validation in the art world has done little to scar his street cred; it
behooves both sides to embrace an artist who has disrupted, inspired, and
endured for the better part of three decades—and today, whose work can claim
real estate at London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum and
on an album cover for a hardcore punk band. Without
trepidation, Fairey makes his stances clear, ones that haven’t wavered since
the late ’80s when he first confronted the world with now-ubiquitous images of
Andre the Giant. Through 16+ arrests for vandalism and a grueling legal battle
with the Associated Press after his Barack Obama “Hope” poster became the
emblem of the 2008 presidential campaign, Fairey perseveres, and to listen to
him describe a new body of work, which hijacks the American flag, he finds no
threat in controversy. On the occasion of four new screen prints made in
collaboration with Paul Stolper Gallery
Fairey names screen printing as the cornerstone of his practice, opens up on
the relationship between street art and gallery art, and shares his pointed and
passionate thoughts on the freedoms of an artist, his own included.
Artsy: Can you talk a little
bit about printmaking and its relationship to your practice?
Shepard Fairey: Screen printing is
kind of the cornerstone of my entire practice; it’s what led me in the
direction I evolved in aesthetically. It was the way to synthesize
illustration, graphic design, type design, and to create multiples—I loved the
idea of having not just one precious original. Especially when I got more and
more into street art, it was a way for me to make art and also make images for
the street that I could reproduce on a shoestring budget. There were so many
functional reasons for me to be drawn to screen printing, but also the art
world model of “restrict the supply to increase the demand” and make everything
about preciousness, and scarcity, and the coveted trophy—I was always much more
of a populist; I hated the elitism of the art world. So the idea of making
prints was really important to make the work accessible.
Artsy: What do you feel is
the difference between your street art and gallery art?
SF: Street art is meant to be free
for the public to view, whether they like it or not. So there’s the way that
the public is going to engage with it, in terms of if they’re just driving or
walking by; it needs to grab your attention, and it can’t be too fussy. With
fine art you can get into nuances with the surface in ways that aren’t practical
with street art. My aesthetic in the two areas has a lot of overlap, but there
are also differences. When I’m working on a mural, my assumption is it’s
generally going to be viewed from a distance, and therefore a lot of the
subtleties in the surface wouldn’t really make sense. For example, in the
prints I did with Paul [Stolper], I was able to incorporate a metallic foil,
which plays off the surface in a completely different way than an inexpensive
print I would put up on the street, yet the imagery is imagery I could put up
on the street. The fine art application of printing is about making it a really
beautiful object that you can look at over and over and live with in your home;
it’s not a fleeting, ephemeral thing the way street art is. I love street art;
the idea of connecting with people in their daily lives is really important to
me. But I also like to make pieces that I think are great art objects.
Artsy: These prints were your
first foray into foil-blocking. Can you explain that process and how it relates
to the work?
SF: It is transferred with a sheet
of foil and an adhesive on the print, and it’s stamped on—it’s almost like gold
leaf—so you have this literal, shimmering, foil surface that’s on the print.
The prints are actually made with a combination of foil blocking and
screen-printed metallic; the interplay between the two is really important,
because in those prints specifically, it ends up having a character kind of
like the metallic watermark in currency or stock certificates. And those pieces
are designed to have a little bit of this luxurious seduction but also the
monolithic intimidation of currency. It’s that dichotomy that’s really
important to me. The name of the series is “Power & Glory,” and it’s about
how certain symbols, industries, aspirations can be a double-edged sword. The
American flag is a very malleable symbol; it means a lot of different things.
I’m looking at it to say it can be good or bad; at all the triumphs and
failures of the American dream that it might connote.
Artsy: The Obey motif is
prominent in the center of these prints. Can you tell us about this
iconography, which you’ve been using for over 20 years. Does it mean the same
thing as when you started?
started with my Andre the Giant sticker and evolved into the Obey iconography,
which was an abstraction and an evolution. Andre was seen by some as a goofy
sweetheart and by others as a malevolent villain. Early on, that made me think
about this Rorschach nature of how anything that’s seen in public without an
explanation can be interpreted based on people’s personalities. Ever since the
Obey icons, I’ve sometimes made it about a counterculture hero, sometimes it’s
about the oppressive, dominant powers that be. In this situation, because I’ve
woven in some Arabic motifs into the face, I see it as more of a subversive
hijacking of the flag as a symbol that the right wing has pretty much taken
With the flag, people are inclined
to think that “we’re America, we’re the good guys, we don’t do anything
unethical.” I’m proud to be an American with the freedoms I have, but I also
think the idea of patriotism is to not just turn a blind eye to things you’re
unhappy about. If the definition of America right now is drones, domestic
spying, and a lot of civilian casualties in the Middle East, then let’s change
the definition of the flag. And of course, the Arab world right now is seen in
such a lazy, stereotypical way, generalized as extremists and villains. I think
to embed Arabic motifs in the Andre face is, for some people, going to be seen
as really offensive. But there are human beings everywhere, and there are a lot
of good people and a few bad people in every part of the world. But I think
provoking a little bit of analysis of these generalizations is part of what I’m
trying to do.
