Shepard Fairey Interview

SHEPARD FAIREY interview – Artofthestate interviewed Shepard prior to the NineteenEightyfouria show in London, November 2007

Shepard’s been in London for a week when we meet up and he’s still struggling to acclimatise. Having previously moved from Rhode Island to L.A. for a climate that suits him London right now must seem like a large step back. He’s now resigned to the misty, damp grey skies that have enveloped the city – besides; they tie in with the theme of his upcoming show ‘Nineteeneightyfouria’. It’s the perfect backdrop for a show inspired by George Orwell’s novel, which dealt with a state that has a controlling presence in every aspect of an individual’s life: “Over the last few years I’ve been really upset about the war and then I’ve been upset that other people are not upset by the war” Shepard explains further about the concept behind the show. “The tide is finally starting to turn now. The title of the show ‘Nineteeneightyfouria’ is sort of a continuation of my last big show in New York which was called ‘E Pluribus Venom‘ (translates as “out of many, poison) that’s based on the Latin that’s on a lot of US money (E pluribus Unum – “Out of many, one”). A lot of the stuff is similar, it’s talking about less privacy, less civil liberties, the war, the herd mentality that allows the government to push its agenda through without too much resistance, the connection between governments and corporations that allows corporations to get away with whatever they want to get away with. On the other side its celebrating the people that think independently and resist. There’s also a bit of music influenced stuff because I’ve always liked music as a form of entertainment and as form to put a philosophy across – it’s a tool for social change whether it’s reggae, hip hop or the Sex Pistols a lot of artists have used it as a platform for their political ideas”.

Shepard Fairey bank notes

Shepard Fairey – bank notes at the exhibition

There’s a connection to be made here. Is it fair to compare what Shepard is doing with his art to how many bands with agendas have operated in the past? “When I look at what I’m doing it’s really analogous to what the Sex Pistols were trying to set out to do which was to create something that was entertaining and hits you on a gut level but then also there’s more to it in that it embraces pop culture and is accessible but it aims a little higher than that at the same time. The Sex Pistols had Jamie Reid as a graphic artist, Malcolm McClaren as a media manipulator, Vivienne Westwood as the fashion component and the band itself made great music. That sort of convergence of talents and ideas and the impact that it made is always something I’ve been shooting for. Then there’s this idea that it doesn’t matter that you don’t have any money, being resourceful and ingenious will take the place of having financial resources – the do it yourself part of punk rock”.  Shepard took this attitude to heart. “I printed my own posters and stuff off on a copy machine – built my thing up from when I had a job at a skateboard shop on four dollars an hour – that’s as punk as you can get I think”.

Joe Strummer Obey Records

Joe Strummer, Obey records

Typically graffiti has been more aligned with hip-hop than punk rock so how much of an influence has that genre been on Shepard in comparison? “I do like a lot of hip hop” Shepard explains “but it’s Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, NWA – the stuff that was the punk bands of hip hop. That’s gone now and there’s really very little contemporary hip-hop that I care about now. There’s rock bands now – whether you want to call them a punk band or not – like The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand that are doing their own thing in a punk way. They may not wear bullet belts and have Mohawks but they have the attitude. The moment something becomes a uniform it becomes irrelevant as being provocative and becomes a label. I still love wearing punk T-shirts (Shepard is sporting a Black Flag shirt where the words Black Flag have been sprayed out and changed to Flat Black like the spray paint) because that’s my history and I’m proud to say that. But I’m not a punk fashion victim though!”

“You’re seduced by the energy and the way the music hits you on a gut level and then you find out that there’s so much more to it than just the music itself. It’s cool because you have a euphoric association between the thing that hit you on a gut level and the ideas and the politics behind it. For me, if I make an image that isn’t visually striking then it doesn’t matter how great the content of the idea is – if it doesn’t hit you then you to need to investigate a little further. I think that’s something of an analogy to music where you’ve got a punk band or a rap artist and what they have to say is great but the music’s boring – it’s got to have both”.

Why London for the show? “The book 1984 was set in London and it talked about how you can’t make a move without being watched by a tele-screen – how much more appropriate could the evolution of the cityscape of London be to that title-  there’s a surveillance camera everywhere. Then there’s this idea of being blasé about the war because there are other distractions like entertainment or that people are so stuck in the daily grind that they don’t care. London has a really exciting street art scene – it’s especially relevant because of what Banksy has accomplished. I’ve wanted to do a show here and Stolenspace and I have been trying to plan a show for three years but it’s always been he didn’t have a gallery big enough or a gallery at all or I had too many other things happening. So this is finally when it has worked for both of us and the timing couldn’t be better because I think my works really progressed a lot over the last couple of years as in my fine art. I’m still hitting the streets as hard as ever so people may have seen a sticker or poster on the street but its not something I can really commodify so what I have to do in a gallery context is make the work more sophisticated to work. I think I’m finally there and its time to share the ideas that I’ve been wanting to share but also the aesthetics of how its progressed. Everything’s still bold but there are layers of collage and it’s a bit more seductive when you look at them up close.

