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The Importance of Shepard Fairey

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2009-02-18-ObamaShepPoster.jpg

I would like to take a moment to reflect on what Shepard Fairey has done to our world in the last year.

I, like many of you, saw Shepard's image of Obama shortly after it was released at the beginning of '08. I immediately gravitated to it and knew that it could become a vital tool in getting Barack Obama elected to president.

What Shepard's image did was define a feeling about a man that millions of Americans felt. He did this with only one word at the bottom and a graphic design of a beautiful emerging leader in our culture. This image of Obama became the most used graphic of his campaign. Shepard's portrait morphed into something more than just a cool picture but a window into what was possible in America. He tapped into something that we were all feeling but could not clearly articulate. He put our words into four walls and a few colors and something very special was born.

But I think it is important to understand where the artist is coming from when they make their art. That gives us a greater understanding of what the art is and what the artist had envisioned it to be when he made it. For over 20 years now Shepard Fairey has been a street artist. His image of Andre the Giant has been proliferating the globe since he made it. There are many theories behind the image but the main idea behind was that Shepard wanted to make something cool that wasn't normally seen as cool. In a recent interview Shepard said that wrestling at the time was seen as cheesy amongst his friends and he wanted to turn that idea on its head and make a cool sticker using the image of this famous wrestler. A documentary was made about the campaign called, "Andre the Giant has Posse", and Shepard became a cult figure in the world of street art and graphic design. The design of Andre meant so much more to so many people and many wanted a piece of it. He sold thousands of stickers, posters, buttons, and other Andre related merchandise. Shepard had launched an entire campaign around this image of the old wrestler.

In many ways Shepard Fairey is a great community organizer, just like Barack Obama. Long before his Obama poster came to light he had been engaged in the activity of social organizing around something. He didn't have a political candidate to support but in many ways his design of Andre the Giant was his candidate and he spread the ideas behind his image of the wrestler. Shepard had been practicing the tools to be a political organizer long before this recent presidential election. When the Obama HOPE image finally emerged the railroad tracks had already been laid long ago for a revolution of this magnitude.

Another wonderful thing to take into consideration about what has happened with Shepard's portrait of Obama is that he did it outside of the campaign. I think that is a really important thing to remember when you look at that image that has defined the presidency. Shepard just wanted to help Obama. He wasn't paid to do it and he wasn't convinced to do it. He was just an aware and engaged citizen who used his talents to try and influence the electorate the way that he saw fit. I think that we can all take a lesson from this. It is not useful to wait around to be plugged into the machine. If you just start working super hard on what you believe in and produce good work then the machine will find you.... And that is exactly what happened with Shepard Fairey and Barack Obama.

At every point of success that Obama had during his campaign this year that image that Shepard made also felt the same level of success. This continued to happen all the way up to the inauguration. During the Inauguration festivities Shepard's image was inducted into the Smithsonian as the official portrait of Barack Obama. It now hangs proudly at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. This moment was not only huge for Shepard Fairey but also the entire art community. It was as if the old boys club of the art world had finally allowed a new guy into their membership. In a gallery where there is nothing but formal and usual portraits of our presidents now hangs a beautiful piece of street art. The worlds of art and politics changed that day and millions of street artists and political operatives will forever be able to point to Shepard Fairey as the beginning of something very new and monumental. Shepard had merged art and politics like never before and I think we will be feeling the effect of what he did for years to come.

There is something else that I'd like to add about the importance of that image hanging in The National Portait Gallery. Since the beginning of our country's history we have only had white presidents. I think it such a profound and beautiful symbol of how far we have come that the portrait of the first African American President is not about the color of his skin but about the colors of America... RED, WHITE, and BLUE! It's almost as if we went from watching a black and white TV to finally getting one with colors! Our entire history we have lived with a white President and Shepard's image of Obama, in it's own unique way, shows that in this election we looked past the color of his skin and into the character of his heart.

Now Shepard finds himself in a legal battle over the image with the AP. And he is fighting with the same passion and vigor that he has used to get his work out there for the past 20 years. I think that when its all said and done and the legal dust has cleared, that Shepard will win his case and set legal precedent for the entire art world for years to come. With a win in his ongoing case Shepard will add another historic brick to the building he has constructed over time. Young street artists forever will look to Shepard as someone who changed the game for everyone who followed him.

President Obama has become a transformational figure in politics, at the same time as Shepard is becoming a transformatonal figure in the art world. Both men are changing their own playing fields but they are dong it together and they are doing it to better America.

The first portrait of our first African American president is red, white, and blue. It took an independent street artist to show us this but he did and when he did, it changed the world.