An Iconic Artist Of The Moment

Artist Shepard Fairey created the iconic campaign poster image of Barack Obama.
Artist Shepard Fairey created the iconic campaign poster image of Barack Obama.
The man behind the iconic poster of the Obama campaign is turning a corner, and then some. A guerilla street artist not so long ago, Shepard Fairey is now being honored with his own museum show. Rita Braver has a portrait of the artist:

"My talent is for making a bold, beautiful, iconic graphic that is provocative," said Shepard Fairey.

He's the artist of the moment, the one who created the famous Obama poster. He first gained fame for his street art, yet his in-your-face style brimming with political angst has earned him a one-man museum retrospective at age 39.

So you might expect Fairey to be brash and a bit full of himself, but …

"The opportunity to, you know, share my work with people is what's rewarding, not so much the focus on me," he said.

In fact, Shepard Fairey is an earnest young man who seems to save his rage for his work.

"I describe my art as, you know, graphic art with social and political messages."

Like his "Greetings from Iraq," based on an old postcard of the geyser Old Faithful, with an explosion and warplanes overhead. "Whether you're a citizen of Iraq, or a U.S. soldier, it's not a pleasant place to be," he said.

Fairey's one-man show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston features everything from wall-sized murals composed of anti-war, anti-materialism graphics, to portraits of Fairey's idols in art (Andy Warhol), politics (Malcolm X) and music (Jim Morrison).

Of course, the Obama portrait is featured prominently, along with a thank-you note from President Obama.

"'Your images have a profound effect on people, whether it's in a gallery or a stop sign,'" Fairey read. "So he's acknowledging public art."

"He's a little subversive there, too!" Braver said.

Fairey, who has been arrested some 15 times, got the campaign's permission before making the posters:

"I didn't want to be a liability to Obama, because I do have a record of being arrested for street art."

It became the image of the campaign, a Time Magazine cover, hundreds of thousands of posters, and four original collages including one just installed at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Fairey says he hasn't made money off the Obama image, because he plowed profits back into producing more posters. But now he is locked in a legal battle with the Associated Press, which owns the photo on which's Fairey's creation is based … and wants to be paid.

"I think it's 'fair use' in the way that I've interpreted it," he said. "And if you look at pop art over the last 50 years, I think that reinforces that assertion."

"When you look at that image of Obama, you don't see an Associated Press photograph; you see something that is absolutely and distinctively Shephard Fairey," said Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

She says Fairey is just doing what many other artists (like Marcel Duchamp's moustachiod Mona Lisa, or Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can) have done for years: "The key here is the transformation of something from its original form into something altogether different."

Medvedow says she wanted to stage a show of Fairey's work in part because he expounds on so many artistic traditions, from Soviet realism, to Andy Warhol-style multiples.

"Like many artists who have come before him, he is playing with some big issues: war and peace, propaganda, public space," Medvedow said.

The son of a doctor, Fairey grew up in South Carolina a rebellious kid, heavily into skateboarding and board designing. He studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. He creates his work in his Los Angeles studio.

In the early '80s he became fascinated with the professional actor and wrestler known as Andre the Giant.

"What was it about that face that somehow spoke to you?" Braver asked.

"Well, I think that the face is very unique," he said. "He at a glance was both sinister and goofy."

For years he plastered his distinctive Andre stickers and posters all over the world, often adding the word "Obey." The work developed a cult following, captured in the documentary "Andre the Giant Has a Posse."

"It was never supposed to get so big; it was just an inside joke with a friend," Fairey said.

Even Stephen Colbert paid tongue-in-cheek homage to the Andre campaign: "Until I saw these sometimes I forgot to obey. And then I'd be walking on the street and see these and think, 'Oh, yeah, obey obey what I'm told to do!'"

In fact, Fairey says it's all part of his credo: question everything:

"I wanted to get people to have to confront the concept of obedience," he said. "So I started using the word 'Obey.'"

"And question it?" Braver asked.


Fairey has always challenged authority, often putting his work up clandestinely. But, along with the museum show, he was invited to put up public art all over Boston. The mayor even let him decorate City Hall.

"What's it like to be an outside artist who's suddenly welcomed by the 'inside' world?" Braver asked.

"Well, it's pretty surreal," he said.

Even more surreal when on the day of the exhibit's official opening two weeks ago, Boston police arrested Fairey on a 9-year-old warrant for putting up unauthorized art. He pled not guilty, but still faces further court action.

"I can justify my work, as you know, part of an extension of the concept of free speech. It's not appropriate for only advertisers to occupy, you know, the graphic communication of public space."

(Fox )
But Fairey is also a proud capitalist. He employs 20 people, producing not only fine art but also album covers, book jackets and movie posters (like "Walk the Line," left). His studio just created a new advertising campaign for Saks Fifth Ave. Married and the father of two, he dismisses critics who say he has sold out.

"I'd be starving or unable to proliferate my work if I didn't have some source of income," he said.

And today with his Obama poster everywhere, Shepard Fairey seems poised for the kind of fame few American artists have achieved in recent years.

Braver asked museum director Jill Medvedow if his work will hold up in another 25, 50, or 100 years?

"I think so," she replied. "I think that these images are going to end up as some of the iconic images of the beginning of the 21st century."

Braver asked Fairey if he hopes people will think of him as the right artist for his time?

"Yeah, I would hope so I don't think I could hope for anything better than that!" he laughed. "I think that'd be pretty great."

For more info:

  • (Shepard Fiarey's Web site)
  • Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Mass.
  • National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.