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Interview with Shepard Fairey
by Abraham Ritchie

Chicago, May 2011 - During the preview for the Art Chicago fair, ArtSlant Editor Abraham Ritchie was able to sit down with Shepard Fairey who was showing his newest work at the fair as well as DJing music sets later in the evening.

Ritchie caught up with Fairey about LA MOCA's new street art exhibition “Art in the Streets,” the arrest of artist REVOK, what happens when street art gets off of the street and into the gallery, and Fairey’s relation to his iconic OBAMA HOPE poster of President Obama as well as the President himself.

Shepard Fairey DJing at the opening of Art Chicago, April 28th; Courtesy of Art Chicago.

Abraham Ritchie:  I’ve been involved in different conversations with people, a lot of them via Twitter, about what the next stage is for graffiti and street art?  What does the art form need to do, maybe internally, to communicate to the public to be more appreciated as an art form? Chicago has a vigorous graffiti-removal program, so it’s not being respected.

Shepard Fairey: One of the things that is great about graffiti and street art is how democratic it is, how amateur you can be to participate; it’s a public forum by its very nature. With a lack of bureaucracy there are a lot of people who aren’t making high quality work, but I don’t think that should cause people to not recognize the work that is high quality.

Shepard Fairey in Chicago; Image courtesy of Obey Giant Art and Robert Berman Gallery / Photo: Jonny Cournoyer.

I think that a show like the “Art in the Streets” show [at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, LA MoCA] will position street art and graffiti as serious art.  The show basically asserts that this is the most important movement since Pop Art, and I would agree.

It may not be as aesthetically cohesive as Pop Art, which itself has a lot of variety, but street art and graffiti are a spirit of working outside an elitist system rather than finding what’s in vogue in the collector and the gallery world.  [It’s a spirit of] making things that the artist believes in and putting them out there by any means necessary.  I think that is going to always have value and will continue to be perpetuated by humans needing to assert their existence without going through red tape.

But the artistic value of it is really demonstrated by a well-curated show like the “Art in the Streets” show. A mural program around the arts district in L.A. has resulted from that show, which takes the art from indoor to outdoor and people recognize the value of it outdoors.  Then all of a sudden the public doesn’t see all graffiti as bad, because they see these sanctioned pieces by these same artists that have to work quickly and illegally, and they say, "Maybe if this person got a legal wall it would be something that everyone would treasure."

Some people in graffiti and street art say, "That’s not cool because graffiti is all about rebellion; we don’t want to be co-opted."  That’s fine for them.  But a lot of people just want to get their work out there in a way that is immediate and they’ve been building towards opportunities that they’ve been creating for themselves.

Of course [an art exhibition of graffiti] is a polarizing thing in the graffiti community.  But I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for the loudmouths in graffiti or street art to try to shut conversation down, or for the loudmouths in public policy to say that all street art is vandalism or gang-related.  They’re both very narrow-minded mentalities, in my opinion.

AR: I was going to get to it, but since you’ve brought this kind of thing up, how do you feel about REVOK getting arrested by the LAPD?

SF: I’m super bummed REVOK got arrested. I’m friends with him.  The last time he got arrested I donated all the profits from a poster to help pay for his legal fees.  I’ve been traveling, so I don’t know what’s happened in the last day or two with him.

I know initially he had a $320,000 bail. Which is absurdly high in relation to the crime.

The United States justice system has this idea that there won’t be cruel and unusual punishment, and that the punishment should be correlated to the crime.  The bail is cruel and unusual, too extreme.

There are a lot of people who make a lot of noise, who have a “slippery slope” mentality along with the paranoia that graffiti will lead to anarchy and our entire society will collapse.  It’s completely irrational.  It’s not based in reality. Yet somehow they make a strong impression on law enforcement and public officials.

That’s where I think it’s the unfortunate duty of people who are a little more stable and with a logical point of view, to talk about what the real problems are in society.  Graffiti does create some problems I agree, but it also can be really positive.  People can build art skills and self-esteem, and their powerlessness will not manifest in more negative ways if they have an outlet like this.  It’s a really lop-sided debate right now.

Shepard Fairey at right, EDEM above; Image courtesy of Obey Giant Art and Robert Berman Gallery/ Photo: Jonny Cournoyer.

AR:  It’s an easy target for politicians to go after, because cracking down on graffiti is a hot-button issue.

SF: It’s superficial.  There’s Giuliani in New York who pushed the “Broken Window Theory”—that things like graffiti, smoking joints on the street, petty vandalism, petty crime, lead to a climate that emboldens criminals to crimes that are worse.

Because graffiti is on a surface, it’s aesthetic; it’s something that can be a symbol of a neighborhood in decline.  It’s easy to jump on, even though it’s much more complicated than that.

Graffiti is something that can be visibly tracked whereas a lot of other things are much more difficult to track the cause and effect of.  It’s an easy target.

AR: Sure, the guy smoking the joint is gone after the joint is, so there’s no lasting physical presence.

SF: Right.

AR: So I would be interested to hear what your answer would be to this: is the public scared of graffiti?

SF: You know I think that there are definitely some members of the public who are scared by graffiti because I was reading some of the public comments on an article about REVOK being arrested.  Some of the comments said that he should have his hands cut off, which were similar to the comments when I was arrested in Boston right before my museum show [“Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2009].  I can’t think that anyone would make a comment like that about Lindsay Lohan shoplifting or something.

Graffiti seems to create anger that’s really disproportionate to the crime. I think it’s based on thirty years of propaganda about how all graffiti is tied into gang activity and turf wars, how all graffiti artists carry guns and beat each other up, how they disrespect the law in every other form.  These things are completely untrue.  Sure there’s knuckleheads in every sub-culture, but the majority of kids that I know that do graffiti are reasonably well-educated, middle-class people who just want to do something outdoors.

