The Street Artist Who Won’t Quit: The Story Of Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey is the man behind the Obama “Hope” posters, but he’s open about his disappointment with Obama’s presidency. While he’s promoted putting all of his profits from art into causes and social issues, Fairey is also one of the wealthiest street artists to have ever lived. A type 1 diabetic, the artist has been jailed a dozen times for illegal street art and has gotten terribly sick while sitting in a jail cell. Here we take a look at the controversial career of the street artist who just won’t quit.

Shepard Fairey’s Roots Are In Guerilla Art

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

During his college years, Shepard Fairey began making a name for himself creating stickers with his stencil art. He also grew his passion for street art, which comes with problems of its own. Street artists’ work is often an expression of protest, whether social or political, and the artists do not have permission to use their medium. While some communities embrace the art that appears in their neighborhoods, others call it vandalism. This leads to a backlash against the artist, which only seems to fuel their drive to take to the streets once again. As you’ll see, Fairey has ended up on both sides of this street art argument.

Fairey Creates “André The Giant Has A Posse”

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During his college years, Shepard Fairey began making a name for himself with the likeness of André the Giant. Fairey said, “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 André the Giant Has a Posse, and it was sort of appropriated from hip-hop slang.”

Strangely enough, the sticker is what would start getting Fairey’s name and his medium out there. The stickers began appearing throughout Providence (where Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey’s school was located) and other major cities on the east coast. As a result, many people began to take notice.

The Artist Did Not Think It Would Take Off

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“I thought it would only be a few weeks of mischief. At first, I was only thinking about the response from my clique of art school and skateboard friends. The fact that a larger segment of the public would not only notice, but investigate, the unexplained appearance of the stickers was something I had not contemplated. When I started to see reactions and consider the sociological forces at work surrounding the use of public space and the insertion of a very eye-catching but ambiguous image, I began to think there was the potential to create a phenomenon,” Fairey told AIGA, the Professional Associated for Design.

It wasn’t long before he learned how the law could interfere with his art…

Fairey’s First Encounters With The Law

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With the popularity of the André the Giant stencil growing, Fairey began to see how the law could interfere with his art. Titan Sports, Inc. threatened to sue Fairey in 1994 for using the trademarked name “André the Giant.” Fairey responded by creating an even more iconic stencil of André the Giant’s face pasting the slogan “OBEY” underneath. “When I came up with the tagline ‘OBEY’ for my work, it was based on the idea that there are forces all around us that have agendas, but they are frequently unspoken,” Fairey explained to Interview. “I thought it would make people think about all the mechanisms of control out there.”

How The “Hope” Poster Came About

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The Barack Obama “Hope” Poster is arguably Fairey’s most well-known work, aside from his OBEY Giant legacy. He originally used the word “PROGRESS” on the poster, thinking that Obama would hit the status quo towards social progress. “I did the poster without any input from the campaign—I just did it as a grassroots thing… when I heard that [the campaign] did like the image, my friend who was sort of the liaison said, ‘They love the image, but they really like the word HOPE or CHANGE better…'” Fairey explained, adding that he decided to go with HOPE because, “It’s also hard to be anti-hope.”

The Stylistic Choices Of The “Hope” Poster

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“I wanted to make an image that deracialized Obama, where he’s not a black man, but a nationalized man. And then, secondly, when a person is turned into a stylized or idealized icon, it means that someone has decided that the person is worthy of this treatment, and the viewer then maybe takes a step back and says, ‘Well, they’ve been validated by someone, so maybe I should look at them a little more closely and decide whether they’re worthy of that validation,'” Fairey explained to Interview. While the work is stylistically similar to the rest of his work, Fairey decided to use a different, more patriotic color scheme.

Fairey Gets Sued For Copyright Infringement

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The poster was an instant success and Fairey sold hundreds of them on the street after they were printed. Not surprisingly, though, the poster’s popularity caused Fairey to come under more legal trouble. “The image was created from a news photograph from a 2006 panel on Darfur that Obama attended, so it didn’t have anything to do with the campaign. I feel like what I did was both aesthetically and conceptually transformative. I think it’s fair use, but the Associated Press think it’s copyright infringement, and they’re really going after me. It would bankrupt me entirely if they won, so I’m hoping, for the sake of creative expression and political speech, that that doesn’t happen,” Fairey said in 2010.

Fairey Gets Charged For Lying In Court

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Fairey’s legal battle with the Associated Press culminated when Fairey admitted to originally lying about the actual photo he used to create the poster. Although he had a strong case in regards to fair use of the photo, he undermined it when it came to light that he went so far as to destroy and fabricate evidence in the case. “I was ashamed that I had done these things, and I knew I should have corrected my actions,” Fairey said according to The New York Times. Urged to settle out of court, Fairey agreed to never use an AP photo without a licensing agreement. There was also an undisclosed financial settlement between the two parties.

The Photographer Likes The Poster

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To further complicate the matter, the photographer who took the photo in question, Mannie Garcia, told The New York Times that he owns the copyright to the photo — not the Associated Press — according to his contract with them at the time. “I don’t condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet. But in this case I think it’s a very unique situation… If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had,” Garcia said in 2009.

Fairey Has Been Arrested 16 Times

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As a street artist, Fairey’s guerilla tactics for putting up his work have earned him many encounters with the law. In fact, he’s been behind bars at least 16 times. Fairey has often been apprehended at the airport upon returning home after the authorities of a city he was just in issued a warrant for his arrest. It seems that he is usually let go, since he either turns himself in or the police end up letting the charges go. However, in June of 2015 Fairey was booked on a felony fugitive warrant when he tried to get through security at the Los Angeles Airport. The City of Detroit had placed a felony warrant out for his arrest for damage to property around the city.

