Hope helped make Shepard Fairey one of the biggest street artists on the planet, and hope is still what drives some of his most monumental work—even as he finds himself living in Donald Trump’s America.
The South Carolina–born, Los Angeles–based artist already had a cult following when his red, white, and blue portrait of a stylized, stencilled Barack Obama went viral during the 2008 American presidential election campaign. Emblazoned with the word HOPE, it captured the optimism of what seems now like a long-lost era.
The instantly iconic image remains the 49-year-old artist’s best-known work. But is it still indicative of his mood? Yes, it turns out, as he’ll show with a major new 20-storey, environment-themed mural at Georgia and Burrard streets that he’s about to paint for the Vancouver Mural Festival and the Burrard Arts Foundation (BAF). Hope also drives the rest of his artworks as he does battle with the dividing forces of the current POTUS and the globe at large.
“I’m motivated by a belief that actions matter and people are capable of being compassionate and not just selfish or greedy,” Fairey tells the Straight from his studio in L.A., where he’s just returned from projects in Paris, Grenoble, and Williamsburg. “I would be extremely demotivated if I didn’t have that hope or optimism.”
Fairey admits he never seriously contemplated the possibility that Donald J. Trump could get elected in 2016.
In the ensuing years, he’s used his high-profile art—everything from murals and gallery paintings to stickers and posters—to comment on and question Trump-era issues like migration, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March. The worries about climate change that have driven two huge murals in Paris, and now the equally enormous Earth Justice in Vancouver, also stem from Washington politics. “The left believes in science, the right doesn’t,” he says with a sardonic laugh.
And now the prospect of a 2020 election looms large in the activist artist’s mind.
Election Day 2016 was a kind of awakening for Fairey. “It felt like I was alerted to the fact that 50 percent of my neighbourhood might be serial killers,” he says. “All of my foundational principles I thought I could rely upon are in question now. I think people sometimes make bad decisions, but it was very terrifying to me. Democracy has to be coupled with people who believe in public service and the public good. I just dislike the idea that as a species we make progress and then we move backwards again.”
What may be most fascinating about Fairey’s art is that while it acts as sharp social critique, it is neither heavy-handed nor partisan. Instead, through a sometimes collagelike layering of imagery and type, he refers as much to the language of advertising as to those of old-school stencilling and silk-screened punk-rock posters.
It’s a style that first draws the viewer in, then prompts hard questions. One recent project uses the curlicue writing of the Coca-Cola logo to spell out “Crude Oil”; another series depicts culturally diverse faces from the Women’s March in the patriotic red, white, and blue of a political campaign poster.
“The day after the inauguration, that series went viral almost to the same degree as the ‘Hope’ pieces,” says Fairey, who’s showing those images in Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent, an exhibition at BAF. “Those were three nonfamous people; they were meant to be archetypes. So I was really proud that they were embraced as symbols.”
His is a visual language that makes him unique in the exciting generation of street artists that he’s a big part of (along with Britain’s shit-disturbing Banksy). And it’s one whose roots run deep into the rebellious spirit of skateboarding and punk-rock culture Fairey was drawn to as a teen, and still loves.
It’s not overstating things to say that both are responsible for the person he is today. In a personal essay in the just-released book More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk, Fairey writes that the once-underground movements literally saved his life when he was attending a private prep school in Charleston in the ’80s.
“I was miserable, mean, desperate, and about to blow,” he recalls. “Then I discovered skateboarding and its partner in visceral rebellion, punk rock. Contrary to the common belief that punk amplifies angry feelings and leads to aggressive and antisocial behaviour, it actually diffused those feelings in me, or at least channeled them in more constructive ways.”
To summarize his approach, he points to the lyrics of the Clash’s “Clampdown”, the song being used right now in Democratic leadership candidate Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.
“The lyrics are ‘Let fury have the hour, anger can be power/D’you know that you can use it,’ ” he quotes.
“Some people that love skateboarding and punk rock, they sort of stick with a nihilism. And then there are other people who use it for an inspiration to say ‘I won’t be told the right way to think or act. I will analyze those decisions, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take part in a broader conversation.’
“It’s what I call the inside-outside strategy: where the mainstream doesn’t give me an opportunity, I’ll work outside it,” he adds. “And that’s punk rock.”
