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From Wide-Eyed Nation Magazine, May 1, 2008:

Shepard's Hope

Part I Shepard Fairey interview. by: Benjamin Hunter

Wide-Eyed: You give props to Marshall McLuhan on your site using the coined phrase “The Medium is the Message.” Being a fan of the phenomenological approach to interpretation, you ask your audience to make their own interpretation of your work, essentially assigning their own meaning to it. How does this dynamic come into play when conveying imagery which has political overtones?

Shepard Fairey: There are a couple of different approaches that I am taking with my work. The phenomenological aspect of it was the central thing that I was pushing at the beginning with it because no one knew what it was. So every single viewer was interpreting it with their own set of ideas and experiences, with no real preconceived ideas about it. That was great because it functioned like a Rorschach test, where everyone’s interpretation was a reflection of their personality. That was really cool, and I have tried to keep some of the images that I think were part of what’s worked so well about that approach within my quiver, and they are put out there. There is always a little bit of the phenomenology that I am pushing, but then I realize that there is a point of entry in a project where people go, “What is this thing?’ Then hopefully in thinking, “What is this thing?” they begin to go, “Well, what is that thing… and that thing,” and it’s got a domino effect. But then once they figure out that, “Oh, it’s this guy that is trying to get me to question everything,” then I have their attention and I can put out images that have a little more obvious political position. Then, at least hopefully, they have a frame of reference where I am not just trying to tell people how to think, but I’m just asking them to think in general. It’s a real struggle in trying to find the balance in being both topical and open-ended. You are never going to please everyone. There are people that said when I began that I was way too obtuse and that I wasn’t willing to stand behind any specific idea because I was scared to be called on the carpet about it, where they would say, “Hey, that can mean whatever you want it to mean,” - and that was lazy. Then I have the people saying now that I have become too didactic, and that I am a stick in the mud now, that I am too political with everything, that there isn’t this sort of fun, open to interpretation, free-associative aspect to it anymore. So I just go with what feels right to me. The one thing that I love about street art and the idea of “The Medium is the Message” is that when you put something up on the street, it doesn’t really matter what the content of it is. It could be completely content free or it could have a message, but it is politicized in that you are saying, ‘I’m going to express myself, even if it is illegal.’ So that is a political act to say, ‘Even though I am not a huge corporation, and I am not a member of the government, I can still have a voice,’ - and that’s political.

WE: You have been involved in several campaigns where the aggregate result of your work becomes a contribution to a cause of social justice. Aside from the Obama campaign, which campaign were you most adamant about making a statement for?

SF: This campaign that I did for the genocide in Darfur. I was pretty moved by that cause because entire villages are being displaced, the women are being raped, the villages are being burned - it’s ethnic cleansing. There are Arab Janjaweed militias displacing the native Black African population. It is funded mostly by oil that is paid for by China and their relationship with the government of Sudan, which is Arab run. And that is why a lot of people are boycotting the Olympics. A guy that was over there, who had been in the military and then got a job with the African National Congress, he did a book and a documentary called The Devil Came on Horseback and it is just heartbreaking to see the stuff. To think of how good I have it and how most people have it in the United States, and then to see this stuff… it’s crazy that we would say that we went into Iraq for humanitarian reasons and we are not sending troops into Darfur. So that was something that I felt really strongly about. I don’t really get involved with anything that I don’t feel strongly about. I have done stuff for the environment. I did stuff for The 11th Hour. I feel like global warming is a really important issue, like one of the most important issues out there. There is a ton of stuff that I would like to do, but there just isn’t enough time in the day. I’m in a privileged position right now where I can work on charity stuff, because I make enough money to be able to do it. A lot of people, they are living so hand-to-mouth, they feel like they are the ones that deserve charity. It’s that sort of position that the powers that be rely on people being in, that they don’t have the time to step back and look at the big picture and participate in a meaningful way. All I am trying to do is bring some awareness to these causes, and through my art, generate some funds for them. I feel like I am not trying to be self-righteous about it at all. I’m just lucky that I am in a position where that feels like the right thing to do. It’s not a public relations thing, either. It’s just stuff that I want to do. I would just donate money, but the only way that I can generate money and publicity simultaneously is through my art. So there is this sort of publicity aspect to it.

