The Musealization of Street Art: Changing Space, Shifting Perception

2.1- Shepard Fairey and His Posters

     Arguably the most commercial of the street artists, Shepard Fairey (1970-Charleston, South Carolina) is well known in the western world for his Obey Giant campaign as well as his Obama Hope poster, created during the 2008 US presidential campaign. Additionally, his works are on display in museums across the world. Although he started as an urban artist making stickers, Fairey is best known for his poster art, and is the most successful on a commercial scale. Fairey’s success, both in Europe and the United States, has set him apart from the other street artists and has prompted public comments from them. Banksy, speaking on behalf of his fellow street artists, once said: ‘we don’t like Shepard because he makes us feel scared and lazy. I am absolutely positive he has made more reaches than any graffiti writer in history ever has done and ever will. And that means he’s won’.45 However, there was a time where Shepard Fairey himself thought that he would not be able to make an impact on the world of graffiti.

     In the book Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey, Fairey gives an account of how he first got interested in the covert world of graffiti, and later of Street Art. Fairey states that ‘[his] introduction to stickers as graffiti was not through the aerosol art graffiti scene’, but rather through the stickers of the skate and band world.46 At the age of 17, he started to notice the many stickers of punk bands and skateboarders. Stating that he didn’t even know how to obtain the punk stickers, he would simply collect the skate stickers, and place them on his personal belongings. To obtain the punk images he desired, he would copy the logos of the bands. It was not long afterward that Fairey’s mother purchased a copier and he was able to copy the graphics from his magazines onto Crack ‘n’ Peel and create his own stickers. Starting in 1984, Fairey was making paper stencils of those same logos for spray paint and silk-screen applications to be applied to t-shirts. In his book Supply & Demand he stated: ‘these activities continued through high school, less as a way to make art than as a way to avoid actually having to pay for stickers and t-shirts’.47

     It wasn’t until he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988, that Fairey developed an interest in stickers as art. Surrounded by fellow artists and students, Fairey noticed that, in addition to the familiar band and skate stickers, there were political cause stickers, art stickers, and ‘hello my name is…’ stickers. The latter two prompted him to wonder ‘What is this all about’ and to ‘ponder the sticker as a means of expression and communication for an individual, instead of just representing a band, company, or movement’. It was a trip to New York City in addition to the many stickers he came in contact with that inspired Shepard Fairey to create his own sticker and try to accomplish some of the same things, repetitive tagging and visibility of graffiti, he saw artists doing in New York. During the summer of 1989, while working at a skate shop, Fairey decided to complete a stencil of Andre the Giant, a French professional wrestler and actor, after a friend of his had given up on the stencil in frustration. He added the phrase ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ as well as ‘7’4” 520 LB’ to the image, and the first Giant sticker was born. Though the giant sticker had started as a joke, Fairey began pasting many copies around Providence. Not long afterwards, an image of his sticker appeared in a local paper with a reward to anyone who could provide information on the meaning of the sticker. His success in Providence inspired him to take his stickers to Boston and New York. Following this, Fairey wrote , ‘the ball began to roll, but the amazing thing is that I almost lacked the self-confidence to try to put something of my own out there… it’s somewhat of a fluke that the Giant sticker stimulated me to try’.48 From 1989 to 1996 Fairey continued to print his own stickers, but instead of the usual paper sticker, he had switched to printing his own vinyl stickers. Finally, after he moved to California in 1996, he started sending his stickers out to print. In addition, he would send his stickers to friends across the country, in order to cover the most space he could.

     Fairey’s divergence from sticker art happened in 1990, when he decided to replace the face of a local politician, Buddy Cianci, on a billboard, with the face of his Andre the Giant stencil, using a poster paste up method. The following day, the story was covered on the local news, claiming that the person who was behind this was making a statement that Cianci was a brute. Though Fairey was unaware of it at the time, Cianci had been removed from office for a violent crime. Fairey wrote: ‘this incident opened my eyes to the power of propaganda’.49

     Fairey began playing with his images in order to create different messages, and in 1995 the first Obey poster was created. He was inspired by the 1988 John Carpenter movie They Live. Fairey explained in his book Supply and Demand how the movie highlights the idea that people ‘do not realize they’re slaves to consumerism, because everything is glossy on the surface’.50 Fairey’s idea behind his Obey posters is that people are sleepwalking through life and, through reverse psychology, he was ‘splashing water on their faces’.51 In 1995 the famous Obey Giant image reached its final form, with a streamlined graphic approach and the red obey box logo on the bottom. According to Roger Gastman, ‘the first six months of the Obey campaign were like a young teen-age graffiti writer who just came up with his first tag and stole his first paint marker… wanting recognition yet still feeling invisible, he puts his tag everywhere, without considering who will see it or whether it will even be visible by the next day’.52 Fairey’s method at this point was to plaster as many of his posters up as he could. Eventually people began to notice them and talk. Over the following five years, Shepard Fairey’s wheat paste posters of his Obey Giant found new and better locations and spread from New York, Boston, and Providence, and across the USA all the way to the West Coast. Through the repetition of this image, Fairey created a reputation for himself. Alongside his Obey Giant, the artist delved into the development of political propaganda. In 1998, he superimposed stenciled portraits of world leaders, such as Stalin, Lenin, and Mao Zedong, in front of the Obey Giant. Furthermore, he incorporated guns, bombs, and other images into his posters. In 2008, Fairey gained national recognition when his portrait of Presidential Candidate Barack Obama came to represent the presidential campaign, and the image was distributed on shirts, posters, and more. Since then, Fairey has created portraits of numerous artists, musicians, politicians, etc., all in an attempt to further his reach as an artist.

     To this day, Fairey is continually developing his style as an artist, and since 1999 has been included in over ten group exhibitions, twenty solo shows, and has work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art: NYC, Museum of Contemporary Art: San Diego, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Shepard Fairey is an iconic street artist, whose presence both on the streets and within museums, proves to be influential on Street Art and fine art alike.


45 Shepard Fairey, Obey: Supply & Demand- The Art of Shepard Fairey, 1st edn (Berkeley, CA: Ginko press, 2006), p. 42.
46 Ibid, p. 16.
47 ibid.
48 ibid.
49 ibid.
50 Shepard Fairey, Supply and Demand.
51 Shepard Fairey, Supply and Demand.
52 ibid.

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