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Question Everything: Shepard Fairey on His Influences, His Legal Battle with AP, and Being a Sellout

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(Originally posted on TakePart.)

The cover of Rolling Stone No. 1085 (Aug. 20, 2009) depicts a somber looking President Barack Obama, his face the center of the presidential seal that reads "Will he take bold action or compromise too easily?" The cover image, created by artist Shepard Fairey, was a departure from Fairey's previous work featuring Obama; his ubiquitous Hope graphic became one of the most well-known yet unofficial images of the historic 2008 campaign.

"I think for a lot of people optimism is what will make them act," he said in a conversation at the Brave New Films studio in late August. "I'm trying to maintain this balance of not letting Obama get away with not fulfilling his promises, but also not just rushing to condemn him and having any unity fall into chaos."

Fairey characterizes his work as reactionary, and defends the Hope image as the right move at the time. "Having McCain as president would have been horrible," he said.

In the interview, conducted by Christopher Sprinkle, a producer at Brave New Films, Fairey discussed his progression from struggling to survive by screenprinting pizza restaurant T-shirts and Karate uniforms to being a much sought after gallery artist designing bikes for Lance Armstrong and creating commercial advertising campaigns for Dewar's, Motorola and Saks Fifth Avenue.

"The term 'Shepard Fairey style' has now entered the lexicon much in the same way that a slow pan on a photograph in a documentary film is now referred to as 'Ken Burns move,' " said Sprinkle, who interviewed Fairey as part of the Brave New Films conversations series.

On Humble Beginnings and Selling Out

Fairey described his first widely disseminated image, Andre the Giant has a Posse, as an "Orwellian icon" spontaneously created by making a stencil of a newspaper photo of the professional wrestler Andre the Giant. It became known as the Obey Giant sticker campaign. (You can read about it in his 1990 manifesto on the Obey Web site.)

"The Andre the Giant Has a Posse sticker created a Rorschach-test-like response that was very fascinating," he said. "I took something silly and wanted to look at the profound psychology behind it. I looked into the theory of phenomenology, Heidegger's theory of reawakening the sense of wonder about one's environment. And I also, being a big fan of the Sex Pistols, knew a little bit about situationism--that people get into such a routine that they need a spectacle to snap them out of that and once again reawaken a sense of wonder."

Fairey draws inspiration for his work from an array of disciplines, including the art world (Russian Constructivists, Rene Mederos and other Cuban poster artists, Propagandist Don Hartfeld, Robbie Conal, Henry Douglas, Barbara Kruger) music (the aforementioned Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of The Clash, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys, Henry Rollins of Black Flag), and politics, often portraying political revolutionaries in the same manner as musicians. (See: Noam Chomsky and Ozzy Osbourne).

Andre the Giant Obey sticker. (Creative Commons/joo0eys Flickr Photostream)
Andre the Giant Obey sticker. (Creative Commons /joo0ey Flickr Photostream)

"A lot of political work references things that it intends to criticize or satire. That requires preexisting material," he said. "It's been usually reinterpreted in a way that's very valuable for not only the communication but artistically. [...] It would be very unfortunate if the corporate influence over copyright law was to basically make that form of expression more or less illegal. It would be terrible. "

Therein lies much of the controversy that threatens the legitimacy of his work. Fairey himself is a polarizing character; those familiar with his art typically either love him--his community of dedicated followers voluntarily maintain a wiki to "encompass all things Shepard Fairey and Obey Giant"--or love to hate him. He has been heavily criticized for his appropriation of works by a myriad of other artists, as well as for his corporate advertising campaigns executed through his design agency, Studio Number One.

"The crazy thing is that earlier in my career when I was forced to take almost anything that came my way just to survive, no one called me a sell out. But now if I do something, because it's high profile, it means I've sold out."

Fairey's commercial work continues to fuel accusations of being a sell-out. Earlier this year, there was a negative reaction following the launch of his Constructivist-inspired advertising campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue--a retailer that is the epitome of consumerism and materialism.

"A lot of the reaction [to the Saks campaign] was not based on a sophisticated assessment of my practice," he says. "[...] I've always had a Robin Hood strategy, I think, with the commercial work that I do, which is actually far less of what I'm doing now because I have a good art career going. But for years no one would have even have known about my street work and street campaign had I not done the corporate work because that's what was funding the street art. The idea that you can even be mad at me now for being a sell out--it never would have happened had I not been a sell out. "

On the Hope Image, Fair Use and the Associated Press Lawsuit

Fairey (left) at the unveiling of his HOPE image at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Creative Commons/cliff1066s Flickr Photostream)
Fairey (left) at the unveiling of his Hope poster at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Creative Commons/cliff1066s Flickr Photostream)

The pre-trial hearing begins today in New York for the lawsuit between the Associated Press and Fairey, who is represented by Lawrence Lessig and Stanford's Fair Use Project. "Yesterday, we filed suit against the AP on Fairey's behalf to vindicate his rights, and disprove the AP's accusations," wrote Anthony Falzone, Executive Director of the Fair Use Project, in a Feb. 10 blog post. Fairey is accused of "infringing copyrights the AP asserts in a photograph Fairey used as a visual reference in creating the Obama Hope poster," according to Falzone's post.