WE: It is the currency in which you can participate.

SF: Exactly, it’s the currency for me. I mean, when I first did the Obama poster for example, I had no idea… I just wanted to help out his campaign. I had no idea whether or not people would buy a poster of Obama. I guess I was being an idiot and not paying very close attention to the climate of things. So I put the Obey logo inside his logo knowing that my collectors would have to get it just because it had an Obey logo on it. So I was like, ‘For sure I’ll generate enough money to do a small poster campaign.’ But then, if you noticed I did not put my logo in the big offset run edition of 50,000 posters we have done. I didn’t want to look like I’m trying to hijack Obama’s currency. I don’t want it to look like it’s just Obey/Shepard Fairey self-promotion, even though I am proud to be associated with him and for people to know that I am behind him. It’s a very delicate thing.

WE: In an op-ed piece on April 12th, in the LA Times, by Meghan Daum, you come under fire for your Obama campaign posters. She states, “There’s an unequivocal sense of idol worship, a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality, (b) a controversial American figure who has been assassinated, or (c) one of those people from the Warhol silk-screen that you don’t recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way.” How do you respond to criticism like this, knowing your intentions are pure and knowing all of the time you have dedicated to the Obama movement?

SF: I had a long conversation with that woman, and by the time it was over I could tell what angle she was going to take with the piece, because she kept saying, “Yeah, but, don’t you think it has like kind of a creepy, third-world dictator, Che Guevara kind of feel to it?” I was like, ‘No, I don’t, actually.’ I respond to a lot of that kind of imagery, and there is no doubt that a lot of that kind of imagery is stuff that I look at. But, I intentionally made this image using a red, white, and blue-USA color palate and I tried to use an image of Obama that felt like a fairly, friendly image. I said, ‘I think that you (Meghan Daum) are suffering from residue McCarthyism, or something.’ And I don’t think she liked hearing that. I said to her, ‘I think that you underestimate the sophistication of the younger voter. You underestimate their ability to be able to differentiate between this very positive iconic statement about Obama, from a more totalitarian approach to this kind of imagery.’ I told her that I just honestly didn’t think that she was very graphically sophisticated. She at least included the part that I mentioned about how FDR’s Works Progress Administration, had used a very similar aesthetic. But what I really think this [LA Times article] touches on is the power of paranoia. When fear is associated with anything, it will frequently overpower the positive. So, if Soviet propaganda and Nazi propaganda and that scared you, and then you had the Works Progress Administration stuff next to it, like ten years later, because they knew that the content of the Nazi and Soviet stuff, they were ideologically opposed to it and may remember it more. But I feel that I have the opportunity in a lot of ways to reverse that thinking. This is because good art and good graphics are just good graphics. Everything may have a little bit of cultural baggage, but one thing that made me want to use more of a reductive poster style that is similar to the style of a lot of propaganda posters, is that it is just effective graphics, more so than an ideological connection to the way that the form has been historically used. There where plenty of Vietnam protest posters that were clearly not having anything to do with Fascist dictators that were rendered in this style. I think that a lot of the younger more sophisticated people are responding super-positively to the image. And it is on Obama’s website. I read something like forty posts and only one out of those forty said it looked like a Russian poster, it was almost all positive. I think that Meghan [LA Times Columnist] was just a little bit paranoid and wanted to put that across. She printed the image, so it is at least not up to people’s imaginations to think that it has fangs and a swastika. The image is there and I think that it speaks for itself.

WE: You have been a strong critic of the Bush administration and the wars that have ensued underneath his administration. What movements of justice are you looking to tackle when Obama is president?

SF: Hopefully, Obama is president. Well, you guys are making that presumption not me; I don’t like to jinx things.

