“Someone stole our stencils,” announces Shepard Fairey.
Just this morning, Fairey and his crew threw up a series of record-sleeve stencils on the north side of Asbury Park’s Sunset Pavilion. They’d begun another on a west-facing wall before they broke for lunch. When they returned, they were a few stencils down.
The situation drips with irony. Here’s one of the best-known street artists in the world – a subversive visionary who’s illegal work helped iron his name onto the pop culture landscape – and while he’s granted permission to legally adorn walls in the ‘safe’ waterfront area of a city undergoing a slow resurgence, the outlaw-turned-folk hero gets his stuff nicked – most likely by fans of his work.
Welcome to Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Fairey is in town for the week doing a series of pieces, both wheat paste and stencil jobs, on the once-glorious architecture from this city’s heyday that has since fallen into disrepair. The corruption, fires, race riots, economic ruin and subsequent ghost-town status that Bruce Springsteen wrote about were very real. But this town was never dead. Home to legendary clubs, it has since become a countercultural capital. More than a decade ago, the skaters, artists, small businesses, gay nightclub owners and musicians (a Shep Fairey crowd if there ever was one) staked out a little piece on the Atlantic Ocean that no one else wanted and made Asbury Park their home.
Today, you can find mate tea, Ceviche de Pargo and Avalon Cabernet. There was a push for a topless beach. The boardwalk offers Balinese jewellery and locally shaped twin-fins. There are tattoo conventions, roller derbies, bike shows and lesbian kickball games.
But it’s always been about the rock. That’s what brings people here. That’s what brought Fairey here, too. First he agreed to do the poster art for All Tomorrow’s Parties, the American version of the British festival by the record company of the same name, which is curated by a different artist each year. But then longtime friend Jonathan LeVine, best known for turning DIY creativity into something wealthy people will hang on their walls, asked him to do an art show and leave his mark on the slowly transforming ‘Debris by the Sea’.
Fairey was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1970. Like many of his contemporaries, his youth pivoted around the freedom afforded by four wheels and a plank of wood. His teenage years unfolded in the eighties, a time when subversive art and revolutionary music existed in the context of the underground, as most of society was pre-occupied with materialism. He attended several high schools, including the formerly named Idyllwild School of Music and Arts in Los Angeles. But as a kid, graffiti wasn’t really part of his environment. That influence would come later.
In 1988, he started college at the Rhode Island School of Design. Within a year, he created the ‘Andre the Giant Has a Posse’ sticker – an irreverent, black and white image of a pro wrestler that would go on to became the face of a phenomenon. Plastering the sticker on any surface he could find, Fairey used the monotone image to spread an idea – a message for the masses disseminated like a campaign. “The Obey Giant campaign is about not being blindly obedient,” explained Fairey during his first interview with HUCK in 2006. “I guess it’s a question-everything philosophy I’m trying to put across.” This idea of ‘obeying’ parodied the overwhelming consumerism perpetuated by the system. Even if it looked like an obscure inside joke, it stuck out. For the cost of adhesive, Fairey’s sarcastic tone challenged us to think, among a million voices telling us to buy.
Upon graduating, he started a small screen-printing business (with a skate ramp on site) in Providence, Rhode Island, called Alternate Graphics. Working on larger-scale, propaganda-style posters, he became a player in global street art before the ‘scene’ had a name. Combining his art education, sense of humour, countercultural background and political leanings, Fairey’s work created a powerful reaction; it was ‘populist’ art in the rawest form. You don’t have to nibble Havarti cheese and grapes in a gallery to see it. It’s right there in your environment – some might say, in your face. And while it’s a message in and of itself, it challenges you to think about the others that bombard us all day.
“It’s impermanent and it’s free,” explains Fairey today. “While it exists, some people will really dig it, and other people might not like it. But it’s contributing to the dialogue. There’s something that’s so basic in doing something to relate to your fellow human beings.”
Asbury Park has been called an ‘East Coast Dogtown’. But like anywhere with a California counterpart, the heavens hit harder here. During a proper New Jersey summer, the hipsters drawn to All Tomorrow’s Parties could easily fall prey to dehydration. But by mid-October, the winds blowing off the Atlantic would make a Siberian cry. It’s late-September, and even this shoulder season of apparent bliss is throwing up conditions that play havoc with outdoor art.
