Shepard Fairey's career began when he jokingly created a sticker of wrestler Andre the Giant. Shepard also created Barack Obama's iconic posters of Hope, Change, and Progress which were used in his successful presidential campaign. Fairey is an inspiring example of what creativity, perseverance, and good old fashioned hard work can accomplish. Find out how he used his street art to spin off a graphic design career and has been able to love the work he does while still sharing his art for free with communities at large.
*This interview contains explicit language.*
CCB: Did you ever imagine creating a career for yourself out of a single sticker?
SF: (Laughs) No, I didn’t imagine creating a career for myself from a single sticker. One of the things I think I did realize early on was that you can if you are resourceful enough figure out a way to make things that might seem very atypical work. Within probably six months to a year of making the original sticker I felt it had potential and maybe I was just being overly optimistic but I felt like it was something that could go somewhere. It took a lot longer than I had hoped. You know my fantasies about getting a van and driving around the country and putting stickers up everywhere. It sort of manipulating people’s curiosity and then getting into the press and next thing it is on the cover of Time magazine. That took a lot longer than I thought. But, I did realize that there was potential. Not just from the one sticker. The one sticker is looking at it very narrowly. It was more this is what one sticker could unlock. So, it was everything else that it could kind of relate to. It’s like the thing that knocked the first domino over. People are like this guy made a big career off of one sticker but it’s so much more complex than that.
CCB: But it starts with the Andre Has a Posse sticker.
SF: I definitely look at it like I got really lucky. It was a happy accident that that image was something that I created as a joke and I didn’t put too much pressure on myself. It sort of had this primitive charm that worked for that very reason and I was able to build from that. In a lot of ways it was a fluke. But it was the dialogue that I had with the public after the fluke that is what made it materialize into something and not the fluke itself.
CCB: If that “fluke” as you called it wouldn’t have happened what would you have done?
SF: God, I’d probably still be working as a screen printer somewhere professionally. I don’t know. This thing of I’m going to create stuff for myself by any means necessary; making my own t-shirts, stickers, and everything, that wasn’t anything that was an original piece of art of mine. It was more like a reinterpretation of the Misfits skull or Minor Threat or something that I was into in skateboard culture. The precedent was there. The DNA of all that I have done with Obey so I think maybe I would have figured out something else but I really can’t say. Because everything that happens like being hit by a car when I was eleven probably is the reason that I didn’t go on to be a jock and that I got into skateboarding because I was no longer the fastest guy on the soccer team after that. So I had to find something you could do by yourself that wasn’t the same sort of criteria as the usual team sports stuff. You never know. I could be an evil jock now if it weren’t for that.
CCB: Do you know if Andre the Giant was aware of what you were doing with your stickers?
SF: I have no idea whether Andre was aware because I wasn’t that far along with the project when he was still alive. He died in ’93. I don’t know if he was aware of it at all. It would have been kind of cool. I didn’t really think of him as much of a human being until after he died. It would have been cool to meet him and know what he was like but I never got to.
CCB: Can you talk about what appeals to you about street art?
SF: Street art to me is very pure and awesome because there is no filter on it, there is no bureaucracy. You don’t have to submit anything and wait for approval. I’m a populist. I really believe in accessibility. So street art completely bypasses everything and takes it straight to where people are in their daily life. They don’t have to own a computer. They don’t have to know where a gallery is. They can just see it walking, driving around. It’s been pretty amazing how many homeless people have sought me out because they are living on the street and they are encountering the stuff all the time. It makes an impact on people on the street and anybody has access to it.
I also looked at it as a way to do stuff on the street that is free for people, but as a way to promote what I am doing as an artist and to try and build something from it. A logical progression from that was if I could sell the same posters that I am putting up on the street or stickers and I’ve made t-shirts back since I very first started. T-shirts to me are a very utilitarian canvas. Then doing the gallery shows. I’ve never had a problem with the idea of showing in a gallery. I just didn’t want the gallery to tell me how I should do my work in order to get in there. Once I built up enough resonance for my work on the street the galleries came to me and doing gallery shows was always on my own terms after that.
