FAIREY’S EXPERIMENTAL ACTIVISM
.ISM Vol. 4 No.3, 2007
By Greg Escalante and Nathan Spoor
With an intellect as
dizzying as his already massive oeuvre of works, Shepard Fairey consistently
pushes the barriers of possibility and communicator. From his Los Angeles
Obey offices, the Master of Phenomenology takes a moment out of his ever-evolving
socio-political experimentation to share some personal insights on his
troubled beginnings, happy accidents and his most recent successes in New
York with Jonathan LeVine.
GE: So, Shepard, you’re coming off a very successful double showing with Jonathan LeVine. Can you tell us a little about how you got started?
SF: Well, I showed with him in 1998 for the first time. I guess he knew about my work from seeing it on the street. His neighborhood was the Lower East Side of New York at the time. I think around then he was curating at CBGB’s 313 gallery, which was just more bar with some wall space. It was a great location to infuse the counter culture, like an oasis of cool art.
GE: Well, ok, but how about earlier than that. How did you get started getting started?
SF: Well, I guess the real start of everything was when I was attending Rhode Island School of Design from ’88 – ’92. But before that there was the Shepard Fairey that is from South Carolina that grew up in a very conservative scene. My mom was head cheerleader and my dad was the captain of the football team.
GE: Did he go to The Citadel?
SF: Hah, no. It wasn’t quite that intense, but very conservative all the same. My dad is a doctor and mom had her home business, and since I was a mischievous kid I was kept inside most of the time. Not being allowed to go outside I would occupy all of my time drawing. I think that all started from something involving throwing water balloons and my sister. But at the age of 14 I found my new freedom with a skateboard for my birthday.
GE: 14? Isn’t that a little old in the skateboarding game?
SF: Yeah, all my friends already had boards and were into skating. I was never one to be into the trends, so when I got my board it was already in full swing. My friends already knew how to do tic-tacs and carves, so I was kind of on my own again in a whole new incredible way. That was in ’84, and I was so insane about skateboarding that I had to consume anything and everything I could get my hands on. One memory I carry with me is having to break into the school and into my friend’s locker because he had left the new Thrasher with Christian Hosoi on the cover in there.
And there’s the obligatory Siamese twin of Punk Rock that I of course got into. The Sex Pistols, Agent Orange, Black Flag… and around this time I’m also being introduced to the art of Raymond Pettibon and Winston Smith, and Jamie Reed who did the Sex Pistols covers. Now I actually had an arena for my art that I actually gave a shit about.
My mom had a Xerox machine at the house for her business, which was unheard of at the time. I mean, a Xerox machine in your living room? I got busy making as many collages on sticky paper and started experimenting with printmaking techniques.
I totally identified with the political stance of punk rock’s “Stop the Arms Race Not the Human Race”. And of course I got in trouble for making that sticker and putting it on my dad’s car. I was identifying with the rhetoric of punk rock but was performing on a shit scale in high school, because now all I had to care about was skating and punk rock. My parents’ words would ring in my head loudly for years to come: “You’re closing doors. You’re going to be a bum!”
GE: But all you wanted was a Pepsi.
SF: And of course I identified with the Suicidal Tendencies state of things and what an awesome formula that was to tap into teenage angst, right? So my parents made the decision that I was going to go to summer school at North Carolina School of the Arts.
GE: All the way up north? How far away was that?
SF: About 6 hours, my dad drove me up there and dropped me off. Art summer school in Winston Salem had a 2-year college program as well. So the folks had a plan that I would see the error of my ways after outgrowing this art thing and pursue a real career. Well, the summer after my junior year I applied to the school there. I went to the summer program and it wasn’t long before I was kicked out for skateboarding on campus and for disappearing one entire night. But the thing was, I was the only one that got caught for doing what every kid is naturally doing, staying out, acting out, standing out. The folks now thought that I needed therapy. And it was pick-up Shepard time and the drive with dad back home where I was told that I needed therapy and was assigned to a guidance counselor to place me in the proper school for someone with “special needs”. The parents told me about the $1000/day fee for the counselor to have something to guilt me into acting right, and what could I say? “I’m completely normal!”
From there I went to a school in Idyllwild…
SF: Yeah, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t have an adversarial relationship with teachers. I’ve always had issues with authority, and when I’m told that I must “do this” or “do that” then things go wrong for me. It’s a character flaw, but it’s a reality.
I ended up liking my classes so much that I’d stay after and work on my drawings or photos more. Even my academic professors were cool! My counselor was a conscienscious objector to the Vietnam War and explained the Imperialist agenda and destabilizing offenses. I was 17 and a Senior and for the parents it was a last resort that was paying off.
