The Visual Tyranny of Shepard Fairey
The following was written a little over a year ago. It was meant to be published around the time the “Art in the Streets” show was up at MOCA in Los Angeles. It was to be published in an online arts journal, but for one reason or another they never ran it. Since then a lot has happened. The Occupy Movement became a force for social change. Shepard Fairey was somewhat involved, designing a poster for the movement, then being asked to change it. Another important event worth noting is that Fairey was attacked in Copenhagen and called “Obama Illuminati”. I absolutely do not condone or support violence or harassment in any form against people for their political or artistic positions. Still, it seems evident that since the success of his HOPE campaign, Fairey’s street cred has taken a severe hit. Fairey’s wallet, on the other hand, is surely a different story. At any rate, here is an articulation of all the reasons and ways I detest the work of Shepard Fairey. I have added a few sentences about Studio Number One becoming the primary designer for MOCA, and have done a little editing, but this is more or less the 2011 story in its full, rambling glory. -John P. Hogan
In 2010, after suffering two bankruptcies and years of battling Popeye’s and other advancing fried chicken chains, the Pioneer Take Out corporation finally closed the doors of its Echo Park location for good. For about a year, the building at the corner of Echo Park Avenue and Sunset Boulevard stood abandoned. In the interim, it served as a venue for the usual sights and activities of urban blight. Homeless men crashed out under its red awning, surreptitious drug deals went down in its parking lot, pigeons took over its roof, indeterminate industrial sludge leaked from its gutters and walls, and dozens of gang tags peppered the entire tableau. The building had a long skinny pole out front, on top of which perched a battered aluminum sign depicting a cartoon chef holding a plate of chicken, popping his barrel chest out of the front of a covered wagon. In its year of neglect, this sign seemed to take on a tragicomic resonance. Pioneer Take Out was a sinking ship, defiantly flying its wacky flag at full mast ‘til the bitter end.
Pioneer Take Out (or Pioneer Chicken as it was more commonly known) was located next to Walgreens (itself having taken over the space of the former, and unaffiliated, Pioneer Market). Walgreens was the nearest pharmacy to my apartment, and I would often find myself passing the bedraggled Pioneer Chicken while suffering from some degree of illness, injury or hangover.
One morning I was in just such a depleted state, headed to the pharmacy for a Pedialyte or Tylenol or something. I was feeling low about my own health, while the surrounding environment did little to lift my spirits. All around was the dysfunction of urban commercial space in Great Recession America: even cheesy fast food places that make terrible food became quaint and sad as they perished in the face of contemporary economic reality.
As I walked by the Pioneer Chicken, a poster pasted to the side of the building made me stop in my tracks. It was red, black and white, with a gigantic eye in the center, and it read “Never Trust Your Own Eyes.”
In that moment this message seemed to open up attractive possibilities. The corporate box I just exited did not exist. The crumbling relic of the American Dream laid waste before my eyes was not real. All people and things were energy and matter on a plane of cosmic consciousness. Perhaps if we could see beyond our own eyes, and see with a giant all-powerful eye like the weird one on this poster, all would become clear and we’d transcend this miserable present.
Then I read “Believe What You Are Told” and thought to myself “Well, that’s a buzzkill.” The benevolent half-baked Alan Wattsisms in my head gave way to what was surely a smug and ironic castigation of me —the person on the street who looks at things and reads posters. Now I saw where this was going. It must have been one of his. But where was the logo? It wasn’t in the bottom corner as it had been for the last couple of years. Tricky bastard, it was hiding in plain sight! That dumb vector drawing of Andre the Giant’s face was staring at me, straight from the center of the eyeball. —Finally, the nail in the coffin, stretched across the top: “OBEY” in letters so huge I actually didn’t see them. Of all the street art and graffiti art I’ve encountered in my life, only Shepard Fairey has the ability to create these moments of crushing defeat. Only he has been able to create the sense that I have been spiritually mugged.
It’s possible Shepard Fairey is the most influential American visual artist alive. He does not have the art world prominence of Matthew Barney or Jeff Koons, but he has international recognition on a mass scale. He is a latter day Warhol with the aesthetics and subtlety of Henry Rollins. He is a popular artist —a propagandist for American neo-liberalism masquerading as a radical iconoclast. His work is exhibited throughout the globe, on the streets and in galleries. His work was featured prominently in Los Angeles MOCA’s Art In The Streets, “the first major U.S. museum exhibition of the history of graffiti and street art”. Most recently, his design company, Studio Number One, has, according to LA Weekly, been contracted to do "nearly all the museum’s design work". His imagery is imprinted in the minds of countless masses, primarily for his HOPE poster, emblazoned with the image of Barack Obama. Originally designed and distributed without Obama’s knowledge or consent, Fairey’s HOPE poster eventually was embraced by the official Obama campaign. It came to define the candidate’s image as an iconic figure in whom the populace could invest hopes for progress and prosperity in the midst of a recession and the quagmire of two wars without any end in sight. Since then, Fairey’s aesthetic, drawing from a long history of propaganda art, from Russian Constructivism through the Works Progress Administration, Black Panther and Zapatista movements, moved beyond the street and is now embraced by mainstream culture.