WE: We have to put it out to the universe...

SF: Bush has definitely been a great fuel for angry art, but I think that just as big a topic is the environment, and global warming, and fossil fuel consumption. It is not as easy to make art with simplistic metaphors for that stuff, but I think that I have gotten a lot of anti-war stuff out of my system, and hopefully a lot of people have gotten that out of their system, and they are ready for it to be done. That is going to be a topic that can be put on the shelf for a minute if Obama does get elected. A lot of the themes in my work are timeless, which is authority abusing power, and that is going to be true whether Obama is president or Bush is president. I’ll continue to work on pieces with the environment, and disparity in income, and big corporations trying to affect legislation and being in bed with government. I mean, there are so many different things that need to be critiqued. You know a lot of the stuff that I do is about things that I see as positive, like counterculture figures like musicians and people like Noam Chomsky, and celebrating people that have questioned the status-quo and have been thinkers and doers. Then some stuff I just enjoy that has a sense of humor. I’m working on a graphic for a tee shirt right now, it’s a bird on the roof of a barn with a match in his hand and a gas can with a speaker on it. Then the barn says ‘Disco’ on its side and the roof is on fire, and it just says, “We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn.” It’s just like the celebration of life in an irreverent way. I think that is important to me. There are so many things to make art about, that I don’t think who ever is president is going to keep me from having good things to make art about.

(Part II in next month’s issue of Wide-Eyed)

From Wide-Eyed Nation Magazine, June 1, 2008:

Shepard's Hope

Part II Shepard Fairey interview. by: Benjamin Hunter

Wide-Eyed: Your pieces are honest projections of your frustrations with pollution, war, capitalism, greed, etc… You whole-heartedly take on these situations in a number of your works. At what moment in your life - not as an artist — did you begin to consciously engage in a critique of what is wrong with the world that needs addressing?

Shepard Fairey: There’s not a moment, I don’t think. Some of the first times that I can remember thinking that maybe the government doesn’t have my best interests in mind, or maybe not all adults have their shit together, things like that, was I think listening to the Dead Kennedys second album Plastic Surgery Disasters in 1984. I mean, I was already listening to The Clash and The Sex Pistols and things like that, and they had a general spirit of rebellion and critique of the status quo. It maybe laid the groundwork for me looking at my own government and my own social system that I was involved in, even on a local level in South Carolina. Punk rock was the catalyst, The Dead Kennedys, specifically. I remember this song called “Bleed for Me” where Jello is saying, “We need fuel, but to get it we need puppets. So what’s ten million dead if it’s keeping out the Russians?” He was talking about installing dictators in other countries. It doesn’t matter the cost of human life as long as we got oil, et cetera, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that stuff makes sense to me.’ Then once that door starts opening, it’s like a flood, where you start to question things more and pay attention and scrutinize. For me as an artist, maintaining that tradition of questioning things and encouraging another generation to do it is very important to me.

WE: Can you say that there are instructors in your academic background that you gleaned this attitude from? Were there those that influenced you in art school?

SF: I went to a very conservative private school as a kid, which was really oppressive - and which you could say is helpful in that I was reacting against it. And I was saying, ‘There has got to be something different than this out there, because this is absolute torture.’ You know, there was no room for creativity or any free-spirited behavior. So then my senior year of high school, I went to an arts boarding school out in California and had a teacher that was teaching an American Foreign Policy class. He was talking about the Vietnam War and I didn’t really understand the dynamics behind the Vietnam War. He was a hippie and had an explanation of our policies and how fucked they were in Vietnam, and all the way up to the present time, which was 1987 for me. He was talking about the Star Wars Program and how the Star Wars Program was a destabilizing program because anything that is defensive means you can defend yourself and you can be offensive without repercussion. That tends to make people nervous and make them think about how can they be more offensive and then there is this trigger finger situation that is created. That was a big thing for me because I think that I always had the preconceived idea that, ‘The US are the good guys and we wouldn’t go into a war without the best intentions.’ Even after having listened to punk rock, and the Dead Kennedys, and Millions of Dead Cops, and groups like that, I still felt like, ‘Well, it’s probably good to question things, but they sound still a little conspiracy theory-ish.’ That teacher really laid the facts out in a way that was important to me. That had nothing to do with art teaching. At that time, I was doing drawings of my skateboard and things that weren’t really political, but eventually it all sort of converged. I wanted to make art which was inspired by skateboard graphics and punk rock and propaganda posters. With my politics it was just logical to eventually converge.

