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Artist: Shepard Fairey

 

Although he is one of a handful of street artists who have made a safe transition to the gallery, he is still an active figure on the streets of cities around the world, whether through new works or the iconic OBEY, which continues to spread. Fairey was one of the first viral street artists, a powerful dissenter and, eventually one of the most outwardly political artists of our time.

 

Shepard Fairey is a polarizing figure in the world of street art. His major works have made as much of an impact as the works of Space Invader and Banksy, although Fairey does not hide his face or change his voice when appearing on camera. His art is distinctly political, and Fairey frequently supports social causes and opposes corporate influence. 

 

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Fairey had a reasonably comfortable childhood. He attended the Idyllwild Arts Academy and the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992. A longtime skateboarder, Shepard easily became absorbed in the world of street art, and while he was still attending school, he began experimenting with using stickers on stop signs and walls.

In 1989, Fairey made his first major viral work, although at the time concepts like “viral” didn’t exist in relation to art. Fairey created an image simple and confusing enough to spread rapidly across the United States through word-of-mouth and an untold number of sticker sheets. “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” was a portrait of wrestler and actor Andre the Giant with a scrawled message next to the Giant’s head. Fairey had no political purpose in mind when designing the image, simply hoping to inspire his viewers to think about their surroundings. He soon removed all of the color from the image and wrote “OBEY” in a stylized font beneath it, borrowing the slogan from John Carpenter’s anti-authority horror movie, “They Live!”

OBEY caught on, and within a few years, Fairey’s stickers were on stop signs, walls and college campuses across the United States. The more the OBEY message spread, the more importance people attributed to the perceived message of resistance and purposeful opposition to corporations, politicians and authority figures. “It gains real power from perceived power,” Fairey said later.

“Question everything,” Fairey said when asked about the messages behind his images. As vague as this may seem to the uninitiated, the message resonated with the urban art community; OBEY became arguably the most ubiquitous, infamous street image of the 1990s.

In 2008, it seemed as though Fairey would never have a press interview that described him as anything but the creator of the OBEY sticker. Fairey probably wouldn’t have minded that fate–many artists struggle in obscurity their entire lives without creating a single well-known piece, and OBEY’s popularity had exceeded his wildest dreams. However, he was about to introduce his most successful and controversial work to date. Fairey created a number of posters for Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, using stylized portraits of the Senator with words like “Progress,” “Vote,” “Change” and “Vote” displayed across the bottom in large letters. The posters spread and were parodied by conservatives and embraced by Obama’s supporters. Talking heads on TV debated the significance of the portrait and Obama himself sent Fairey a note of thanks. The 2008 election was one of the most viciously contested in recent history, and Fairey’s image undoubtedly had some effect on the result. Some cities, including Obama’s home city of Chicago, put up hundreds of copies. The Smithsonian even obtained a copy of the portrait for their permanent collection. Almost overnight, Fairey was one of the biggest names in contemporary art.

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