Street art to me, what I’m getting at, is a tool of empowerment. You take stuff out there, people see it, and that way it’s not you work at a company, do a great bunch of work but then your boss takes credit for it. (Laughs) You know what I mean? You’re doing it and if you can figure out a way to leverage the exposure you get into something else it’s absolutely empowering and your message isn’t being watered down. It goes straight to the people the way you intend it. Also I really like the idea of the medium being the message itself and you are saying I have the right to express myself. Just because I’m not a corporation with a bunch of money to buy a billboard to shove in your face doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to put what I’m doing out there. It’s no less legitimate than a paid advertisement. To me one of the biggest problems with society is a lack of voice for people who don’t have money. Whether it’s just a pretty picture or it’s actually an overtly political thing I think it’s a great medium to kind of level the playing field whether you can be competing with corporations with street art and be poor. I did it.
CCB: Do you feel that sometimes people misunderstand what you are trying to do with propaganda and if so isn’t that part of the point?
SF: A lot of people do misunderstand what I’m doing. One of the reasons I don’t make everything really, really obvious is because when you make things too obvious it also makes it too easy for people to compartmentalize and ignore or classify. If somebody says that guy Shepard is a communist because he uses red, black, and white that is completely off because I’m not. I’m a capitalist. There may be facets of communism that I agree with like the idea that people aren’t actually created equally and that some people need more help from the benevolent sector of society. Some people need to contribute more because they have more natural gifts, skills, and resources. It’s the Marxist idea of from each according to his or her ability to each according to his or her need. I do to a degree believe in that yet I’m a capitalist. I also think that being rewarded for hard work by being able to earn money and being able to build something for yourself is very motivating for people and it’s important.
People just look at something and make an assumption but then they want to find out more and then they realize. It’s this idea of getting the gears turning, wondering, and then hopefully by questioning whatever I’m doing there’s a questioning of the context in which it’s presented and everything it’s analogous to. It’s like I said before, it’s all the dominoes that fall based on this one thing catalyzing that. I’ve been more overt politically lately with the stuff I’ve done just because I feel that there has been a sector that is really looking to scare people after 9/11 and support the war. If they are the only ones that are heard that is a tragedy so I’ve been combating that. Even though to be didactic isn’t really what I’d prefer. I’d rather people be stimulated and question things and then sort of based on their own sensibilities come to their own conclusions about things. If there is an epiphany there, cool. If not I don’t really think I’m in a position to tell people how to think or act.
CCB: If you are meeting someone for the first time and they ask you what you do what do you tell them? Do you tell them you are a graphic designer, a street artist?
SF: It just depends if I think they might be a cop. (Laughs hard) I usually describe myself as a graphic artist.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a graphic artist?
(Shepard has his own graphic design company, Studio Number One.)
SF: I live in Los Angeles and I like to avoid the morning traffic so I usually leave the house at 9:30 and get into the office by 10:00. If I leave at 9:00 I will be stuck in traffic much longer. I check my email which I get a lot of. Then I start working on projects for clients, everything from whether it’s the Johnny Cash movie poster or Billy Idol’s record cover or right now we are working on some stuff for Dewar’s Scotch. The range of clients we have is all over the place. We are doing some stuff for a Toyota action sports tour right now. You know supporting skateboarding, motocross, and BMX. It’s cool. I come from that culture so if Toyota is putting up a bunch of money for it I’m all for them facilitating the tour and me getting paid to be creative so the people from those cultures might respond to it instead of going, ew Toyota, they are so wack. (Laughs)
CCB: How do you decide what kinds of clients you are going to work with?
SF: I work with any client that I think they get where I’m coming from and I don’t have an ethical problem with them. I’ve turned down work from Camel and from Hummer because I just don’t want to support those companies. I don’t smoke and although I’m not preaching against smoking I also don’t want to encourage it with my work. Hummer is just a gas guzzling piece of crap that no sane person needs. Unless they are over in the war in Iraq trying to get more gas for our Hummers and they need protection. That’s pretty much my criteria. I mean I’m selective now with the jobs that I take because I’m able to usually do bigger jobs because I have a proven track record with people and my clothing line is doing better so I am able to rely on income from that a little bit more. So, I don’t have to do as much work. Really I just take on stuff that I actually want to do.
CCB: They’ll see your work and come to you. Then you’ll come up with some design for them?