Inspired and fascinated by the strong DIY ethic preached by bands like Black Flag, Fairey committed himself to creating his own career path.
“To make an analogy, I saw street art as a means of self-distribution bypassing the major labels,” he writes in More Fun in the New World. “In the case of my world, the major labels being the galleries.”
Fairey’s breakout project happened in 1989, when he was still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. While there, he created a sticker showing the wrestler Andre the Giant with the words “Andre the Giant has a posse,” and stuck them all over the streets of New York City and beyond. Those morphed into stickers and posters bearing the commands “OBEY” and “OBEY GIANT,” with the aim of sparking curiosity as well as questioning propaganda and authority.
The work grew into a mass street-art campaign, eventually lending its name to Fairey’s skater-cool OBEY Clothing (which will see a pop-up at the Chinatown store El Kartel during the fest).
Apparel is just one of the ways Fairey now spreads his ideas. His artworks sit in collections everywhere from the Smithsonian to the Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He’s created album art for the Smashing Pumpkins, will.i.am, Flogging Molly, and Interpol. In what may be the ultimate sign of an underground artist hitting the mainstream, he’s even voiced himself in an episode of The Simpsons.
With all that in mind, bringing Fairey’s work to this cityscape for the first time is an undeniable coup for both BAF (which is using it to kick off the Surface Series, a biennial large-scale mural project) and its collaborators at the Vancouver Mural Festival.
“Over the past four years, Vancouver Mural Festival has created hundreds of murals across the region,” fest executive director David Vertesi tells the Straight by phone. “Though most of our muralists are local, international guest artists have been an amazing way to inspire our imaginations, connect us to the global community, and them to us. Shepard Fairey is one of the most important muralists of all time. We couldn’t be more excited to have such a massive and meaningful piece of public art created in collaboration with Vancouver Mural Festival 2019.”
Launching next Thursday (August 8), Earth Justice will depict a stylized Earth being cradled by a pair of hands. Fairey points out that the colours are a bit different for him. The early L.A. punk records that reshaped his world—Black Flag’s Damaged, X’s Los Angeles, Fear’s The Record, and Youth Brigade’s Sound and Fury—leaned heavily on the colour combination of black and red. Admiring the visual power of that combo, as well as understanding it was cheaper to print in two colours, Fairey went on to use them in most of his artwork. Earth Justice will see him working in shades of blue that suggest water and air. Stretching over 10,000 square feet, it’s one of the largest murals Fairey has ever taken on, and its scale and profile offer unique opportunities.
“The amazing thing about big murals is they are interacting with the entire city, changing the entire cityscape,” Fairey says. “It’s art that is accessible; people are encountering it in their daily lives and don’t have to go to a gallery or a museum to see it.
“With monolithic art like this, usually we think of government signage or advertising, and those are meant to be one-way conversations,” he continues. “This is a message of treating the Earth gently and being an Earth champion.”
The climate crisis has long weighed on this father of two, especially after he saw the 2006 alarm-bell documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But lately, he feels like humankind is at a tipping point. Talking about the issue, he gets pissed off not only at a president who can deny global warming, but at the way politicians prioritize other issues, like terrorism or automation, when humanity’s survival is at stake.
Still, as ever, Fairey is not about to hit passersby over the head with his message in Earth Justice.
“When people are assaulted by so many visual messages all day long, whether on their phones or on the streets, you need something that has enough simplicity and power to be quickly digestible and yet not be generic,” he explains. “I know people are stubborn. When people try to tell them what to do, they don’t want to do it. I’m one of them; I get that. I don’t like people telling me what to do. So what I’m thinking is ‘How can I do something that works in this space that is maybe imagery or symbols that will have some latitude for interpretation and will provoke thought or potential conversation?’ I always want people to think of hard topics but not avert their eyes because the imagery is so contentious.”
Expect Fairey to address more of those hard topics, interwoven with hope, as the clock ticks ever closer to 2020.
The Vancouver Mural Festival runs from Thursday (August 1) to August 10. Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent runs at BAF from next Thursday (August 8) to September 28. Shepard Fairey’s OBEY Clothing has a pop-up at El Kartel and then he performs a DJ set at Fortune Sound Club on Wednesday (August 7).