South Carolina-born Shepard Fairey is a curious study of contradictions. The graffiti artist constantly pushes boundaries, blending things usually thought of as complete opposites together. Commercial vs. public art, high vs. low art, much of Fairey’s life and art show his love of in-between spaces.
Fairey started drawing on skateboards and designing t-shirts at 14, but being from an affluent family meant Fairey could attend the Rhode Island School of Design. It was here that Fairey found himself caught between two worlds: his love of skateboarding culture and the world of contemporary art.
While at Rhode Island, Fairey designed the now-famous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker, which eventually became the stencilled image of Andre the Giant with “OBEY” written underneath. The sticker quickly moved outside Fairey’s circles and was adopted by many artists using public space. Fairey himself asserts the Andre the Giant series has no deeper meaning, but he hopes the images cause people “to react, to contemplate and search for meaning.”
By the time Fairey graduated, the Obey campaign had become a phenomenon and he soon set up Alternate Graphics, a printing business specializing in sticker and t-shirt silkscreening. The press earned enough so Fairey could pursue his art while providing the resources for his own Obey clothing and sticker line.
During the 90s and early 2000s, Fairey’s art started moving into another space: marketing campaigns. He co-founded BLK/MRKT Inc., a viral marketing company that designed programs for Pepsi, Firefox, and Hasbro. Using Fairey’s unique experience in spreading public art, the company was extremely successful. From there, Fairey began designing movie posters and album covers with his wife, Amanda. Fairey’s work appeared in campaigns for Walk the Line and on albums for The Smashing Pumpkins and even some Led Zeppelin re-releases.
During this period, Fairey’s graffiti continued to appear all over, becoming increasingly critical of the Bush Administration. Where the Andre the Giant campaign supposedly lacked a deeper meaning, Fairey’s protest art was singular in its anti-war and anti-Bush messages. It was this political motivation that saw the next stage in Fairey’s career, political campaigns.
In 2008, Fairey made international headlines as the creator of the Obama “Hope” poster. The image was originally a poster that Fairey created and sold in a single day. Fairey drew on Socialist Realism and a famous photograph of JFK in a similar pose to create the poster, originally with the word ‘progress.’ Once the official Obama campaign discovered the image and thought it would be good for the election, Fairey changed it to the more recognizable ‘Hope’ at their request. Since then, the poster has been copied, parodied, and disseminated across the world, showing up on t-shirts, mugs, and anything else big enough to hold Obama’s face. In 2009, Fairey’s collage of the original Hope version was acquired by the Smithsonian.
Since the Obama image, Fairey continues to obscure the boundaries in art, challenging the splits between high and low, commercial and public. He’s never stopped graffitiing, though, for all his other projects, and was arrested for vandalism related to graffiti on his way to his first art show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.