In this essay, we will be discussing how Shepard Fairey’s political, ethical and moral values towards the consumerist society may have fuelled the iconography of his art without intending to do so. Urban art in my opinion is the act of displaying art that relates to the artist’s environment, with underlying anti-capitalist and rebellious undertones. Street artist D*Face stated “Shepard’s work blurs the lines between vandalism and urban renewal. Many people would literally bend over backwards to have Shepard put a piece of his art onto their property, but at the same time, putting your work in the public domain without permission is vandalism, pure and simple – and thank God for that, because with that brings energy, vibrancy and life to a city.” 1
Shepard Fairey is a well-known urban and street artist, who involves himself in projects that are attached to political stand points. Refusing work based on his morals as a self-proclaimed populist and anti-consumerist. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design where he created his first iconic art piece in 1984. As well as earning a bachelor of fine arts in illustration.
Figure 1. Andre the Giant Has A Posse Sticker.
His first act of using the consumerist values to his aid was the ‘Andre the Giant’ stencil. This was created whist he was studying. It was intended as a joke towards the skateboarders in his town. It featured a grainy low quality image of Andre the giant, a well-known pro wrestler. Turning this stencil into an ironic piece of art, placing it in various places around the city. It came across as a viral marketing campaign, an accidental way of fusing urban art and viral marketing, testing the viewers by appearing as a logo and advertisement. Stickering was a mischievous act, but perhaps a way of putting something out there, that was connected to Fairey as an artist, therefore popularizing his work.
Using Roland Barthes signifier and signified, applying it to the Andre the giant stencil. The artefact then technically was an empty sign, it had no intentions behind it. The signifier then was without the signified. They could interpret it in anyway, whether thinking it was an act of a political nature or just an act of vandalism. It was in Fairey’s nature to get the viewer to question this, he wanted them to question their surroundings and their relationship to them. It wasn’t until Fairey had made a name for himself, that then the artefact had a sign behind it, connecting through Fairey’s populist and anti-consumerist views.
Phenomenology states that a conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. It studies the act of using people’s natural curiosity to create something out of nothing. Phenomenology plays a part into Fairey’s distribution and how the viewer perceives the artefact. It’s a natural human instinct to be voyeuristic and take in our surroundings. By distributing the stickers as widely as he did this then created a buzz behind what the artefact meant, why it was popping up everywhere, and who it was done by. Therefore, Fairey had stumbled across a lucky accident, which made a name for himself.
The stencil and stickers were both removed, from varying places around the city. This was because people believed they were an eyesore, a nuisance and an act of vandalism. We appear to have become this hyper sensitized nation, where anything that seems to cross a line or boundary, whether that be a political, racial or ethical is then deemed as not worthy, and not funny. Fairey and several other urban artists challenge this.
The stencil was an act of appropriation, taking an image that already had a point behind it and changing it, to convey another message. Fairey does this in a lot of his work, appropriating others images to convey that of a political message. He is very flexible when it comes to using varying formats to portray an image, utilizing these roads to get across his message, the more routes you access the wider audience is reached.
Figure 2. Obama Hope Poster
The act of appropriation can be applied through the view of vandalism. Appropriating a public or commercial building, for the use of art. This then creates a negative interpretation towards the act of urban art itself. The movement then loses credibility, which would affect the iconography of the work. The movement remains the same, following the same ethics, although those ethics may break some laws when the act of appropriating a building is applied. Fairey has been arrested on several charges relating to the Andre the Giant stencil in Detroit. “Just because he is a well-known artist does not take away the fact that he is also a vandal”. Detroit police sergeant Rebecca McKay.2 Fairey was involved in a case relating to the appropriation of an image, that was used for Barack Obama’s election campaign in 2009. The original photo was taken by photographer Mannie Garcia. Mannie brought the case forward to the Associated Press, he was sued for copyright infringement.
Russian constructivism was an art movement in the 20th century that was prevalent in Russia around 1917, it was a way for artists to relate to the revolution and show their views, supportive or not. Alexander Rodchenko a prominent artist at the time took constructivism in the direction of social and political reform, using propaganda style tactics. He experimented with overprinting, bold large typography and photo montage, this was quite an innovative style at the time. The use of the red and the black connects with the political party running at the time of the revolution.
Figure 3. Lily Burk. Alexander Rodchenko
It is obvious that in Fairey’s work he has used this constructivist style, the geometric layout and the use of the red and black. He introduced this gold of tone cream, which also runs through a lot of his images. Updating what was this political parties colours. His choice to appropriate images that are of a political nature already, and have some recognisability behind them , already adds value to what Fairey is displaying. But then he has been heavily crtitizsed for his use of apropritation. “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”.
Figure 4. Say Yes.
In conclusion Faireys political ethical and moral values , have created a figure under which he is. This figure is somewhat an anti-consumerist , a non rule player, a urban artist “bad boy”. Fairey originally admits he is a populist , he isn’t one for following the rules, or staying inside the box. Using other people’s natural instincts to spread his work, to the masses. Whether urban art is something of an appropriation of varying art movements, or a renewal. Its one’s own political , ethical and moral views that determine your views, toward this movement itself. If it brings this vibrancy to the city, or if it brings a stereotype of a certain culture, that isn’t wanted. Believe that appropriating art is renewing it, not a harmful practice or something that should be seen as infringement. We shouldn’t be sued or made an article out of for trying to highlight an idea. In this day and age and with the recent happenings surrounding trump and Faireys role in the current posters against trump and his movements, ts seen as a revolution a good thing, a collective of people helping towards one goal and one aim. This links into his overall constructivism style, being a constant mover in the realms of political reform and change, its perfect for the current culture.
1.Henry, Roland. “Shepard Fairey: Force Of Urban Regeneration Or Malicious Vandal?”. The Guardian. (online) N.p., 2010. Web. 10 July 2010.
2.BBC News. (2017). Arrest warrant issued for street artist Shepard Fairey – BBC News. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-33286110
3.Dunn, Adriana. “Question Everything: Shepard Fairey On His Influences, His Legal Battle With AP, And Being A Sellout”. The Huffington Post. N.p., 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Andre The Giant Has A Posse. 2010. (Image). 10 Nov. 2010. http://www.75central.com/andre-the-giant-has-a-posse/
Obama Hope. (2008). [image]
Available at: https://obeygiant.com/obama-hope/
Rodchenko, Alexander. 1924. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Say Yes. The Afternoons. 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Word Count 1447