His Health Has Suffered Because Of Jail Stints

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Of his jail time, Fairey told Paper Magazine, “[The] longest I’ve ever actually spent in jail is three days. I’ve had to pay a lot of fines and I’ve been on probation multiple times. I’m a diabetic and the only tattoo I have says ‘diabetic,’ because every time I was arrested early on, they would take my insulin away. It’s barbaric; I’m not a drama queen, but I’ve feared for my life several times in jail, and gotten incredibly sick… I’m really careful now, because I have a wife and kids, and I don’t want to lose my life in jail over street art.”

Fairey Still Loves His Art, Despite The Risks

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His experiences with the law haven’t stopped Fairey from taking his art directly to the streets. He told Paper Magazine, “Street art is important to me because it goes directly in front of people. There’s no bureaucracy… I consider street art to have courage and defiance and something tangible; when people experience that, whether they like it or not, there’s a greater impact. Some people are ired, some people are inspired. Also, it’s something that anybody can do, as long as they’re willing to deal with the consequences if they get caught. What’s always been important to me is self-empowerment and a do-it-yourself approach.”

Fairey Changed His Approach

Fairey Changed His Approach

Photo: Amy Tierney/WireImage

Fairey’s early propaganda work set the precedent of him using his medium to stand up for what he believes in. He told Interview, “I created the Obama image with a little bit of a different intention than a lot of other stuff that I make… I worked very hard in 2004 to make anti-Bush imagery. But then Bush got reelected, and so I thought I needed to reevaluate my approach to mainstream politics. At that point, I’d had a kid, a daughter, and as the 2008 election campaign was beginning… I started to think, ‘This isn’t about me augmenting my existing brand of pissed-off rebellion. This is about my daughters’ future.'”

Shepard Fairey Was Disappointed By Obama

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Jesse Grant/WireImage via Getty Images

After all was said and done, Fairey later admitted that he wasn’t even impressed by Obama’s presidency. When Esquire asked Fairey if he thinks Obama lived up to his “Hope” poster, Fairey said, “Not even close… Obama has had a really tough time, but there have been a lot of things that he’s compromised on that I never would have expected. I mean, drones and domestic spying are the last things I would have thought [he’d support]. I’ve met Obama a few times, and I think Obama’s a quality human being, but I think that he finds himself in a position where your actions are largely dictated by things out of your control.”

He Doesn’t Care If He Loses Fans Over His Work

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Of course, Fairey can’t be bothered by people’s accusations. He told Interview, “I think the biggest thing that people fear when it comes to art becoming a business is those authentic, pure aspirations of art being compromised. But I’ve never put business before what I’ve wanted to say. One of the reasons I worked for years as a graphic designer was that I knew I’d have a solid income. So if I made an anti-Bush or anti-war-in-Iraq poster when it was an unpopular position, it wouldn’t matter that 25 percent of my e-mail group unsubscribed—which is actually what happened at the time.”

Fairey Isn’t Going Anywhere

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As a street artist who is at risk of being caught, Fairey says he doesn’t want to remain anonymous. “One of the things that I decided when I was arrested for my first really big stunt in 1990… was that I’m inevitably going to be caught, as so whatever I do, I want to feel like I can stand behind it. Even if it’s illegal, I want to say that I’m a taxpayer and I think public space should be for more than just advertising. I don’t want to keep my identity a secret just because I don’t want to take responsibility.”

OBEY Clothing Stems From Fairey’s Project

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In 2001, Fairey founded OBEY clothing, which derived from his OBEY Giant project. He began selling t-shirts and hats under the OBEY brand. Usually, his designs would be in line with a cause he supports, with 100 percent of the proceeds from clothes featuring that design going to the corresponding cause. Fairey told Interview, “I’ve sort of built the whole Obey thing around the idea that all these people can work on the art side and the business side and this sort of utopian ideal of art and commerce working in harmony somehow functions.”

He Started As A Graphic Designer

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Paul Redmond/WireImage via Getty Images

In the mid-’90s, Fairey was a co-founder of BLK/MRKT Inc., which specialized in guerilla marketing. It was during this time that Fairey worked for some pretty big companies, such as Pepsi, Hasbro, and Netscape. Fairey is even credited with designing the red dinosaur that previously was the logo and mascot for mozilla.org. Although he made a name for himself as a street artist, designing for big-name corporations was a good way for him to keep earning money to be able to fund his street projects.

But deals with companies such as Nike led to the beginnings of Fairey being called a sell-out.

From Street Artist To Sell Out?

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Vince Bucci/Getty Images

It comes as no surprise that people of the art world would accuse Shepard Fairey of selling out when he came out with his clothing line and business partnerships, but he remains adamant that he is in it for the art. According to Business Insider, Fairey said, “I’ve been hearing some cries of ‘SELLOUT!’ over the various products for sale. I put all the profits back into more stickers and posters for the street because that is my love, not money. People have different reasons for liking GIANT and I can understand people not wanting to see it leave the underground niche it has enjoyed for so many years. All I can say is that even in the commercial applications of OBEY/GIANT I am attempting to retain the rebellious spirit of the street project.”

Fairey Has Contributed A Lot To The Entertainment Industry

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Two years later in 2003, Fairey and his wife Amanda founded Studio Number One design agency. Studio Number One is the design geniuses behind plenty of projects within the entertainment industry. Their most notable work includes the cover art for The Black Eyed Peas’ fourth studio album, Monkey Business. Studio Number One was also commissioned to create a poster for the film Walk the Line, that came out in 2005. If you think that’s pretty cool, Fairey also designed cover art for The Smashing Pumpkins, Flogging Molly, Led Zeppelin, and Anthrax. With all these great opportunities, still, Fairey was labeled a sell-out.