Fairey and his crew started out on a Thursday morning. Though it was overcast, the weather was mostly pleasant as they moved over to do a 300 square-metre wheat-paste mural on the side of Asbury Lanes. “It’s actually a lot less stressful doing this kind of stuff,” says Fairey, rocking a T-shirt and torn up jeans, effortlessly holding a conversation while rolling paste onto a poster. “It’s a lot more fun. The problem is, I never just get to do this. There’s always other shit lingering in the background.”
The Lanes is a bowling alley-cum-punk club on Fourth Avenue established in 1966 that has since been revived to host bands, art shows and burlesque performances. With a stage on top of the lanes, a vintage bar and a kitchen that serves famous buckets of Tater Tots, it’s an indie venue where one can crush PBRs, chuck 7-10 splits and hear anything from folk to hardcore. Technically, the mural is on the east-facing wall of the Fast Lane, a defunct club between Asbury Lanes and a vacant lot that hosted everyone from U2 to Fishbone in the eighties. Today, Fairey has chosen to immortalise the images of six punk rock icons with a “Mount Rush-core” in his trademark three tones.
“It goes chronologically – Joey Ramone, then Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, Glen Danzig, Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins,” he explains, taking a breather and sucking down a Diet Coke, a healthy coat of paste on his hands and pants. “All of their bands were really influential for me. Most people consider the Ramones the first punk band. It seemed like every punk rocker had the Sex Pistols as a point of reference. That was how I got into The Clash. Ian and Henry could be occupying the same slot, but because Minor Threat was going before Henry joined Black Flag, that’s the way I did it. There are other people that I could have included, but I think those six are the most important.”
Fairey doesn’t fuck around. Though he’s got many hands helping him today, he created the images, and when it comes time to throw up the panels, he’s not about to kick back and watch his four-man crew do all the dirty work. He’s up on the lift, hands covered in paste, placing and rolling the image to the wall. It’s work that will tear up your back and burn out your knees. The day’s playlist rolls from early Misfits to The Clash’s reggae beats, furious under-one-minute Minor Threat offerings, Sex Pistols snot, a few tracks off Damaged, Fugazi singalongs, and eerie Danzig Lucifuge-era crooning. Thankfully, ‘Rock the Kasbah’ was omitted.
“Does this count?” asks Fairey, “It’s Black Flag, but with Keith Morris singing.”
As Shepard and co work away, a crowd gathers to watch, consisting mostly of young art-types visibly floored to have Fairey in town. Among the crowd is Juicy Jenn Hampton sitting on a truck. She’s co-owner of the Parlor Gallery on Cookman Ave. She books shows at Asbury Lanes and has even been known to bounce an unruly patron. “From an artist and a gallery owner’s point of view, it’s beyond exciting to have Shepard here,” she says. “But even for the people who don’t know who he is, it’s equally exciting. Public art, in the form that Shepard does, brings excitement and hope to a community like ours.”
Fairey and his crew work well past dark and finally knock off for a late dinner. That night, the gods piss down a torrent of rain that continues Friday morning before Fairey moves to the Casino, one of Asbury’s architectural gems built in 1929. After decades of dereliction, this former skating rink, which used to house a carousel, became a skatepark run by a motorcycle club. Fairey fights the wind to get up ‘The Rebel Waltz’ – a tribute to Paul Simonon of The Clash. But that’s hardly Fairey’s biggest problem. The downpour over at Asbury Lanes has created a vertical river over Joe Strummer’s face, never allowing the paste to dry.
This is part of the reason he moved to California in 1996. “When I was living in Solana Beach, I could actually work in the driveway and let work dry outside overnight,” he remembers. Setting down roots on the West Coast, Fairey matured his business sense and in 1999 he created a design firm with Dave Kinsey and Phillip de Wolff called BLK/MRKT, uncannily timed with tremendous growth in the action sports industry. In 2001, the Obey movement became a clothing brand. Fairey married his wife Amanda and eventually parted ways with Kinsey and de Wolff, dissolving BLK/MRKT and creating Studio Number One in 2003. From the split, he and Amanda also grew Subliminal Projects 2, an LA art gallery on Sunset Blvd. In 2006, they put out a hardcover book, Supply and Demand, which would serve as a portfolio of his now vast body of street and commercial work.