"I actually talked to Yosi Sergant at an event and I said, 'I'd like to do something for Barack Obama but I don't want to create fuel for the Right to say 'Look at the company he keeps," Fairey said of the poster's origins. "This guy Shepherd Fairey has been arrested 15 times. All his work is socialist.' Even though all of the work that I've done that has the socialist aesthetic has nothing to do with being a socialist. It's been all over the blogs: 'He loves Mao! and Stalin!' Those were cautionary. I did not want to do something for Obama that wasn't welcome."

Sergant (who found himself in a controversy of his own this week that led to being demoted from his post as communications director at the NEA) got approval from the campaign, and Fairey began searching through hundreds of photos, until he landed on a frame that, in his opinion, showed Obama's sincerity and vision. The result: an unofficial patriotic portrayal of Obama that, after being acquired by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, also landed him in legal trouble.

The image was never created for personal gain. It was created because I just couldn't stand to see my young daughters start to grow up in a Republican administration. That's what allowed me to deviate from my brand, which has been very anti-, very negative, and say I'm going to make an optimistic image, and I'm going to jump right into mainstream politics. [...] I created the image for the benefit of the country, in my opinion. I donated all the money either to the Obama campaign or to used it to make more materials. We made 300,000 posters, 500,000 stickers, T-shirts, got all this stuff out there, but it was never done for profit--it was all reinvested. Now I find myself in this lawsuit.

"The concept of fair use is that one can be inspired by copyrighted material and make something new that is obviously referencing the copyrighted material, but is creating something new that has different meaning, is satirical, is not competing with the marketplace of the original piece," Fairey said in the studio interview. "That's fair use of copyrighted material."

He argues that his use of the Mannie Garcia/AP photo does not compete in any way with the original market for this photograph. In fact, he said, a cropped version of the photograph now sells for $1,200 in a New York gallery--a price that would have never been possible without his popularization of the Hope image.

A man in the audience at the studio asked if Fairey practices what he preaches; had he ever sent cease and desist letters? Yes, Fairey replied. One went to a vendor who reportedly bought a Mercedes with the money he made selling a "bootleg" of the Hope image. He says he told the vendor to stop, or else prove the money was being donated to the Obama campaign. Then there's what he describes as the "gotcha moment that's been out on the Web," Fairey said he went after a man in Texas who took the icon face image and put a "SARS mask" over it, and was then selling posters of the image.

The simplified version is that I went after him and told him to stop selling that image. The real reason I went after him on that image is that he was selling bootleg printouts of some of my other images to people as if they were real posters. I was getting feedback from a lot of people who are fans of my work. [...] I felt like I couldn't go after him for a digital output of this poster or that poster, so the easiest way to strike back at him was to try to stop him from selling that other image. And that was a huge mistake because the things were unrelated. And I actually did it to try and get revenge for my fans who felt duped, and were emailing me constantly their frustrations about this guy that's a total parasitic bottom feeder. In pursuing him for something that I actually, when I wasn't in a huff about what he was doing otherwise, would clearly characterize as fair use. It makes me look like a hypocrite. And that was a really big mistake and I regret it.

Another audience member, a woman who uses photos as references when painting, voiced concern over copyright issues for fine artists.

"That for me is the biggest reason to be fighting the AP is not only to clear my name and my practice, but I think that a very large percentage of contemporary art in galleries and museums out there today would be rendered technically illegal," Fairey responded. "Now, whether each piece would be pursued as infringement, who knows, but for there to be a chilling effect where artists are hesitant to work from references for fear of being sued, they're scared to especially express themselves in ways that that might be inflammatory because--just like what I did to our friend from Texas--they may get some retribution from someone who doesn't like what they're saying. And that is another reason that it's so horrible what I did that."

Despite the various controversies Fairey finds himself involved in, he doesn't seem to be curbing his output in the near future.

"I think its very important to have that balance whether it's in your art or in your life of being able to just have a lust for life that has some component you enjoy," he said. "And for me, when I make art, it's about making a picture I think is powerful. And whether you want to call it beautiful or not--a lot of people will debate me about the beauty of my art--it's got something that's visually arresting, [and] then you get to share the message."