SF: Sometimes they’ve seen something that I’ve done and they say we like this and we’d like you to do that or they say what do you think is the best solution for this? Then we come up with a new concept. Sometimes it they want to do something that is kind of Obey-esque and I don’t want to do that I just tell them. I usually don’t say I don’t want to associate my style with your company but if I don’t want to associate my style with their company it’s probably not the best thing for them anyway. I’ll say I don’t think this is the way you should go but we can come up with another look. I have a studio with five other designers who are all really talented and we put a bunch of stuff together. I supervise it all and we present it. It may end up that one of my other designers executes most of it after they chose their direction over mine. It’s kind of democratic in the company.
CCB: When you say that you are a graphic artist does that mean there are certain things that you aren’t designing?
SF: I’m mostly doing anything 2D oriented like print, posters, magazine ads, some web stuff but not doing the programming just doing the design. But we have done motion graphics where I’ve story boarded animations and then handed stuff off to an animation team and worked with them to refine it. There are a lot of applications for graphic design that even as a designer I can’t execute it technically. I can art direct. I’ve done a music video for a band. Mostly I like doing poster style art whether it’s for a poster or an ad because that’s what I enjoy.
CCB: Once you’ve created the posters for your street art is it about figuring out where to put them?
SF: Sometimes I have spots picked out where I’m going to do an installation. The landscape is changing so often because a building becomes vacant since somebody sold it or the company went bankrupt or whatever. All of a sudden there is blank spot on the roof and it’s a great spot to get. I guess there is sort of a challenge to going out and finding those spots before the other graffiti people find them and a little bit of being on the prowl that is exciting about it.
CCB: What makes great street art to you?
SF: To me great street art is stuff that cuts through the clutter of the urban environment and stands out as something that is provocative hopefully in a good way. Sometimes maybe it’s provocative and agitates some people but it definitely creates an emotional reaction and maybe that’s because it’s a cool picture or a funny slogan. I really think that the best stuff has an aesthetic that appeals and also is done in a way that can kind of harmoniously integrate into the environment. I’m not a big fan of when people just go tag on the front of a building. But, when they go up to a rooftop where there is a little ledge and there is some negative space and it’s kind of not really interfering with the facade, it’s a little bit more subtle and I can definitely get down with that. I think a lot of time the passion of where it’s placed translates, meaning if you go to a sign on a high up roof that is really hard to get to and put something up there it stands out. It’s obviously not an advertisement but its street art. The person looking at it goes wow that’s crazy that they got up there and it’s also a cool image and it’s that much more impressive than if you just do something down at street level where it’s easy to do. It shows that you are really passionate about doing it. I like seeing that a lot. I like seeing that people are willing to go great lengths for their art whether it’s I’ve spent a thousand hours on this canvas or I climbed to this crazy spot.
CCB: Is the street art community tight knit?
SF: The street art community is kind of bizarre in that people are definitely keeping track of each other and there’s cliques within it. Somehow they are more formerly called crews and it’s almost like a graffiti gang. I’m not in anything like that because once it gets to that level you kind of have to watch your back. Then you also have to take responsibility for anything anybody in your crew does. I never want to feel like anybody has to take responsibility for me or vice versa. I like to roll solo. I’m really respectful about the spots that I chose. I never go over other artists stuff so I never have to worry about somebody wants to beat me up or anything. There are a few other street artists whose work that I like who we will go out together. People will realize that we are friends because all of a sudden there are ten new spots and we are right next to each other. It doesn’t mean that we are a crew.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a street artist or be able to fund your career?
SF: Being a street artist is not probably going to be a career. It’s more like if you have a job, like I started off as a screen printer, and because I had my own screen printing facilities I could make my materials for street art relatively inexpensively. It wasn’t until I became a graphic designer and people wanted me to do graphic design for them because they’d seen my street art that there was really any translation of my street art into a career. That was just many years into it. That was like the mid-ninety’s and I had already been doing it for six years at that point. I think that anyone who is doing street art should do it because they love it and if it launches an art career or design career for them that’s kind of icing on the cake.
I think I would still be doing it either way. I don’t need to do street anymore at all to help promote my career, my career is very established. But I do it because I enjoy it and it’s cool to show that you can be somewhat embraced by the system without being completely absorbed by it. I think it’s important for me to continue to do street art so that people see it wasn’t a stepping stone for me but that I really believe in it.