WE: What are your thoughts on doing commercial art, when at your core you are a political artist?

SF: It’s something that almost any artist that doesn’t make it as a gallery artist instantaneously after leaving art school - which is about 99.9% of people - is going to have to do if they want to make a living using their creative abilities. The choice is: Do I want to work as a waiter or some other job that isn’t art-related in order to keep the idea of artistic purity intact? For me, I always felt like I’d rather be honing my skills as an artist, even if I had to do some commercial things to survive. Also, being part of the world of doing commercial art and understanding it, in some ways, is like an infiltration. Because I always felt like a lot of my work was a reaction to advertising, and sort of understanding the way that advertising works. It would help me not only to work for commercial entities if I needed to make money, but also do stuff that was countering it. It sounds a little bit contradictory, but I think the simplest way for me to put it is that I always used it as sort of a Robin Hood strategy. I will make money doing commercial stuff, and then I will put that into my street art campaign that I think is provocative and tries to get people to question everything that they are inundated with, commercial advertising included. If I had refused to do any commercial work, the scale of my street art project would have been greatly limited because my resources would have been limited. So I would have had no power at all almost, but would have been able to say, ‘Yeah, fuck the man!’ I felt like it was more important to do commercial work - especially when there are a zillion designers lined up to do any commercial job - and that my boycotting doing a graphic for Coca-Cola would not most likely change the outcome of people drinking Coca-Cola or not, but it would definitely change the outcome of whether I can take my project as far as I want to take it. It affords me to travel, put posters up, print posters, you know, pay for flights to go to places and do my thing. It was always something that I would have preferred not to do, but on the other hand there have been a lot of commercial projects that I wanted to do, like a lot of music projects - I love music. Being able to do the Walk the Line poster for the Johnny Cash biopic, or doing the Led Zeppelin album package, or stuff for the Smashing Pumpkins, or the Joe Strummer Telecaster package for Fender — these are all things that if I can help present them in an authentic way, in a commercial context, then I feel like I am doing a service to the commercial application of it. Everything gets co-opted to a degree once it gets to a certain level of popularity, and people get mad about that. But, what I feel they get mad about is that it gets watered down once the application becomes more commercial. When you look at things that people don’t really get mad about, like when the Beatles got really big and they were commercially successful, everything was controlled about their presentation and the way that they wanted it done, and it was always on their own terms. Commercial success on ones own terms should never really be something that is looked down upon, because art and commerce need each other. A lot of people are bitter that what they do doesn’t afford them a living, but then they are also bitter when someone else does afford a living from it. So, I think that I look at everything on a case by case basis. I will not do commercial work for people that I have an ethical conflict with. I have been asked to do stuff for some cigarette companies and some very large gas guzzling car companies, and I wouldn’t do it because its stuff that would very clearly contradict where I am coming from philosophically. Then there are other situations where I don’t think either a product is bad or that I need take a position as a paternalist. I think it is very dangerous when people start behaving like paternalists. I try to just put my opinion out there, but not say, ‘THIS IS MY MANDATE, THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD OR SHOULDN’T DO!’ There is a fine line there, and I sort of think that a lot of people from the street art peanut gallery {laughs} are very happy telling you what you should do.

WE: The next question plays right into that mentality. Hipsters are so guarded about the art they admire and the music that they listen to. They want to have this sense of intimacy, so they are quick to throw away their heroes as soon as they get mass attention. Are we, as a culture, at a point were it can be cool to have mass appeal when the art or the music is true at its core?