Shepard Fairey - These Sunsets Are To Die For

Shepard Fairey – These Sunsets Are To Die For

Detail from These Sunsets Are To Die For

Detail from These Sunsets Are To Die For

“I like Banksy’s work and I actually like a lot of the work that I’ve seen that has been sort of imitating him. I mean he’s the original but I think that kind of thought process of making street art humorous and conceptual is better than just writing your name. I bet you a bunch of graffiti people are going to want to kick my ass for saying that but to me his is stuff that communicates to a broader audience than just the graffiti community. That’s more interesting to me because that’s what art is about. It’s about communication and people seeing something and even if peoples interpretations are different the fact that its engaged them enough to even care and make them ponder their surroundings is more interesting than “oh that’s just a subculture of gang member type kids that steal paint and I don’t care about that”. As soon as something can be easily dismissed to me that’s a little bit tragic – it’s missing an opportunity.

“You can give Banksy credit for making sure that he got his idea out into the media. It’s not only that the work itself was really provocative but he initially created enough of a spectacle where the media became curious and so people that normally wouldn’t even look at street art read about it in a newspaper or magazine and all of a sudden they’re a bit more clued in to what’s going on in the street.  It’s like all of sudden they have learned a new language. I think that’s important – when I started I wanted to put stuff out on the street that has a graphical language familiar enough to people who are familiar with the graphical language of advertising to the point where people are very numbed to advertising, They see something that communicates simplistically yet they know it’s not advertising so they want to know what it is and then just by proximity it would call the advertising into question as well. I already have my group of friends where we can all sit around and drink beer and talk about our views and agree with each other and pat each other on the back and I’m not making art for those people. I’ve been seeing a lot of really interesting stuff around, I like this guy Nick Walker – his stuff is pretty cool – I’ve seen a couple of his pieces around. I’ve known Ben (Eine) for a while and even though I think him doing these letters on the roll down gates doesn’t necessarily say that much it does make people curious and they become a little bit more sensitive to what they are looking at. They just look nice – there’s nothing wrong with putting stuff that’s visually stimulating on the street.

One of Shepard’s trademarks is the sheer scale of his pieces. “The large pieces I do on buildings are often just oversized Xeroxes painted in with a brush which is very simple so I’m surprised more people don’t go larger with posters because it’s really easy. For me it’s important to be as engaging as possible and scale is more confrontational. When someone does something larger the viewer thinks it must be more important and even if you make stickers with the same image it will never have the same impact”.

Shepard Fairey Obey Giant - Curtain Road, Shoreditch

Shepard Fairey Obey Giant – Curtain Road, Shoreditch

Do reactions in the UK to what you do differ from in the US? “In the US it seems like I get people that are curious – they ask, “what is that”, “are you like a skateboard company”. When I explain the ideas they get excited but they don’t come up assuming that it’s art. The interesting thing that I’ve noticed in the UK – and maybe it’s because of Banksy – is that when I’ve been doing stuff in East London people have been coming up and saying “That’s awesome, what is this all about?” and the level of enthusiasm really impresses me. I haven’t gotten one negative comment except for over near Portobello Road when I was doing a boarded up shop and these girls came by and they were like “flyer thugs” (at us) but they didn’t understand that we were not flyer guys. A lot of people are excited to see stuff on the street in the U.S. but it seems even more concentrated here.

“One thing I’ve noticed, and I don’t know if it’s everyone here (U.K.) is that is  more politicised. The impression is that all Americans support the war and that Americans are all idiot cowboys or something. It kinda hurts my feelings because I know tons of people that are against the war its just that they aren’t people who have the same kind of power as the corporations, Bush and Fox News. It’s depressing that the entire United States is being looked at as idiots but I also say to people it’s our own fault. If you don’t want it to be seen that way get active. I think people turning against Tony Blair for him being Bush’s bitch and for supporting the war – that’s encouraging about the UK to me.