In 2010, he played a big role in the underground release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film in which London-based mastermind Banksy turned the camera around onto filmmaker Thierry Guetta, to create an ingenious documentary that forces you to question street art’s meteoric rise. But it’s the work that he created (off his own back) to accompany Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign that really made Shepard Fairey a household name. His ‘Hope’ poster – a propaganda-style portrait of the would-be president that interchangeably carried the words ‘Progress’ or ‘Change’ – became the symbol for a generation rooting for a fresh start.
Hope. There was no better word. Here was a disenfranchised demographic who had long ago given up on systems out of touch with their views. Then, after a decade of infidelity, lies, nepotism, war, economic collapse, environmental degradation and corporate crimes, a leader emerged. Not only did he seem to have different ideas about the way society could be, but he listened to Jay-Z and Bob Dylan. He bodysurfed Hawaii. He mentioned punk rock twice in his autobiography. The very idea that his campaign poster was made by a countercultural figure like Fairey propelled that swelling river of positivity. He was one of us – only he was smart and handsome enough to infiltrate the establishment.
“I looked at Obama as a foot in the door,” says Fairey. “We believed that there would be younger blood that would change the political culture in Washington. That hasn’t happened. Some people say, ‘You can’t change Washington. Washington can only change you.’ I couldn’t be a politician.”
In 2009, Fairey designed a new piece depicting a more stressed-out president for the cover of Rolling Stone. Any affiliation with the White House has always been on his own terms. “I was approached by the Obama campaign to see whether I was interested in making a poster for the 2012 election, and of course I’m not going to make a portrait of him,” he explains. “The portrait was based on the idea of Obama as a symbol of what could take place – the progress I wanted to see. That hasn’t happened. He’s a known quantity now. So, I asked, ‘What are his policies this time around? What is his message?’ If it’s something I agree with, I’ll make a poster that’s about that message. Creating a poster for him was never about unconditional Obama worship. People like to simplify things. You’re dealing with a poster – a medium that requires simplification. Supporting him was a way of supporting individual things that I had made art about – opposition to the war in Iraq, support for green energy, reducing the power of lobbyists, healthcare reform, belief that climate change is a reality. Obama was pushing for all of those things in his campaign that didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped they would.”
Since Obama’s inauguration, hope has given way to disillusionment: the US is involved in three wars; BP has blackened the Gulf of Mexico; unemployment has become a lifestyle; his healthcare bill was gutted; corporations have more reach into our lives than ever; and the limping global economy has been shot in the knees. He’s made questionable decisions to open areas of the sea to oil drilling and appointed former corporate lobbyists to senior positions. “I did feel like Obama was one of us,” says Fairey. “My sense is that he’s trusting people who are telling him not to do things because it’s not good for his career, not allowing him to use his gut.”
In November, Fairey released a poster in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a parody of his own Obama Hope poster, featuring a hooded Guy Fawkes mask in place of Obama, with the words, ‘Mr. President, We Hope You’re On Our Side.’ It challenged Barack Obama to support the ninety-nine per cent instead of Wall Street, with its tradition of corruption and imbalanced power.
On the other hand, LeVine, who has worked with Fairey since 1998 and hosted his pivotal show E Pluribus Venom in 2007, feels the Obama campaign helped legitimise Shepard Fairey, and street art as a whole. “Even as recognisable as his name was in 2007, you know how hard it would have been to get a legal wall? Now I call up a city like Asbury Park and they’re like, ‘What? Shepard Fairey? Here you go.’ It’s much easier. And that allows him to do some gigantic, super-ambitious projects.”
And because of those projects, Shepard Fairey has taken a lot of shit. That’s just the way it goes when you pop your head up from the underground. He’s had his art destroyed by both authorities and anti-authorities. He’s been arrested some sixteen times; most famously by the Beantown PD when he arrived in Boston for his solo show Supply and Demand at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He’s been bashed by thugs, splashed by haters and trashed by bloggers (both credible and non).
