Thirteen years after starting what he has referred to as an hilariously absurd idea, Shepard Fairey's Obey Giant sticker campaign has morphed into an art project cum cultural phenomenon with well over a million stickers in circulation, an enormous street presence, and has become a staple of modern pop culture.
It all started one afternoon in the skate shop where he worked part time while attending Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. He was showing the new kid at the shop how to make stencils when Fairey found his muse staring back at him from the back of the sports pages. He cut out the small black and white photo, and a few minutes later Andre the Giant had a Posse. That was just the beginning. In the ensuing years he spread the word by travelling the Eastern Seaboard armed with tens of thousands of stickers, and built a network nationwide, and, eventually, worldwide to get his stickers out on the street.
Now based in LA where he co-owns a graphic arts company, Fairey splits his time in the US, Asia, and Europe showing his work in some of the top galleries on each continent, and, of course, wheat-pasting Andre's image everywhere he can.
The graphic art company, Black Market, whose clients have ranged from Levi's, to DC Shoes, to Mountain Dew (he redesigned the can for the soft drink) is one of the most sought after in the business, yet he gives the impression that sometimes he feels as though it's just a necessary evil.
"What I've always wanted to have was an art career that wasn't influenced by trends that were going on in the art world unless I cared to address them - that I wasn't economically forced to sell enough work to survive off of (following those trends)," he explains. "So I've had ways, since college, and even while I was still in college, like my screen printing business, that would be a way to generate revenue. I'd also have some art making tools at my disposal that were a write-off for the business. And, in my free time, I could make art - the art that I wanted to make because my bills were paid.
"It's not all drudgery with Black Market work," he admits. "A lot of it is creative work, and a lot of people come to me because they want me to use the style that I use for Obey Giant for the Black Market stuff. Now that can be good, or bad depending on whether I want my Obey Giant style to represent that client's subject matter. Sometimes I do, if it's CD packaging and it's a band I like, then I'm, like, 'Hell yeah.' I'm going to be proud of the association. Other times I have to kindly push them in a different direction by telling them, 'I don't think that's exactly what you want. My stuff has a very selective appeal.'" (Laughs)
Another thing he has to consider is the degree of frequency he uses his style for other high profile projects without running the risk of diluting his own work.
"I try to only use it for stuff that I'm into, where I think the association is good," he says. "I mean, of course I've had a couple people attack me with, 'Oh, you've got this project that is sort of a critique of conspicuous consumption, yet here you go making stuff for people that's being sold, and trying to stimulate conspicuous consumption.'
"But, my response to them is, and I've said this from the very beginning, before this project was generating any sort of wide spread interest, or revenue, the coup of using the processes that are used to stimulate conspicuous consumption (is) to bring something very absurd into that arena to show just by using these various devices you can achieve this end. When that was just a theory and not a reality everyone was into it. But once they feel it's actually working, and it's actually in shark-infested waters with the sharks, they start to get a little bit nervous about it."
Oddly it's exactly this possessiveness that works for and against the success of Fairey's project.
"I think that's because a lot of people have a tendency to make everything an "Us" versus "Them" issue. That's not really what I'm trying to do at all. I'm trying to make people more contemplative — make them examine the whole process. So, I'm not saying Capitalism bad. Communism good. It's more like, make each decision that you make with as much education about the variables as possible, and then go with what you feel is right. I'm all about moderation. "Kill Your TV!" Well, I don't watch much TV, because I don't think there's much worth watching. But I'm not suggesting that anyone should throw out their TV either."
The success of Obey Giant has been built on this message of empowerment, its sense of humor, the quality of the images and what they suggest, and its fringe status. He realized early on that with a good deal of pervasiveness the project would create a dialogue. But, in order to keep it alive he needed a revenue stream. He also was perceptive enough to know that people have a need to more closely associate themselves with something they perceive to be underground, and cool. And the most logical way to do that is to buy a T-shirt. "When people are developing a sense of identity, and I can completely relate with the bootleg punk and skate shirts that I made, that I wanted people to look at me go, 'That's the stuff that guy's down with,' because that represents a certain mentality," he says. "At that time I was trying to set myself apart from the Porter Guad crowd where I had gone to school, and I was reacting against. There's a fine line between saying you're open-minded and being just as close minded, but from the other extreme. So I really don't want what I'm doing to be associated with that way of thinking. It’s about the process of empowering yourself, and doing what you want with it. That's what I think Obey Giant represents — how it rose up on a grassroots level. Not necessarily where it's going in terms of the embrace of the masses, which I really don't have control over. It's part my biography and they way I did it, which some people really respond to because they feel empowered, 'Oh, this guy did this himself. Here's the template. I can do the same thing. And, if I wear his shirts, and show that I'm down with that, and bond with other people, and build a network, and start a print shop, or a scene, or a band, or whatever that's great.' It's awesome. And that's what the compilation is designed to do, because Punk Rock music gave me that feeling of empowerment."
The compilation he speaking of is The Giant Rock'nRoll Swindle — a play on the Sex Pistols film and corresponding soundtrack, The Great Rock'nRoll Swindle that Fairey recently released in conjunction with a small independent label.
"Fork in Hand is the name of the label — a really cool, small little do-it-yourself type of thing based in Boston where the guys wait tables at night, and run the label during the day," says Fairey.
The album is a fierce collection of 21 bands ranging from the full throttle punk explosion of Jello Biafra's The No WTO Combo, and The Bouncing Souls to the pop rant of The Hives, and the emo-core of Modest Mouse among others.
Fairey designed the packaging which comes in a sleeve that doubles as a stencil of Andre's face, and if you don't want to ruin your CD cover art the album also functions as a CD-ROM which has downloadable stencils so you can go out and get busy.
In doing the extensive graphics packaging Fairey whittled his royalty down to just five cents per record, but, again, money isn't the motivating factor here. The purpose was to participate in another project he thought was cool, and bring to the masses a collection of bands that otherwise wouldn't have this type of exposure.
He has also recently published a book, Post No Bills that chronicles in photography much of his street art over the past few years here in the States, Europe, and Asia. The book features a steady parade of billboards, skyscrapers, and water towers that serve as enormous canvasses for Andre's image, and response to the book has been good so far.
"If the book hasn't completely sold out, it's about to. MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art in LA) is carrying it in the their book store, and it's selling really well there," he says.
There are many things Fairey loves about what he does, but nothing can compare with the freedom his hard work has provided him.
"Part of the beauty of this project it there is no orthodox doctrine," he points out. "It's so open-ended. It means so many things to so many different people. What it means to me…When I'm out there putting my art up is this; You can give me all the parking tickets you want, and tax me. You can make any pathetic, thinly disguised law to generate money for yourself that you want Mr. Man… Mr. System. But, I'm out here doing my thing, and I'm influencing people and you have no control over it."
"I'm having fun with it right now. I'm enjoying myself, and I don't think this project has reached its peak yet. And, with any luck, I won't be the last to know when it has." (Laughs).