SF: I would hope so.

WE: I mean, I hope your Obama project does that, because it is pure, man. You did a pure thing.

SF: Well, thanks. My feeling has always been that hipsters have a naivety; it’s age, it’s an immaturity, and sometimes it’s just a sort of like, fingers in the ears and hands over the eyes simultaneously, like, ‘la-la-la-la, I don’t want to hear it,” sort of attitude. Hipsters to me have sort of developed, for me, a narrow-minded connotation. It is interesting because, I think that there is this perception that if something gets big then it sucks, because it panders to the lowest common denominator. They are also taking the position that there aren’t things that are universal that can be acknowledged as being awesome in a way that resonates with a lot of people and that are undeniable pleasure zones for humankind. I totally disagree with them. There are things that suck because they take the easy watered-down route, and that is why they are seen as mass. Then there are things like Gnarls Barkley’s, “Crazy.” Was that song supposed to be huge? That was like a quirky weird band right? It just happened! What I try to do is, I try to think, ‘What can I do, that is very like me saying exactly what I want to say without watering it down?’ But also, not being intentionally obnoxious and trying to alienate people just so I can say that I am in the “cool club.” When you look at what is cool with hipsters and what is not, a lot of it isn’t about quality, it’s about this sort of period of gestation. It initially is small with the hipsters and then it incubates there, and eventually it grows bigger, and then they abandon it because it has gotten too big. It is the arc of the life span, but it has nothing to due with a quality shift. How old are you?

WE: Thirty.

SF: I’m thirty-eight, so I was twenty-one when Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. I already had Bleach, then Nevermind came out and I bought it like two days after it came out in the store, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a good record, it’s really catchy.’ I would tell people, ‘The new Nirvana record is really good.’ They had just toured with The Melvins which was like my favorite band, so I didn’t listen to that record and go ‘This is going to be huge commercially.’ I was just like, ‘Oh, this is a good record.’ A lot of my friends felt exactly the same thing, and it really spread quickly within the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) scene. It was coming out of every dorm room. Then, like three or four months later, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit number one on the radio. Now a record comes out and it peeks in its first week, Nevermind was like a record that had a build. Then, all of a sudden the backlash starts. People were like, ‘That got big on commercial radio, now it sucks.” No, the record didn’t change at all, it’s not like the mix on the record started to change as it got played more on commercial radio. You liked it three month ago, now it’s not your secret handshake into your little elitist club, so you don’t want it anymore? That says something about the people, not about the band! It didn’t say anything about Nirvana. It says something about the elitist fickle nature of the hipster fan. That was a turning point in my life. Prior to that I had been a little bit of a music Nazi. I had been like, ‘You didn’t like the Stooges or the Sex Pistols like five months ago.’ Like it was some huge span of time, ‘You’re not old school from like five months ago. I’m not down, I’m gonna out you if you try and play that in front of people I know.’ I was a total punk, and then this Nirvana thing happened, and I was like, ‘Wait a second.’ It was a big turning point for me. So I guess I am being very longwinded about getting to my point, but my point is that my Obey Giant campaign is well past the Bleach record phase of the project, I’m like maybe on the In Utero phase of the project. I’m looking at it like there are certain hipsters that don’t like what I am doing just because it has a level of recognition, but how can I sort of continue to move forward in a positive way and not intentionally move away from doing stuff that has a sort of hipster appeal, but then also not rely on that because that can totally stifle me. It is something at this point that would be impossible for me to recover. I would have to just start over with something new and I am comfortable with that. It’s fine. The shit talking on the blogs and stuff is usually from sixteen-year-olds that still live with their parents. They are like, ‘That ain’t real graf, that ain’t real graffiti.’ Well, little do they know I have done thousands of spots, I’ve been arrested thirteen times. It’s funny… a lot of it is a maturity thing.