NS: What were the students like? Did you interact with anyone?
SF: They were like reform school kids, or last-chance kids. - the totally privileged art school types. One of the kids was a movie producer’s son, and I’m not mentioning any names, but this kid was lacking skills to put it mildly. The parents were paying full tuition so the school kept trying to figure out new ways to find him a major that would work out. My roommate was extremely talented though and got scholarships to Chicago and then to grad school at Art Center. He eventually came out and now makes high-end bags with Italian leather and Swiss zippers. He’s completely underutilizing his talents and would rather make bags than change the world.
GE: So after ISOMATA you then applied to RISD?
SF: Yeah, I actually got accepted to every school that I applied to. I had the tools upstairs but lacked the inspiration it seemed. My SAT score was 1260, and with quality work in the portfolio I had the choice of programs to choose from. So RISD was the choice, especially since the parents basically told me I should go there since it’s associated with Brown, which was a borderline Ivy League school. I did know about Art Center, but they were concentrating on the Industrial Design aspects of their program, which couldn’t have interested me any less.
NS: So did you ever knock off and get out, see bands, art, etc. up there?
SF: Oh yeah. The funny thing is that the summer after my sophomore year my friend’s mom had a loft in New York that she said we could crash any time. So my friend, being the Smiths freak that he was, researched their tour schedule for the year and we planned out when we would make our move. We painted porches all summer and saved up and took off for New York for two weeks. We saw bands and skated the Brooklyn banks and bought records and it was heaven! No supervision, skating all over and going to punk rock shows. Oh, and that movie “Art School Confidential” has the clichés down, guys. Everyone has a story about hitting on a chick that turns out to be insane. The damaged hipster attitude and element didn’t actually weigh us down too much, and with outings like the New York trip we actually flourished better than any art movie could portray.
GE: So what about the quality of the art at the school?
SF: The one thing about RISD that immediately motivated me was that there were a lot of good artists. In high school I didn’t have to make much effort to be the best, and I’m a competitive individual. Across the board the quality of artists was pretty astounding. Being around people from all over the world was immediately exposing me to artists with different perspectives. That mentality of “You don’t need art school to be an artist” mindset is correct, but in terms of expanding your ideas about what’s even possible – that’s where art school is beneficial.
NS: So did the curriculum of the school or the academics influence you one way or another?
SF: Yeah. I took a lot of classes in political theory and the academic classes were pretty good too. I’d seen Robbie Conal’s poster art when we took a trip to LA from Idyllwild and he’d sniped all the electrical boxes with this amazing political art. And going to RISD I began finding out about Art History and finding out about the Constructivists and about propaganda art. And I started to take notice of that art. So before the Andre The Giant Has A Posse work I had started doing these dogmatic self-righteous “Stop Racism, Question Authority” didactic works. I’d done screen-printing as a senior in high school, but this photo emulsion technology that was available now at RISD sort of synthesized that into a cohesive result and was pretty mind-blowing. I liked collage and the paste-up sort of things, and screen-printing was the perfect medium for that.
The RISD facilities were incredible. I made it through the program and got an Illustration degree. I was into so many things that I got into designing as another medium and was also starting to combine that with the photo classes and other printmaking classes and techniques.
GE: When I first became aware of you, it was from your being such a big force in San Diego.
SF: Right, so after my first year of coming up with the inside joke of Andre The Giant Has A Posse, I started a screen printing business at RISD. I made the Andre sticker and it had a power that I hadn’t expected, and the great controversy over the Mayor’s billboard that year got coverage on TV and print that gave it a power that people had to ponder. I questioned putting the meaning of the dead wrestler’s image and started putting it all around. It was now an upstart enigma, and I wanted to use this media platform to give it more meaning. I thought it was fascinating how people had this great interpretation of how Big Brother is watching you, and that people would question what they’re being assaulted by visually.
NS: So were you interested in showing in galleries at all, or was it something else?
SF: The whole idea of showing slides to galleries or submitting to magazines to illustrate articles didn’t interest me. And from working in the screen-printing shop, I developed the rep as the go-to guy for screen-printing. So I started my own company to fund the mischief of street art and took out ads in Slap or Thrasher to get people to write in and get stickers and it became an underground chain letter sort of thing. I’d send the manifesto with the stickers to explain what I was doing and people were into it. They were into getting the word out further and spread the germ!
I had a lot of fun with that and didn’t want a traditional art career, but in the end the business was a failure and I ended up moving to San Diego – broke, in debt, across the country. I moved to San Diego in ’96 to work with Andy Howell, founder of New Deal Skateboards and what is now Element Skateboards, the biggest skateboard company ever right now. He had a clothing line and wanted to make a line of my graphics. That’s when you saw my stuff. I did my time in San Diego and got out after 5 years.