He’s also been sued. Over the course of three years, Fairey’s been embroiled in a lawsuit with Associated Press who accused him of basing his Hope poster on a copyrighted image taken by photographer Mannie Garcia. Fairey felt that he was free to interpret any image in his own artwork under the terms of fair use. Eventually, both parties agreed to settle on an undisclosed sum in January 2011
“Fairey, for a long time, has used the radical and revolutionary art of the past for profit, without proper credit given,” says Patrick St. Johns, a graphic designer from Boston who works for campaigns and coalitions, like the Progressive States Network, geared towards social change. As an activist himself, St. Johns has been openly critical of Fairey’s work and choices. “It’d be one thing if the art was famous, like Che Guevara’s face, but he often pulls from beautiful and obscure sources – a lot of imagery from the Black Panthers, the Young Lords Party, turn-of-the-century labour unions and others. Fairey’s modus operandi is to find a compelling piece of design or art, usually from a social movement, strip it of all its original meaning, run it through a few Adobe programs, and turn it into a commodity. The result is that when people buy an Obey T-shirt or poster with this gorgeous illustration on it, they have no idea that most of the conceptual and artistic heavy lifting was done decades ago, by someone Fairey would prefer to keep anonymous. There’s plenty of room for Fairey to give credit where credit’s due, but he doesn’t. Otherwise people might find out that the original artists were much more genuinely radical than the ‘radical-chic’ of Fairey’s defanged derivatives. It’d be atrocious enough if it was a top corporate ad firm doing this, but what makes it even worse is that Fairey’s claiming to be political himself.”
It’s a line Fairey’s heard time and time again, but that’s not to say he’s about to take it lying down. “I find it a bit absurd that ten or so images I made ten or more years ago – out of the hundreds I’ve made – have yielded the narrative that I don’t make original work,” he explains. “When I began my Obey Giant project in 1989, I was completely immersed in skate and punk culture where appropriation and homage were prevalent. At that time I was not even thinking about being taken seriously by the art world. […] Part of what I was doing was making a comparison between advertising and propaganda, so in a few of my posters I not only utilised the style of propaganda posters, but also elements from what I thought were well-known propaganda images to make it obvious to the viewer that I was simultaneously making and critiquing propaganda. I was never trying to suggest I was the author of images; I assumed everyone knew I had appropriated and re-mixed them, and I was actually very surprised when people tried to suggest that I was being sneaky or unethical. I looked at it like listening to The Clash covering Lee Perry or The Bobby Fuller Four, or the Sex Pistols covering Eddie Cochrane or The Stooges… I was paying tribute to my influences.”
By Thursday afternoon, Fairey is getting antsy for some phone time with Amanda and his two daughters, Vivienne and Madeline. He finishes with another quick hit at the Parlor Gallery. It’s a recognisable Fairey stencil of flowers springing from the barrels of machine guns. Like any dad on the road, he knows the more frequently he checks in, the smoother his time away will be.
That evening, the reception for Revolutions (Fairey’s weekend-long art show as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties) opens in a pop-up location on the Asbury Boardwalk with some eighty pieces that resemble twelve-inch record sleeves. Prints of punk icons sit alongside their hip hop counterparts – 2Pac, Flavor Flav, Chuck D, Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J and Slick Rick.
At an after-party at the Lanes, Fairey commands the turntables, busting out his old-school influences. And of course, the makeover he’s given these old bricks draws a lot of attention. “You expect to see public art in large cities, but not necessarily in small towns,” says Juicy Jenn. “Public art helps with cleaning up bad graffiti – and in our town, to not have gang tags around is important in making people feel safe. When Shepard was doing the murals, people that I would have never expected to see were offering help, asking questions about the images, and asking about his work. I think that it was such a gift, that Shepard and Jonathan LeVine were super kind to give.”
In a matter of two days, he’s given a lot to this community. Fairey wasn’t paid to do the murals or deejay. But the entireRevolutions show sold out before it even opened. ‘Rebel Waltz’ fetched $10k; the Obey brand itself is a multinational apparel company.
“Some people act like compassion and capitalism are mutually exclusive,” says Fairey over a brick-oven pizza at Porta, a new Asbury eatery that was a gay strip club two years ago, “I totally disagree with that. The libertarian idea that every person has a right to define their existence in the way they feel best – I get that. But when his or her own selfish needs come before the general collective need, then it becomes a problem. There’s this idea that it’s one way or another – either the welfare nanny state or guns, no immigrants, SUVs and ‘fuck the environment because God’s gonna work it out’.”
Clearly, Fairey can’t fly a flag (or tag for that matter) with a socialist message. Studio Number One counts Pepsi Cola, Dewar’s Scotch, Coca Cola, Motorolla, Nike Soccer, Saks Fifth Avenue and Ugg Australia among its clients. Unsurprisingly, Fairey’s long-been a target of venom from those who’ve watched him transition from dangerous ledges to Mountain Dew ads.
