shepard fairey mural in melbourne

Shepard Fairey Bio

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.

banksy robot art

Banksy Bio

Perhaps more than anyone other graffiti artist, Banksy has come to embody acceptance of his chosen form as art and graffiti’s unwillingness to fit into the way we usually consume art. Banksy’s work rebels against the usual means of looking at art, as graffiti has since the beginning, but also continues to work against how we purchase art as well. All quite the lisrt of accomplishments for someone who may not even exist.

Banksy is the pseudonym of a person (or persons) whose identity (or identities) is a closely guarded secret, we are unsure who he (or she) may be. He operates in secret across the globe, usually working with what must be large stencils and a vast network of resources. Some estimate Banksy’s operations in his hometown of Bristol, England would have to include a vast warehouse, but exactly where this warehouse is, and whose name is on the rental agreement, is still one of the artist’s many guarded secrets.

Work attributed to Banksy began in the 90s in Bristol, where the artist is presumed to have grown up. His graffiti, like many in the underground England scene at that time, relies heavily on stencils, probably for how quickly they can be applied. His art touches on themes of anti-government and anti-establishment, especially on the subject of war, a frequent target in his work. He also uses images of monkeys and other animals to undermine authority figures, as well as a healthy dose of humour, for a distinct look, voice, and aesthetic that can be quickly be seen as “Banksy.”

Another distinctive feature of Banksy’s art is how it speads over just a single wall, often using multiple surfaces, including ceilings and floors, to move the boundaries of graffiti. Since graffiti is technically vandalism, Banksy’s insistence on using multiple surfaces defies the legal issues surrounding his art form, and creates more challenges for those needing to clean it up.

But for all his use of monkeys and humour, how Banksy sells and distributes his art is equally mischievous, perhaps best illustrated in his recent trip to New York. He apparently set up an art stand in Central Park to sell originals of his art for as little as $5, not revealing whose art it really was. Those who bought the pieces didn’t know until the stand had long disappeared that the art was Banksy’s and would have easily sold for a hundred times the price. Much like Andy Warhol, a man whom Banksy has imitated on occasion, Banksy pushes not only the boundaries of what is considered art, but also how we consume it. If Warhol can sell a painting of a Campbell’s soup can for thousands of dollars, why can’t Banksy sell original pieces for hundreds times less than their estimated value? Graffiti, at its core, is about displaying art, both in places that are difficult to regulate, but also difficult to monetize. Banksy’s mischievous marketing and art distribution avoids many of the usual means of making money as an artist.

Still, Banksy’s carefully guarded identity is a testament to his ability to stay secret (even with an Oscar nomination under his belt for Exit Through the Gift Shop), but also to the respect he has even within his own community. During his trip to New York, many local graffiti artists professed to know him (reports also suggest The Daily Mail has his name on file, but refuses to release it), but no one has yet broken his secret. To do so would probably ruin the man from Bristol who’s changed graffiti forever, but no one so far has decided to cash in on such a valuable secret. Until then, Banksy remains a secret, despite being everywhere.

honest eds signage at night

Honest Ed’s: Where Branding Turned into Part of Toronto’s Identity

Honest Ed’s is part of Toronto, a kitschy place held dear to the hearts of Torontonians and tourists alike and much of that love comes from their signage. The hokey catchphrases and jokes covering almost every square inch of Honest Ed’s exterior brings smiles to locals and, almost embarrassingly, plenty of pictures from tourists. A personal favourite of mine is “Honest Ed attracts squirrels! ‘At these prices they think he’s nuts!’”  I have a picture of my brother and I underneath it from my first visit to the city. My hair’s changed, Honest Ed’s hasn’t.

But even Honest Ed’s has to change. The store will close their doors for the last time in 2016 and owner David Mirvish, son of Ed, started selling Honest Ed’s signature look last month. This includes the hand-painted signs marking the deals Ed was just “nuts” to offer. Prices ranged from $0.50 to $100 and, in keeping with Ed’s love of its city, all proceeds went to Victim Services Toronto for people affected by sudden and violent crime.