“Vivienne Westwood has asked me to work on a poster about the law where they can hold someone for 56 days without charging them. A law like that can only get passed when a climate of fear about terrorism has been created. Its when people are so scared that they are willing to sacrifice their own rights – that’s a bad thing to happen. It may be a little better here but there’s some of the same problems that there are in the United States. The government in the US and probably here too has learnt how to leverage fear to push their agenda through. Things that might not in a more even keeled time might not be able to happen. So I think a lot of the work I’m creating is as relevant in the UK as it is in the US. Whatever happens in the US is relevant to the rest of the world because what the US does affects the rest of the world – in that sense it’s always going to be relevant”.

The UK is supposed to be the most CCTV’d country in the world – do you see similar levels in the US? “Not even close” Shepard replies, “You go to New York or L.A. and you will a security camera outside the bank or maybe inside a convenience store but that’s it. It’s not on every single building, three angles! For me, I’m always going to do my thing and hope there aren’t enough people watching all the footage to ever catch me or by the time anyone watched it I’m  back in the US. We found out when we rented a van that if you drive at all during the day there’s this congestion charge and your license plate will be photographed – there’s no way to get out of it. That feels very ‘Big Brother is watching you’, ha ha! I don’t necessarily think its totally negative for the whole of society that there’s surveillance but it does allow them to have really solid control. Being able to drive around London if you’re poor is something that people should be able to do. Not only do you feel like you are under surveillance but it’s a little bit prejudicial to those who can’t afford it  – delivery guys whose businesses are struggling and it adds another 20 dollars a day – that’s a deterrent and in an economy you want the playing field to be level as possible.

Big Brother Is Watching You - Shepard Fairey

Big Brother Is Watching You – Shepard Fairey

Any close scrapes in your time here? “Yeah. I got stopped by the cops over in Soho putting an image up on a boarded up building. One end of the street was blocked so I didn’t think anyone was going to drive down there. Next thing I know the light is on me and the cops got out and said “do you have permission to put that on there”?  I said “no, its for a band and I thought it would be alright” and they said “take it down, pack it up or we’ll ‘nick yer’”, ha ha! They didn’t look at the image – if they’d looked and saw a woman holding her ears with the slogan ‘Obey with caution, blind acceptance can be hazardous’ they might have thought it was political – lets take this guy in. I peeled off the image and was able to save it, put it back in the van and they let me go. I’ve never been caught here where I was climbing up something that was obviously trespassing – I’ve been lucky with the police here!” All the more amazing considering how prolific he’s been “I brought about 50 pieces to the UK and we’re hoping to get them all up in the couple of weeks we’re here”.

Obey With Caution - Shepard Fairey

Obey With Caution – Shepard Fairey

There are certain parts of town that you often hit up when you are over here – how do you choose where to go? “I’ve got friends over here, like a guy who used to work for a flyer/magazine distribution company and he knows London. We went out the other night and we hit stuff up in Portobello, under the Westway, in skate parks – he knows the spots that will be good. I like to put stuff up all over London. I don’t want to put stuff up just where I know the people who might like my work already are going to go but because we are staying in this area  (Shoreditch) we notice spots in this area first. Then people who saw us putting stuff up come up and say “let me call my friend – they will want you to do something on their pub” so we get legal walls too. My goal is by the time I leave is to have hit every neighbourhood. The way I like to do it is to find places that are abandoned or where there is already graffiti so I can bring a ladder and go higher – I don’t want o piss off a building owner but you know how it is – you find spots that you hope will stay up and go for it. Some of them get cleaned or are gone over by other people and some of them stay up – it’s a crapshoot”.

Shepard has worked with a load of different bands, it’s a key theme in his work and the show but how has this happened? “Sometimes they approach me but sometimes I approach them like the stuff I did with Interpol – I really liked them, I met them and said if you ever want to do something I’d love to.  I just did the Smashing Pumpkins album package after they contacted me, Rollins contacted me and Black Sabbath’s seen that I was a fan and had done a portrait of Ozzy Osbourne. Sometimes I’m creating work that references the bands and they are like “‘so you’re already a fan – lets so stuff together”. The flyer for this show (Nineteeneightyfouria) has a zeppelin and I just did Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits album package and the image that I used for the show was actually a version of the Led Zeppelin cover that they didn’t choose – I decided I wanted to use it for an art piece. I do that a lot – I work on projects for clients in the same style that I work on my own fine art and then something that doesn’t get used that I feel is appropriate for my work I’ll use. Like I did an art piece in 1997 that was a zeppelin over New York City so I knew it was appropriate subject matter. I know that they were from Birmingham and that its an industrial city and they’ve risen above this dreary circumstance in a sense. They told me they wanted the zeppelin to be majestic. Having the rubble of the city below its kinda like “celebrate that the war is over” but its bittersweet because everything’s already fucked. To me it’s a little bit of a comment on all the people that at first were totally scared and jumped on the war bandwagon and then changed their mind to say ’its great the war is over but the last several years have been a total disaster”. Even the fairly conservative outlets are saying that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed – that’s crazy – a tremendous loss of life of people who had nothing to do with the whole thing. They had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein and nothing to do with 9/11 – they’re just victims and I don’t think there’s any justification for that.