NS: So when did the screen-printing and designing turn into the artwork, the posters?
SF: One of the things I should emphasize is that when my screen business failed I wasn’t going to give up on my art career. I was invited to be in some shows that Aaron Rose was doing in New York, and in the northeast it was legendary. The Cooper Museum had put my work in shows and acquired some for their collection. But none of that means anything until you’re making money and living off of your work. I had another museum ask me to donate some work and I had to say, “No, I can’t do that. I’m living hand to mouth and as prestigious as that is, it’s 20 bucks”.
So when my idea to move to California on my own failed, I ended up working for my friend, an important skateboard artist and entrepreneur. That was the dream - to be involved in skating even after your days on a board. So I started working with Andy and would print posters after work and the second shift would start for me. No one was buying the prints and I was doing thin paper ones to put up in the street and thick paper versions that were starting to really accumulate into this impressive body of work. Then we decided not to do clothing anymore and were getting asked to do more graphic design projects. So in ’97 we started doing design projects together.
Then in ’98 Juxtapoz did a piece on me and I started getting art shows and selling my work. A friend built a website for me and within a week I was getting 1000 hits a day, which was unheard of to me. So the explosion of the web and Juxtapoz had that momentum that helped me to get out the editions of unsold works that were selling from a little ad in Jux or on my site. I never could have lived off of it, but it was a true motivation to be more prolific.
GE: So when was the first time you heard of Banksy?
SF: In ’99, but he wasn’t “Banksy” yet. I’d seen a couple of his pieces in London for my first show at The Horse Hospital, which was the clown holding two guns. It was very pop and silly and I enjoyed it and didn’t think of the effect it was having just yet. Then he called me once when he was in San Francisco and was staying with Maya Hayuk. I was in San Diego and he wanted to know if we could hang if he was down that way. We enjoyed each others’ work as peers, but still hadn’t met. But we didn’t actually meet until 2 years later in ’02. He was showing at 33 1/3 and then had a warehouse party afterwards. We hung out and he came over to my house then. We were supposed to go out bombing LA but never did. We did go out the following year in Berlin. As I saw more and more of his work I appreciated his work and the sense of humor he’s employed. A lot of what he was doing was so irreverent and funny. The Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher was so easy to understand. He was so prolific and I never would have predicted that he’d become what he’s become.
NS: And what has he become, do you think?
SF: He’s always been a top street artist in quality and placement, but you just never know what’s going to resonate. He’s great at getting media attention. He realized that it’s not just the one image, but the one big spectacle made smaller and in stencil that’s more meaningful. His big stunts and identity secrecy is a key to that success.
NS: Did you guys get arrested together in Berlin?
SF: I’ve been arrested 13 times, but not with him. We split up before his arrest in Berlin.
GE: What did you think of his show in LA?
SF: It was a great exhibition, but I think that the stunt of putting the doll in Disneyland and the Paris Hilton cd prank was key. And his publicist, who’s also Sean Penn’s publicist, made sure of that effort. And if that wasn’t enough, he painted an elephant with a prissy wallpaper pattern, knowing that it’s going to get attention.
GE: I heard a rumor that he’s actually Damien Hurst.
GE: Or that he’s actually Sascha Baron Cohen.
GE: It’s a rumor that it’s Steve Lazarides.
SF: But he’s not.
GE: I heard that he’s actually Shepard Fairey.
SF: No, I wish I was that smart. But he’s trapped by what he’s done in so many ways. We’ve made different decisions – pursued parallel avenues to reach humanity. I made a decision up front that this is who I am and that my persona is going to be up front, and that street art shouldn’t be prosecuted the way it is. The erroneous cliché of street art being gang related is wrong. There are so many people that are so nice and normal that have these clandestine personalities that can’t be revealed. If people knew who these street artists were, then these artists would be cooler to them.
I’m not out there with a great marketing tool like being the Zorro of street art. But people are really into this whole mindset of bringing down the system. They identify with Banksy as an icon or an iconoclast that they can buy into. It’s great marketing. And the choices I made say it’s OK to make it as a designer and get by. In fact it’s good to be a populist and not an elitist to satisfy that high-end need. I absolutely love Banksy and the way his agent manipulates the market, but the 500-pound poster isn’t cheap. My strategy for public consumption is that my posters are remaining at 35 dollars. People are excited by the affordability of my work, and the career choice of maintaining that consistency and availability has really proven itself time and again.
GE: So I heard that Ron English is Bansky.