Artsy: In using the
flag, were you thinking about any of the artists who’ve used the flag in the
is a major hero of mine. I also love Robert Indiana.
Rauschenberg has used the flag in some works. I’ve used the flag; in my 2010 Mayday
show I did some more obvious abstractions of the flag. This newest one is
taking it a little bit further, but it’s still a similar idea. When I show in
South Carolina in the spring, the “Power & Glory” show, it’s with Jasper
Johns, so there’s a little bit of a nod to him in them.
Artsy: What other artists
have been heroes of yours?
are a lot of artists that have been heroes of mine.
did all the graphics for Black Flag; and
big inspiration. Some of the things that I’ve done around gas have been … well
not literally connected to his Standard Station
but there’s a little bit of that piece as a point of inspiration, while at the
same time I’m criticizing some of our fossil fuel policies and companies. That’s
the thing about art: you can celebrate and critique simultaneously. And
sometimes how something reads aesthetically at a glance, and then how it’s
impacted conceptually by a second, deeper read of the more subtle part of the
aesthetics; to me, that’s where the magic is. I think that Ruscha has done that
well in some of his pieces.
Artsy: Do you have personal
relationships with any of your collectors?
SF: Yeah, I do. And of course
I’m really excited when somebody who I think is cool or influential in the art
world or in pop culture in general gets something. Eminem’s manager just picked
up something; Neil Young got some stuff from me; it’s very, very exciting and
Artsy: Could you talk
about the L.A. art scene right now?
SF: When I got here thirteen years
ago, there were really only a few galleries that were catering to the world
outside of the close-to-blue-chip level; there weren’t many alternative spaces
for emerging artists or street artists. And now there are a ton. There’s a ton
of opportunities for artists in L.A., and there’s a huge, diverse art scene. I
think the thing about L.A. is, it’s not quite as elitist or hierarchical as it
is in New York, where space is so expensive that in order to show in a gallery,
it’s almost essential that you have commercial viability. Here, there are a lot
of opportunities that people can get at lower-overhead spaces, and make things
happen. There’s a lot of different neighborhoods in L.A. and different groups
of people influencing each other; it’s very, very rich and diverse, and I love
that; it’s never-ending inspiration.
Artsy: Has the Obama “Hope”
poster lawsuit made you more weary of appropriation? How, if at all, has it changed
your outlook on your freedoms as an artist?
SF: First of all—and this might
sound nitpicky—the Obama “Hope” poster is not appropriation; it’s using a
photographic reference to make an illustration. I consider appropriation to be
using a source image “as-is.” From the invention of the photograph, artists
have worked from photographs; you wouldn’t call van Gogh an appropriation
artist, right? But yeah, of course, getting in that lawsuit was really
unexpected, and really expensive, and brutal. Even though I was able to settle
with them and maintain my legal position—what I did was fair use—when you’re
going to get into an entanglement like that, that takes a lot of time and
money; it’s really not worth it. I’ve adapted the way that I work to be a little
bit smarter about avoiding a situation like that. But it hasn’t fundamentally
changed the way that I work.
Artsy: What are you working
SF: I’m working on the pieces for
the “Power & Glory” show at the Halsey; that’s a big priority right now.
And I just finished a seven-inch cover for the band Off!, [co-founded by] Keith
Morris, the original singer for Black Flag and Circle Jerks. They wrote a song
inspired by me called “Learn to Obey” that I designed a cover for. I also have
a show in April that’s my ongoing series of images that are a tribute to the
12-inch record format. I’ve done 50 new ones, so the show is called “50 Shades
of Black.” That will be showing at our gallery, Subliminal Projects. I’m going
to do a recreation of a record store with a lot of my record collection that
people can go through and listen to. All of the images will be on the wall, and
I’ve customized turntables and made large-format, fine-art versions of the art
of Shepard Fairey by J. Furlong, courtesy of the artist and Paul Stolper Gallery