“There were some rally big protests in place like New York. People like Rosario Dawson were arrested but the thing that really bummed me out about her being arrested was that she was there for the protest, she’s against the war but her PR company tried to say she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Get a fucking spine. She was there intentionally to protest but the PR were worried that it might hurt her popularity. Fuck that, its like you’re pretty, you’re entertaining, you’ll still get movie roles, just fucking buck up, you know! That’s what’s wrong with people – they talk the shit on the Internet and then when its like in person they don’t stand up for their beliefs.

War Is Over - Shepard Fairey

War Is Over – Shepard Fairey

The prices Shepard charges for his work vary depending on the medium from under 50 pounds to tens of thousands of pounds. “The reason I make prints that are inexpensive is because the audience that put me on the map isn’t people that have a lot of money. I don’t want to be saying “Thank you for helping me get to where I am, I will now see you later. You can no longer access my work except for looking at it on the internet or stumbling across it on the street”. I think that ownership is a big part of human nature. People like to be able to own something that connects them to something they like so even if only owning one of my prints makes someone feel like they have a connection to the entire body of work I think that’s important emotionally. The things that got me into art were posters, skateboard graphics, t-shirts, stickers, stencils, album covers – all things that I think are very accessible parts of pop culture. That’s always going to be a facet of what I’m doing so if it means I can’t command the absolute highest price per fine art piece that I could if I didn’t have those pieces out there I don’t care. I’m selling my prints below market value knowing that some people are going to buy them and Ebay them but I try to track them and ban them. You can only buy one print because I really want people who want a piece to hang on their wall to be able to get a print at a good price. Every Tuesday I put a new print up and they now sell out in 15 or 20 minutes. A few of them end up on Ebay but hopefully the other ones have found good homes. Trying to make a lot of money is not my goal. Trying to do things in a way I feel good about them is much more my goal. I see myself at an earlier stage when I had less means in so many other people out there that I would just feel terrible if I felt like I’d abandoned them. This is something I really believe. I don’t know what people think about that – maybe they think it’s like Joe Strummer saying, “I’m poor” when he was a diplomat’s son. Maybe I should get off the soapbox now but a lot of people from the fine art world start off with these lofty ambitions but as they become successful maybe they make some postcards or trinkets they can sell at a museum and create a licensing empire trickling down. I went completely the opposite way. I made all the posters, t-shirts and the stickers at the start and then people started asking for some more developed pieces so I’ve trickled up! I’m trying to engage as many different income tiers and fans of art as I can.

Peace Goddess - Shepard Fairey.

Peace Goddess – Shepard Fairey.

Shepard first started out on his Obey campaign in 1989 and his enthusiasm remains unchallenged. How does he stay so focused?  “I still enjoy it. The thing to me is no matter how familiar my work becomes to a certain group of people there’s always going to be other people that have never seen it before. The way I think I can make a difference is by capturing their attention, having them find out what I’m about. Even if they’ve never thought outside the box they go and Google it and it opens up a whole new world to them. So rather than just reinforcing the enthusiasm of the fans that are already in the ‘club’ which I think a lot of artists do once they get to a certain point I’m always striving to impact the people who most need to be impacted – the ones who kind of sleepwalk through life. Yeah, I still enjoy it, the adrenalin rush! Some people want to climb mountains and that’s their challenge. I just want to find spots and get them. Search and destroy, ha,ha!”

Zapatista Woman, Clerkenwell Road - Shepard Fairey

Zapatista Woman, Clerkenwell Road – Shepard Fairey

So what’s next for the Obey Giant? “I have another show in LA, it’s basically the same body of work – not the exact same pieces but a lot of the same images. That’s only one month after I get back from London and then I’m taking a break for a whole year just to work on new work. I’ll still be releasing posters on my website but in terms of a fine art show that’s just going to be LA for now”.

Shepard Fairey on the decks at the preview party for Nineteeneightyfouria

Shepard Fairey on the decks at the preview party for Nineteeneightyfouria

With special thanks to Dan from and Simon and Gordon from