Imitation is a sure-fire sign of acceptance, and Fairey’s three-color reduction print look is adopted and employed for any and all causes of the Right and Left. Paste magazine created an "obamicon" generator that allows users to stick their own mug in the “Obama” filter. Glenn Beck has emulated the HOPE poster, replacing Obama with images of Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, using the newly minted contemporary-iconic style in his campaign to deify the founding fathers.
If we consider that for years Fairey’s work has proposed an equivalency between any and all iconic and charismatic figures, then this is as it should be. His “OBEY” posters, all of which feature the face of pro-wrestler Andre the Giant in some iteration, have demonized some (George W. Bush with vampire fangs or a Hitler mustache) and lauded the courage and willpower of others (Lance Armstrong). Angela Davis, Josef Stalin, Huey Lewis and Noam Chomsky have all been run through the “OBEY” image mill and come out the other end emptied of any signification other than as generic authority figures and unwitting spokespersons for the Obey brand. By suggesting that all icons demand subservience, and all are equivalent, Fairey’s OBEY posters do nothing more than instruct us to obey his art project.
Fairey’s work is now in the collections of prominent museums, including LACMA and MOMA. His portrait of Obama hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. He is linked indelibly to one of the most powerful men in the world. Yet the persistence of the “Obey” and Andre-face signal an unwillingness to move beyond an adolescent conception of power dynamics: pro-wrestling, the skateboarder’s and graffiti artist’s adversarial relationship with the police, intolerance toward contradiction and nuance, resentment toward all authority figures.
Fairey’s life’s work, the “OBEY Campaign” is rooted in the definitive male pre-adolescent fascination of the 1980’s: professional wrestling.
In 1987, Andre The Giant, retired from his role as a professional wrestler and had a feature role as Fezzik in The Princess Bride. Though capable of great strength, Fezzik was really a sweetheart. Andre traded in his monster image for that of a lumbering teddy bear.
Two years later, Fairey, then a student at RISD, started making his classic “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers and sticking them up all around Providence. Overtime they grew in popularity and spread across the country. For the skateboarding dudes of America, these stickers were a tongue-in-cheek rehabilitation of the mystique and menace Andre cultivated during his pro-wrestling career, inferring he had a “Posse” that you had to watch out for. They were made in a smudgy, tossed-off style. The fact that they were so hastily assembled yet ubiquitous added to the humor of it; they were funny.
In the ‘90’s, the face of Andre The Giant was streamlined to a handful of positive and negative shapes to facilitate stencils and clean screenprinting. The vague, hand-scrawled threat of the initial stickers was swapped out for a slick sans seriff command: “OBEY”. The stickers became posters, the posters were wheat-pasted by Fairey, and later by ever-multiplying Fairey adherents, and the world dominance of the OBEY brand began in earnest.
As the original Andre the Giant face became more abstracted, the humor curdled into something altogether different. Like a Mike Meyers catchphrase, it starts off exhilarating, and gets repeated for years until it becomes a demented mantra.
The “OBEY” phrase is taken directly from John Carpenter’s 1988 B-movie classic They Live. In this film, a down-on-his-luck drifter (played by another professional wrestler: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) comes into the possession of a pair of sunglasses that reveal to him that skull-faced aliens have employed law-abiding earthlings as their servants in a charade of democratic equality. When seen through the glasses, advertisements and billboards for all manner of products—from computer software to vacation packages—are revealed as nothing more than blunt commands issued in bold type: “OBEY” “CONSUME” “CONFORM” “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”. In They Live, the subliminal messages of conformity and oppression are disseminated throughout the streets in business and commercial centers. But a tent city at the margins of downtown serves as an unmediated space where humanitarian impulses can flourish and the aliens’ indoctrination fades. In this territory, messages of rebellion can occasionally pierce through.
It is in just these sorts of marginal spaces that street art is at home: alleyways, vacant lots, and out-of-commission commercial properties. Graffiti and street art can act the same way as the pirate transmissions trying to spread the truth about alien invasion in They Live. Street artists cut through the middle-man, disregard the law, and speak directly to the people, any people, wherever they can get away with it. Graffiti has a longer lifespan in environments where few are invested in “clean” walls and orderly space, and an unwritten street art ethics code forbids bombing private residences and buildings in use unless you’re asked to.