CCB: As far as people who want to be artists does it come down to being comfortable selling the art that you create?
SF: To make it as an artist you do have to sell stuff. There are a lot of divided opinions about whether you do street art and then start showing in galleries if that makes you a sell-out. I think that all of that sell-out bullshit comes from people that have never been asked to do a gallery show. It’s a very natural urge as an artist to put your work out there and want people to see it and want to get feedback on it. The people who are doing the street art are doing it for that exact reason. To sell art is just a natural progression of that. I think it comes down to a lot of jealousy for people that aren’t selling stuff who are like I’m keeping real, it’s just for the people to see. But for the people to see and then if they wanted to be able to buy it its like connecting with something and then being able to own it. Then have it close to you is a really logical emotional connection for people. Anybody who tries to talk shit on that is in complete denial in my opinion. To me it’s really healthy. There have been some people throughout the years that kind of used street art as a way to get cool and then live a lifestyle that to me wasn’t truly about what being a street artist should be about. More often it’s people who are very sincere that are happy that they don’t have to wait tables, that they can sell art.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming artists or designers?
SF: My advice is do not get discouraged because it takes awhile but it will definitely happen faster if you make something that stands out from the crowd. A lot of people just copy each others styles when a style is hot and that’s definitely not the way to get anywhere because you’ll always be following. You want to be leading. You want to carve out a niche for yourself that no one else is doing, is filling. So, really it’s whatever you enjoy the most as an artist is what you are going to be best at. Rather than second guessing yourself and following styles that are out there that are already successful do what you believe in and everything cycles around. Eventually what you are doing and what you are passionate about is what you will become good at and it will have its moment in the sun. Just stick to it.
Also you have to be a salesperson for yourself. You can’t be bashful. I wasn’t a salesperson like I went to galleries or to companies and sold my work. But, putting my work in the street then a couple of magazines got a hold of me. Rather than being no I don’t know how to express myself, I don’t want to do an interview, I seized all those opportunities. To make sure that my point of view was getting across and that I had a voice beyond the art itself.
CCB: Why do you feel a closer connection to music than with art? Is it that art doesn’t appeal to as large a crowd?
SF: It’s not necessarily that I feel a greater connection to music its more that I feel like a lot of art is boring and music isn’t boring. Music has the art that goes with it and the antics of the bands, their politics. It’s just music is multifaceted so culturally I find music and everything that goes with it to be more powerful and more interesting than art just culturally. Not to say that there aren’t specific examples of art that have blown me away. In general just as a way to both excite people viscerally and entertain them and have the potential to make them think and feel I think music has more to offer. When I look at cultural upheavals like punk-rock or the peace movement with the hippies in the late ‘60s, early 70’s, most of that was based around music that was exciting with all the trimmings being fashion and art. It’s great for me when I look at a Jamie Reid ransom note style piece of art that immediately I’m hearing the guitars of the Sex Pistols at the same time. It’s kind of a little bit more to latch on to than just a picture.
CCB: When did you start DJing?
SF: I guess 5 ½, 6 years ago. I always loved music and I did the art for that movie Scratch, which is about DJ culture and I met some of those guys who were looking through my record collection saying, dude you should be DJing. You have a lot of good stuff. I started and it became an addiction. It’s like audio-graphic design where with design you have multiple pictures and compositions and texts and textures that you could be putting together and you are trying to find the most pleasing combinations of those. It’s the same thing with stringing songs together, what mixes together. Depending on the mood, I play rock, I play funk, and I play disco. There’s just a lot of potential to affect people with music and it’s a lot of fun to be in control of that and enhance whatever is going on by being (Animated) a master selector.
(We talked about DJs for a minute and ones that appear on The Career Cookbook and ones that we want to talk to.)
SF: Z-Trip is my favorite because he blends all the different genres. In fact he’s probably the biggest reason I started DJing because prior to that I felt like every DJ was either a house DJ or a reggae DJ, a techno DJ, a hip-hop DJ. Z-Trip was blending a lot of different genres and because my taste is all over the place that was really inspiring to me that I didn’t have to just be a hip-hop DJ or something.
CCB: What have you learned and how have you grown through the different businesses you’ve been involved in?