Yes, Honest Ed’s is distinct, but it’s also distinctly Torontonian. It’s been regularly featured in film and TV, its marquee turned into postcards, and even the odd bus tour takes a swing by Ed’s. The store even played into the Scott Pilgrim comics, possibly this city’s best love letter. And, if the lineups for the sign sale have anything to say on the matter, Toronto citizens agree.

The sale unexpectedly brought out hundreds of people, some of whom lined up for hours to buy the signs and get them signed by employees Douglas Kerr and Wayne Reuben. These men painted the signs and were on-hand to demonstrate their painting skills and sign people’s purchases.

But at least people will have a piece of Ed’s to carry with them, or put up in their homes and offices, which is a much better place than the recycle bin. The very act of buying these signs, of lining up in the wee hours of the morning just to get them prove that Honest Ed’s holds value in Torontonians’ eyes, even as the store itself closes down. Honest Ed’s signs are more than just branding, they’re embedded into Toronto culture. They are valued by people, turning price tags into a sentimental part of living in Canada’s largest city. These signs will be framed, cut up and used in other art projects, documented, but most of all preserved in some way or another.

That line of hundreds also proves the look of a store can go beyond increasing sales, they can become a distinct part of a city, a neighbourhood, a street. Honest Ed’s is a Toronto institution in part because of that signage, both the Las Vegas marquee and the beautiful and kitschy signs inside, are ingrained in people’s memory. Their branding turned into city identity, and that’s a beautiful thing.

street art toronto mural

StreetArtToronto: Bringing Street Art, Well, Back to the Streets

The line between graffiti and street art is a fine one, very fine, but at least Toronto is encouraging the many talented street artists that live in this fair city. And after a winter like ours, I’m sure there are plenty of people looking to hit the streets and bring some colour back into Toronto. But the divide between street artists expressing themselves and people crying vandalism sometimes gets entrenched, leading to people writing off an entire medium of art because of local vandals.

That’s where StART Toronto comes in, a grant program encouraging street artists to add some flair to Toronto’s streets and help at-risk youth and adults contribute to the city’s overall look.

StART is truly multifaceted in its approach, offering grants and taking proposals to help everyone involved in street art, from victims to professional artists. Programs like RE StART specifically targets at-risk members of the community with programs that encourage artistic expression while respecting the rules of street art, like putting it where its wanted and not on historic buildings. People interested in starting programs for at-risk street artists can receive up to $20,000 in grant money, and maybe even produce a few future artists along the way.

But for people who have been victimized by street art, the StART Support Mural Program is probably the most interesting. People who have experienced unwanted graffiti can apply to the program and, instead of getting the unwanted art simply washed off, get a local muralist to paint something welcome and better. With the Mural Support Program, the city is finding practical solutions to unwanted street art without discrediting the artistry that our talented street artists have. Instead of encouraging people to be bitter towards street artists and vice versa, Mural Support brings them together for something mutually beneficial.

And, for the truly ambitious, the city has set up “Outside the Box,” a program where artists can transform traffic signal cabinets into works of art. So far, 10 boxes at intersections around the city have been donated to the program, with another 20 reported this month. For a full list of intersections, visit the StART website here.

Because the programs are for literally everyone, StART is working to prove street art can be more than unsightly tags, that it can instead be integrated into how we live in a city. Programs like the Underpass Program is looking to integrate street art into a revitalization of the underpass, using art to encourage a safer and brighter area where people would want to walk, rather than rush through.

StART’s programs are looking for viable solutions to not only bring artists and residents together, but demonstrate that street art is a vital part of any urban space. Instead of condemning all graffiti, a popular tactic in many cities, Toronto is looking to bring people together, help those at-risk, and encourage people to enjoy this great city even more. That all sounds like a great idea.