St. John notes: “There are quite a few clients that have serious ethical issues. Levi’s and Nike are still mistreating their overseas manufacturing workers, according to an April report by ITGLWF [The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation]. Coca-Cola Mexico is notorious for exploiting Mexico’s fresh-water supplies and pushing privatisation — it takes three cups of water to produce one cup of Coke. There are better soda companies out there. There are better clothing manufacturers out there. He and his firm are superstars, and are very clearly in-demand. They have much more of a choice of clients than other agencies. As a designer, be my guest if you want to do work for firms like Coke and Levi’s, but don’t convince yourself that you can magically hang up your moral and political values when you get to work in the morning.”
But in Fairey’s head, each choice makes sense. “For years, I had to do commercial work to survive,” explains Fairey, stating that Studio Number One has refused work from Hummer, Camel and an aluminium skateboard company. “So the whole idea that I became a successful street artist so that I could then capitalise on my cred to cash in is absurd. I had to do the commercial work to perpetuate my street art. Now, the cool thing is that I don’t have to do any commercial work. The only things I do commercially these days are things that tie in with what I’m excited about culturally. If it’s the Led Zeppelin Greatest Hits album or the Johnny Cash Walk the Line movie, those are all things that tie into something I’m interested in… I drink Diet Coke all day, every day. I may not agree with every single thing that a company does, but overall, I don’t think that all they do is damage to the world.”
Even controversial decisions – like taking on the Saks Fifth Avenue ‘Want It!’ campaign, a socialist propaganda parody that flaunts unadulterated consumerism – are all part of a bigger picture. “Our studio was struggling and I didn’t want to have to let go of good people who work for me, who’s insurance I pay,” explains Fairey. “I wanted them to keep their jobs. And I thought what they did for that campaign was somewhat subversive. I thought it was hilarious.” And like every experience, Fairey has taken something from the backlash. “[People believe in] the idea that art should be pure – that for all the crap that we have to deal with, at least art is this oasis of integrity and purity. And the fact that people were saddened that I had compromised that, made me realise that what I’ve done for all these years with such passion and intensity is actually meaningful,” he adds.
What can’t be debated is his willingness to support movements that he believes in. One out of every three Fairey posters has a charity component. Donating prints and skate decks to countless fundraising causes, from the Red Cross to Skateistan, Fairey has generated literally hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I’ve made posters for lots of [charitable] organisations like Hope for Darfur, The Surfrider Foundation, or a documentary called Urban Roots that supports urban farming initiatives,” says Fairey. There’s even an Obey Awareness programme, which sees Fairey donating 100 per cent of T-shirt sales to specific causes. Past projects have included Rock the Vote, Japan Relief, Keep A Breast and Arctic Wild. “Usually when people do stuff for charity, they feel like they’ve been successful and they ought to give something back or maybe they’re guilted into it – but a lot of the things I care about and want to make art about, already fit seamlessly with charities I want to work with. So, it’s an absolutely symbiotic situation,” he explains.
Fairey’s illustration for Feeding America, which featured his daughter holding up a bowl, led to huge brand recognition for the organisation. “An artist of that note giving unlimited rights to his work is priceless to a non-profit,” says spokesperson Ross Fraser. And more recently, Fairey evoked an image reminiscent of sixties’ Civil Rights activism for an Occupy Wall Street/Times Square demonstration. “I’m making art because I want to make it, but also to comment on things that I think are socially important. To get feedback that actually makes a difference – there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”
His detractors would like to point out that he’s more of a MOMA’s boy than a street hood these days. But people like LeVine get it. Fairey still does illegal art, but calls it a delicate subject; even if your work is hanging in the Smithsonian, you can be on probation with Johnny Law. He still stickers LA. Last summer he was bombing in Copenhagen and then worked in New York for a month (although his cover was blown immediately when a Williamsburg fan recognised him staking out a wall).
“To me, it’s still a way to connect with the younger person whose only way to see subversive art is in the street,” says Fairey, who maintains the wiry physique of a twenty-year old, despite the encroaching grey dome. “It can all be simultaneous in different facets. People always tell me that I don’t need to do illegal street art. They say I have a huge following and my art shows will do just fine. But I still enjoy it. I still get a rush. It’s the most liberating thing that I can do. It’s also a way to maintain the rebellious cultures that created me – skateboarding, street art, punk rock and angry hip hop. The underdog getting somewhere against the odds is always going to inspire me.”