SF: Man, that’s a massive question. I guess one of the things that I’ve learned by trying to do all the things that I do and mix art and the purity of art, the idea of it, its’ done for yourself and exactly the way you want it. That it has integrity and is pure. But also trying to do business stuff where people want to sell units and sometimes they don’t care how pure it is, they want to jump on the latest bandwagon. I learned that art and commerce need each other and its learning how to have them interact in a way that they both benefit the most symbiotically, that is how the world can be improved. Improved for me in terms of my life, being able to make a living as an artist, and not feeling like a sell-out. Then in terms of everyone else out there that is assaulted with marketing materials all day, every day, that maybe if the marketing materials are coming from a place that is more artistic and authentic that it’s not as annoying.
I was really naïve when I was younger in thinking you could just be an artist and do it punk, do it your own way and never have to deal with the BS. Everyone has to deal with the BS at some point if they become successful. If they aren’t willing to deal with the BS they may never become successful. I’ve just become a lot more realistic about that. Rather than being an isolationist and looking at it as an us versus them mentality, how I can be a very positive liaison between my art and other artists and the corporations that want to use the art and the galleries that want to be on the new hot artists and so on and so on.
CCB: Have the issues of public space changed at all since you began doing your street art?
SF: Public space is theoretically owned by the taxpayers yet the government is the law arm of the taxpayers, which I think acts independently of what the average citizen might really want. The cities are going crazy about prosecuting and cleaning. I think it’s the whole the squeaky wheel gets the oil because the people might get a complaint, people who have businesses that advertise that don’t want any competition with their billboard. The government gets behind them because they are the people with the money and it’s not the small person that says I got in trouble and I got a fine for putting my lost dog flier up and that’s really uncool. It’s like that person has no power. Its’ gotten worse and worse. I used to be able to go out and put stuff up in New York all the time without really worrying about it. I used to walk down Broadway with a stencil in my hand during the middle of the day. I got arrested there a few years ago for putting one sticker up. They have gotten really Nazi about prosecuting in a lot of cities. I just got a $7500 fine in San Diego for putting one sticker up. Of course they tried to link me to a bunch of other stuff and that’s why it was so extreme but a lot of that stuff I didn’t even put up because I send stickers out to people all the time. It’s like you go and stab someone and you are out in six months and then you can get six months for graffiti. It’s really disproportionate to the crime what the penalties are. They are trying to stop people and if I were to give up just because it’s gotten harsher it’d be like saying I accept how crazy, how backwards these laws are so I just keep doing it.
CCB: Do you face any legal issues in any of the images that you use of political figures or musicians in your t-shirts or art?
SF: I’ve been lucky in that most of the people who I’ve ever done images of have been really receptive, have been fans of my work. The only lawsuit I had to deal with was a Sid Vicious image that I reworked, the Sex Pistols licensing company coming after me. The funny thing is that I’m really good friends with Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, but it has nothing to do with him. It’s that the licensing company wants to make as much money as they can and they don’t want any competitive product out there. Even that they know that my image is an Obey thing. That most people that want a Sex Pistols shirt aren’t going to confuse it with a Sex Pistols shirt. They just want to try to get their lawyer to get some money out of somebody then they are going to do it. I’ve been lucky that Joan Jett, Slick Rick, Chuck D, Tupac’s mom, all those people were into my stuff and were really cool with it. And I’m doing small enough quantities that it’s not really competing with anything else that they are doing.
CCB: Are there certain things that you have to look out for? I guess it’s best to get their permission if you can.
SF: Of course. Whenever I’ve known the person I’ll get permission. A lot of the time I’ll know photographers and I’ll say let’s do a collaboration on an image of so and so because you have great photos and I think I can do a good illustration and we can both sign the print or I’ll put a link to you on my web site. So, I’ve done that a few times. Sometimes I’ve just gotten permission directly from the people.
CCB: What happened originally with Andre since you were using his image?