SF: I love Ron. He’s a great guy. Ron actually motivated me to do more billboards. Mostly because back in ’96 Ron showed me a book with his portfolio of billboards that my friend Carlo McCormick was checking out. His work is so much more impressive than anything else mostly because it’s not a Photoshop trick. People assume that he created ito n the computer first but he didn’t. His twisted sense of humor is great and he doesn’t take things too seriously even though the subject’s matter of social commentary is serious.
GE: So tell us about the work you just did for the Jonathan LeVine shows.
SF: The work I did for Jonathan was deconstructing the motifs that have been used to intimidate – the monolithic motifs for ani-war. I did 2 spaces for that show. The 6600 space I did was the most ambitious setup that I’ve ever done. I created five 11 x 16 foot installations to be the most engaging installs so far. I added more detail, which is gallery oriented along with the large-scale street sized work. Then for Jonathan’s gallery I had the most ambitious setup so far: 80 pieces and a bunch of street art that I’d done.
One thing I’d like to get across is that even in that Brooklyn show with those immense pieces, they’re all made with the same screen printing, stenciling and painting tools and techniques that I’ve always used. I want to empower the average person to be inspired to create something amazing using everyday ingredients. Like punk rock, you didn’t have to be a technical virtuoso to make those graphics. In my art I’m trying to keep it where it feels like people could do it if they empowered themselves.
GE: Have you been influenced by Rick Griffin’s work?
SF: I love Rick Griffin’s work, he’s amazing. There’s some billboard in Hollywood right known, right? Is that unaltered?
GE: Yes, that’s the original piece that he did in ’77. It’s all hand painted. It’s 16 x 48 feet and he never used a projector. Ed Thomas actually saved that for 30 years and then they put that back up. I think it’s only up for a couple weeks.
So what’s up for the future for you?
SF: I’m continuing the body of work for E Pluribus Venom. But there will be an overlap of that work and the new pieces that I’m making. Then I’ll take a year off from showing and make the new work because I feel like I’m getting close to the final stages of this body of work. So now I’m feeling like I need the time to experiment and fail and come back with some new materials and techniques and not become trapped by the body of work that I’ve built and become known for.
JONATHAN LEVINE ON SHEPARD AND MORE
GE: So what was the first time you heard about Shepard Fairey?
JLV: I saw an article written in ’96, a little blurb about him for the Helen Stickler documentary “Andre The Giant Has A Posse”.
GE: What were you doing at that time in your life?
JLV: I was an independent curator doing shows at CBGB’s, which I did for 6 years before I had Tin Man Alley. At that time I was showing Coop and Kozik.
NS: What was the big show with Shepard like, and how was that different from the past shows you’ve had with him?
JLV: For me it was definitely overwhelmingly good. There was a lot of work and between our 2 teams of people we put up a double exhibition – one Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (DUMBO), the other at my gallery in Chelsea. We had a huge turnout and sold more than any artist at any time and got more press than ever before. We were written up 4, count them, 4 days in a row in the New York Times. What it did was raise the awareness of Shepard and brought in much more legitimacy to the street art scene and got a lot more attention for a lot of other artists as well.
GE: How much time did all of this take?
JLV: We got it done in a couple of months, and because of the staff we have and the ability to navigate New York, we had an incredible event. We had an electrician come out and set up the place for the month. To give you an idea of what something like this can cost to start, we had to install an air conditioner for just that one night for the opening, and that alone cost 15 grand. So you see what an undertaking and labor of absolute love that this was. These things are amazingly expensive. The average viewer or event planner would have no idea what goes into these sorts of exhibitions. It’s not about making money no matter what you want to think.
GE: I remember you in New York as the one new guy back in the day that was doing the new stuff, the Lords of Lowbrow at Ozone.
JLV: Yes, but mostly out of bars. Ron English , Eric White, Coop. And the bars were great places to showcase the young artists that were coming up.
GE: You were the guy from the very beginning showing Van Arno and Ausgang.
JLV: Yes, and underground comic artists that, with the exception of Robert Williams, no one even cares about anymore. No one talks about the classic artists of that time. But that illustrative work changed things and Shepard was right there when it happened.
NS: So what’s next for you?
JLV: I’m doing a big European show with Space Invader, Dface, Blek le Rat, and 3 Italian artists that are amazing. I don’t think we’ll do that huge build out with a space like that anytime soon though. It’s a matter of curating shows in other spaces like what we do in Miami, or in art fairs. The last one at Scope in Miami was great.
GE: What about Basel?
JLV: I may curate some shows, but right now I’m committed to shows in Brazil, London, etc. And with the Internet, it’s almost better to put the money toward another project like Shepard’s and build more press rather than risk the time waste of a boring or exhausting fair.