâ€¦
Format: Did you ever think that youâ€™d see your work on skateboards and movie posters?
Shepard: Well, skateboarding culture was really influential for me. I started skateboarding when I was 14 in 1984 and one of my aspirations was always, because of skateboarding and punk rock culture, to T-shirt graphics, or album graphics or skateboard graphics and now Iâ€™ve done all of them. So, I didnâ€™t know whether Iâ€™d be able to, but it was definitely a goal and I goal that realized, maybe even earlier than I thought I would; when I was 18, I designed some T-Shirt graphics for a skateboard clothing company and it was very rewarding for me to see people wearing a shirt that Iâ€™d designed on the street. A movie poster like Walk The Line â€“ thatâ€™s pretty amazing. Iâ€™m a fan of Johnny Cash and to get to do something for a musical artist that I admire and for a movie that I think is pretty solid film. Itâ€™s amazing. Having my work be accessible and a part of pop culture via music, movies, skateboarding â€“ all of that stuff is really important to me that itâ€™s not just in art galleries.
Format: Talking world history for a second: which events from between 88 to present day have been the most interesting to comment on?
Shepard: The second war in Iraq has probably been the most important thing for me. 9/11 is important because it created a climate of fear, that then allowed the war in Iraq to be pushed through, so Iâ€™d say the wheels were in motion right after that and I was starting to react to the changing public mentality. 9/11 was the cause and the war is the effect. Itâ€™s an ongoing thing, but global warming is definitely something Iâ€™m very concerned about. Global warming and deforestation, overpopulation â€“ a lot of issues with the environment. Itâ€™s all stuff Iâ€™m concerned about.
Format: Street art is often seen by authority figures as vandalism. Is there anything that you think street artists can do to change that perception?
Shepard: The perception of street art as vandalism has already, by someone like Banksy, been called into question because Banksyâ€™s work has gone up in value so tremendously that some of the councils are actually protecting his work now and I think that he has forced a lot of people – not just local government â€“ but a lot of people in general, to reassess the role of art in public spaces. Once the art world has validated the art to where itâ€™s worth thousands of pounds or dollars, people go â€œWell, here it is for free on the side of this building, itâ€™s an outdoor museum, we should protect this.â€ Art is subjective; some people think a tag looks beautiful and some people think it looks like crap. The way that Iâ€™ve tried to change the mentality about street art with the powers that be or the general population is by being willing to explain what Iâ€™m doing as a street artist because I think people fear what they donâ€™t understand.
If youâ€™re willing to be articulate and explain what youâ€™re doing, that removes the â€˜fearâ€™ factor and that helps and additionally, where I put my art â€“ I try to put it in places that are inoffensive as possible â€“ if I find a boarded up building or a wall thatâ€™s already covered in graffiti or decaying in some way â€“ unkept â€“ thatâ€™s an appropriate place for street art. To go and put something on a pristine building thatâ€™s obviously gonna piss off the building owner, I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s constructive. I think a lot of what street artists need to do is be a little more thoughtful about where theyâ€™re placing the art. I mean, I can be open about who I am as a street artist because I feel I can defend any of my decisions about where Iâ€™ve put my work and if everyone approached street art with that same idea, that theyâ€™re gonna be held accountable for it then there wouldnâ€™t be as many problems. Itâ€™s like a lot of laws in general exist because people donâ€™t use common sense. So street art â€“ like anything else, if you use common sense, itâ€™s easy to defend and it just makes the people that react against it look like narrow minded assholes.
Format Magazine: Can you finish the following statement, Shepard Fairey isâ€¦
Shepard: [Laughs] covered in wheat paste, right now. No â€“ Shepard Fairey is a graphic artist who would like to get people to question everything theyâ€™re confronted with.