The visual roots of Fairey’s work have more to do with political propaganda than with urban space and high-low dichotomies, and they tend to shift the read of the street itself, rather than riff on the context the street gives them. Fairey’s gallery in Art In The Streets was a traditional room of prints in frames. Other artists in the show, such as Barry McGee, Neckface, and Stephen Powers, created an elaborate urban street facsimile in order to provide a necessary (albeit false) context for their work. This was unnecessary for Fairey, as his posters are self-contained.
When installed on the street, Fairey’s “OBEY” posters aggressively assert order in the midst of the chaos. When an abandoned building is plastered with photocopied dystopian edicts, it creates an air of institutional oppression when the reality is institutional apathy and abandonment. Rather than disrupting and pointing to the absurd amidst commercial seduction, or exploit unmediated and forgotten urban space in order to create a space for anarchic fun, Fairey’s tactic is to use the absence of mediation to create a stage-set for his own fictional totalitarian state.
In 1990 Fairey wrote a “Manifesto” which explained his Andre the Giant/OBEY sticker and poster campaign as an experiment in phenomenology—a means to make people more aware of their surroundings.
“Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail.”
This may have been true in 1989, but 22 years later it is far from the case. The nineties began as a land before The Blair Witch Project, buzz marketing, YouTube, or even high speed Internet. The landscape has completely changed. It is now common practice for marketers to make obscure and mysterious ads that will eventually lead consumers to a website or a product. This proves Fairey’s prescience, but also shows how his work is limited and gimmicky. The context for this work has completely changed, and what was once “rebellious” has become toxic and oppressive. And not ironically.
Another vexing quote from the manifesto states: “OBEY has no actual meaning, [so] the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.” Perhaps I take this a bit personally, considering the brief mood-swinging experience I had at Pioneer Chicken, but I can’t help thinking this is the artistic equivalent of grabbing your little brother’s hand, hitting him with it, and saying “Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?” ”OBEY” means something. It means “Do What You’re Told”. It is not a passive, non-committal word. Nor are two dead eyes staring straight ahead a passive image. They create an atmosphere of hostility and subjugation, regardless of the underpinning ideology.
Fairey has risen to a state of prominence and power in the art world and beyond. He is not a teenager anymore, and much of what he does is the realization of adolescent fantasies made manifest in our world. A teenager might dream of making an elaborate empire based on a handful of inside jokes and more or less empty nods to radical politics and revolution, but few actually have the gumption to carry these things out throughout the span of their adult life.
Shepard Fairey has that which frustrated young men desire and tyranny would deny: agency. He uses it to promote causes and programs he agrees with. He sits on the boards of a number of non-profits, and supports a host of others. Still, it is disingenuous for an artist who trades in rebellion and iconoclasm to work for major corporate clients such as Mountain Dew and Saks Fifth Avenue.
If anything, the HOPE campaign was the most positive and honest thing he’s done. Fairey is basically a mainstream liberal, and like so many others of his kind (myself included) he not only wanted but needed to believe in Barack Obama, and his poster design is a reflection of that. But just as the honeymoon period of a presidency inevitably ends, and the candidate has to turn into the functioning president concerned with compromise and pragmatism, so the artist must honor the not-always-sexy honest truth of his world view and reconcile it with his work. Otherwise the message of the work will slip out of the artist’s control. When the artist is as influential as Fairey, and his imagery and message so loaded, this is a dangerous thing.
The fact that Fairey continues to produce work w/ Andre the Giant and “Obey” means he has decided to continue generating work from a bankrupt handful of concepts hatched when he was far less mature a thinker than he is today. These will continue to serve him well as brand identities, but this is not good art. At best, it’s cynical marketing, at worst, it is an unintentional means by which a learned helplessness about the distribution of power and wealth is imprinted on the youth of society.
What really gnawed at me at Pioneer chicken, what created that awful sinking feeling yet again, was the recognition of my own subjugation to constant, even openly illegal, advertising ploys. Now the ploys are capitalizing on my despair in the face of the dysfunction of capitalism itself. I had a brief moment, in my trusting confusion, where I thought there may have been a message of positivity or transcendence coming from a piece of artwork encountered on the street. But the message of Hope was an aberration. The street art businessman’s true trade is in a sustained and dull helplessness, mitigated by the occasional purchase of a rebellious t-shirt.
A few blocks east of the old Pioneer Chicken (now a Little Caesar’s Pizza) is Studio Number One, Fairey’s Los Angeles headquarters. This building is notable for its “This area under constant surveillance” signage, complete with drawings of video cameras emblazoned with the “Obey” sign. There are a number of rather large security cameras and a conspicuous absence of graffiti on its exposed brick walls, made possible by a transparent graffiti-resistant coating. Obey, indeed.