SF: Nothing ever happened with Andre. I guess in 2000 or 2001 Andre’s estate licensed all his likenesses to a big company called CMG Worldwide that was doing like the Osborne bobble-head dolls. They came after me with a cease and desist and all these back damages and all this stuff. But, I hadn’t been selling anything with the original Andre head on it, that’s close to his likeness, since like 1996. The statute of limitations had run out on that. My argument was that my simplified icon face of Andre is much more akin to a big brother is watching you image of mine than to an original likeness of Andre the Giant. Only if someone knew of the connection from the original sticker would they even know that was related to Andre and if someone is a wrestling fan and wants an Andre image that image is not going to be what they are going to chose over a wrestling image of Andre, which is what CMG had the rights to. I have a good lawyer and they couldn’t really argue with that. I just had to sign a paper saying I would not reproduce the original image for sale.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
SF: The most difficult part of my job is juggling everything that I’m doing. It used to be creating on command. But now I have so much practice I very rarely get creative block. One of the things I do to help that is I have a tremendous library of reference materials of art, design, photography. When I’m stuck I just look through and it gives you great ideas. Whether what you come up with is actually derivative of that or whether it sparks a different idea it’s always good to be stimulated from good stuff from the past. The hardest part now for me is that I’m doing the graphic design business, I do a magazine Swindle, I do my clothing line, I do my own fine art, and I am DJing. And I have a daughter and a wife. It’s just hard to juggle it all and have everything, every bit of my output be as high quality as I want it to be because I’m a perfectionist and I don’t like to let anything go out that I’m not like this is the best thing. That’s the hardest thing. I have problems people wish they had.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about your career so far?
SF: I think the most rewarding thing is the feedback that I’ve gotten just from the average anyone to people that I really admired that were part of the influence of me becoming who I am, that then reach out to me to do stuff for them. Like Henry Rollins from Black Flag or Billy Idol or Steve from the Sex Pistols or Black Sabbath digging my stuff. I’ve been a Black Sabbath fan for twenty years. That’s really amazing. Chuck D. Huge Public Enemy fan and he likes my stuff. Part of sharing stuff that you like whether its art or music or politics, watch the Daily Show and go this makes me feel sane, finally a dissenting voice within all this bullshit. When it’s the actual creators of these things that make you feel sane it’s that much more validating. It’s surreal. I’m blown away in that I’m contributing to culture and the people that contributed to the culture that created me are acknowledging what I do. That’s the best thing.
I guess it comes down to very simply that I always had this fear of life is meaningless because you are going to die and unless you are somehow connecting with people none of it really mattered. I’m feeling like I am connecting with people so it matters. It’s a very basic existential thing I guess.
CCB: What do you have coming up next? You have your book Supply and Demand coming out in July. (In stores now)
SF: I have the book coming out which is seventeen years of the Obey Giant work. That’s the biggest thing. I’m going to be doing lectures in New York and the MOCA here in LA, the MOMA in San Francisco, all to promote that. I have a lot of art shows coming up and I’m always working on the clothing and new poster designs.
CCB: Can you talk briefly about Swindle and what the goal with that is?
SF: Swindle is my magazine that I do with Roger Gastmann who used to do While You Were Sleeping which was a graffiti magazine turned kind of lifestyle magazine. But he left there and we started Swindle together. Swindle is kind of ironic like Obey is. It’s based on the Sex Pistols Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle. We feel like most magazines are a swindle because they are catering to the advertisers and are promoting whatever the advertisers want them to promote in order to get the ads and it’s based on very up to the moment hype that may or may not pan out to be anything substantial. What we are trying to do is make a magazine that is both higher quality in the design of it and the materials. We do a hardback like a book version and also a thicker cardboard version which is our shitty version and our shitty version is better than most people’s good versions. Also that we are dealing with art, music, politics. Everything that we are interested in and anything that we put in the magazine we are trying to put into a historical context. So, if we are talking about girl bands now maybe we talk about girl bands from the past. Or if we are talking about an album cover artist now then we reference something that was done in the past. We try to put everything in context historically so they understand how things have evolved. With the aim of making a magazine that is something that you’ll keep and in five years will still be interesting to read.
CCB: Where are you headed from this point on? Do you have long term goals?
SF: My long term goal isn’t one thing in specific. It’s more to just streamline my life a little bit to where I’m getting to put as much energy as possible into the things that I think are worth it. Sometimes I don’t think that all the commercial stuff is worth it. The better my pure art entities do financially the more I’m able to just work on that stuff and that’s a goal.
*You can find Shepard’s book, Supply and Demand in stores now