Shepard Fairey in Chicago; Image courtesy of Obey Giant Art and Robert Berman Gallery/Photo: Jonny Cournoyer

AR: You mentioned this briefly before when you were talking about “Art in the Streets,” but in your thinking and your practice what happens when graffiti art moves off of the streets and into the gallery?  I think a lot of younger artists are trying to work this question out for themselves, so how do you manage and what’s your approach?

SF: I was always striving to make art and to communicate with it.  The street is a really great venue for communication, when you put art up there the medium is the message.  Putting it up in the street is an act of defiance and that is consciously or subconsciously transferred to the viewer, just by context.  That’s in addition to the charm of the texture and the surroundings of the street.  When something is put up in the streets it is, in a sense, enhanced by everything going on around it and the novelty of the experience of stumbling upon it and saying, "Usually my route to work is really boring but, ah! Now there’s this new thing."  It might make someone happy and someone else angry, but it’s unexpected.

You expect to go into a gallery and take the time to look at work, on the wall, that’s supposed to be art, that the artist is supposed to have worked hard enough to deserve this space.  It’s different in terms of the expectation of the audience.

Same Shepard Fairey piece as above, seen in situ with EDEM piece in Chicago.

When I work on the street I’m striving for a balance of quantity and quality.  I want the work to be strong for the restrictions of having to put it up quickly in the street, with the knowledge that it might be cleaned quickly.  In the gallery I’d like to translate some that energy of the street through texture and with my iconography.  I do want to spend more time on the pieces so that people do actually appreciate them as well-crafted art objects.

Not what all artists do in a gallery can work on the street and not what all artists do on the street can work in a gallery.  I feel that I’m a fortunate person because there is crossover, and I think that with all the artists in the LA MOCA show there is crossover.

People who get some fame in the street sometimes assume that it will be great in a gallery and then they’re mad when it doesn’t crossover well.  I think their frustration comes from not considering thoughtfully enough the changes in context: viewer expectation, the cleanliness of the gallery, and the expectation of the gallery itself.

Again, I feel lucky, I went to art school.  But I also was into punk rock and skateboarding and I loved graffiti, so I think I have a perspective that combines everything necessary for both practices.  That might sound egotistical but I don’t mean it to be.  But I have worked really hard through study and practice to get better at the things I do.

AR: What you’re saying reminds me of what Mario Ybarra, Jr., said about this, that younger artists have to make a decision about whether they are going to be interested in showing in a gallery, or not.  And then they have to respect the context they choose. Does that sound right to you?

SF: Yes, to me the gallery is just another platform for an audience that may not pay attention to street art but considers themselves sophisticated enough to go look at art in galleries—

Shepard Fairey at Robert Berman Gallery in Art Chicago, 2011; Image courtesy of Obey Giant Art and the gallery/Photo: Jonny Cournoyer

AR: Well Art Chicago is the perfect venue for that!

SF: Yeah, and my hope is that in a lot of the things I do there’s an opportunity for cross-pollination between all my practices.  I think it’s really unhealthy to confine yourself, out of feelings of obligation, to one area.  I know people that say, "Oh well I can’t really do fine art because I’m a graphic designer."  Those are self-created restrictions; they’re not really there.  Since Warhol those walls have been broken down.

I think it is important to understand what makes a strong picture, that will be isolated, within a gallery, that doesn’t have that sense of rebellion from the street.

Courtesy of the artist

AR: To wrap it up, let’s go back to 2008 and the OBAMA HOPE poster you did. I’m really interested in the way that the image instantly became iconic, and was picked up immediately by the public.  It supplanted the official campaign imagery; when we had the election rally here in Chicago the city put up the HOPE image, rather than the official campaign logo.

SF: [Laughs]

AR: It was very indicative! I feel sure no one consciously decided to avoid the official campaign logo, they just went with the image they knew.

So as the creator of that image, how do you feel about it now?  And why do you think people took to it so strongly?

SF: I think that a lot of the appeal of the image was based on Obama’s inherent appeal, so I can’t take credit for that aspect at all. Clearly the association of an art piece with Obama gave it a nice boost.

But Obama in most people’s minds represented a shift, progress away from the very stale politics of the Bush administration. When you look at the very narrow parameters for political marketing it’s maybe a photograph, usually red, white and blue.  Just that this was an illustrated image in the first place helped.  It was stylized and idealized, in my mind, to deracialize Obama, to make him feel patriotic, but also to feel not as boring as other political stuff.  I tried to present him almost like a two-dimensional statue.

His real challenge was that he was seen as being too new, too outside the mainstream. I think that the image split the difference between making him feel patriotic and iconic and still also fresh—outside the stale conventions of politics.  He seemed to have vision and aspiration in that look that I tried to draw attention to, of Obama looking into the distance.  People know that look, from Kennedy, from Lincoln.  It’s a political cliché; there’s Che Guevara looking into the distance too. It’s a cliché that’s not utilized as much as it could be.  I think it triggers something in people, to say, "If I don’t know where we’re going this person does."  It’s a look that signifies leadership.

I made the image with all those things in mind, but how it manifested was much more powerful than I ever could have imagined.  I feel proud of it as a tool of grassroots activism.

Obama has not done everything exactly as I had hoped, but I still think he’s a really high-quality human being and he’s trying to do the right thing and trying to go in the right direction.  He inherited a mess, and he’s been sabotaged by the Right at every turn.

But I still support him.

ArtSlant would like to thank Shepard Fairey for his assistance in making this interview possible

--Abraham Ritchie

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