Shepard Fairey had been in jail before. In fact, he has been arrested at least a dozen times. And while he was arrested in Denver doing the things that he normally does — pasting posters to buildings and whatnot — this time was different.
As he waited behind bars, reportedly as one of the more than 150 people taken into custody during the Democratic National Convention in August, the two worlds that Shepard Fairey now inhabits — one where he's a street artist, the other as an impassioned supporter of Sen. Barack Obama — collided in the strangest of ways.
In one world, Fairey is the creator of the "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" sticker and the guerrilla marketing vandal behind the Soviet constructivist-inspired Obey Giant campaign. In the other, he's the man responsible for the single most iconic image of the 2008 presidential campaign: a stark-and-striking illustration of Obama looking upward. It's a piece of pop propaganda that bears a noticeable resemblance to Fairey's Obey Giant work, but with a patriotic red-white-and-blue flair. Sometimes the word below the image reads "Progress." Most often, it's "Hope."
"It's pretty funny because I'm out there, and I created this image that was so pervasive that it was sold by every bootleg vendor with a card on every corner — pins, stickers, T-shirts, posters. In the one regard, my work was completely embraced by the entire Democratic Convention, but Denver had hired a lot of extra police to make sure that the activities of the convention were not interrupted by protesters," says Fairey, a Charleston native who attended Porter-Gaud and Wando High. "Ironically, while out postering, I was considered to be one of those protesters. So I was arrested."
While he was out putting up Obama and Obey stickers, he was approached by law enforcement officers. They were less than thrilled with Fairey's artistic endeavours. "They had their guns out, and they said, 'Get on the fucking ground or we will kick you in the fucking head.' They were such Type-A, low-IQ bozos. It was crazy."
As Fairey was being searched, the cops made a curious discovery. "They empty my pockets, and they are like 'What's this? A beeper?' I'm like, 'No, it's an insulin pump. I'm [a Type-1 diabetic.]' And they are like, 'What's this? Fishing line?' I'm like, 'That goes directly into my skin. You can't detach it. It's the tube that delivers the insulin to my body. It's what's keeping me alive.'
"The guy trying to be the smart one — the Butthead to the other one's Beavis — he says, 'Yeah, boss, I know about that. It goes into your pancreas,'" Fairey says. "It doesn't. It just goes under your skin. It's a subcutaneous slow-drip that is absorbed. But it's better that they think it goes directly to my pancreas because if they pull on it, they think they'll rip my pancreas out."
In jail, the man born Frank Shepard Fairey was zip-tied to a protestor, the kind of idealistic Battle-in-Seattle kid that perhaps believes that all Beltway politicians bow down to corporate fat cats and military-industrial death merchants. It was a view that Fairey, 38, himself might have once shared. But no longer.
"He was saying that Obama is still going to have the same policies of economic imperialism that we've had under Bush. It's just gonna be the same," Fairey says. "I said, 'Hey, man. I appreciate that you want to scrutinize everything, but you are not paying attention to the big picture here. There are very significant shades of issues here. If Obama isn't your ideal, McCain is way further in the wrong direction than you want, and I think you're focusing your energy on the wrong thing here. I had a debate with him for a few hours."
Over the course of the 15 hours Fairey spent locked up, his mood soured. He was tired. He had plenty of other more important things to do — like get back to the Andenken Gallery in Denver, where pro-Obama works by Fairey, other street artists, and a host of painters and sculptors were on display.
Inspired by the Obama campaign, the five-day affair, organized in part by Fairey, took place at the temporarily named Manifest Hope Gallery, and it featured performances by Death Cab for Cutie, the Cold War Kids, the Silver-Sun Pick-ups, actress-singer Zooey Deschanel, and comedian Sarah Silverman.
While Fairey waited to be released, he noticed a fellow captive wearing an Obey shirt. "When they call my name for my phone call, they said, 'Frank Fairey,' and he said, 'I knew it. You're Shepard Fairey!' He lived in Denver and had been arrested just for shooting photos, so he's really fired up to be more vocal about his support for Obama. He ended up coming to the gallery and bringing a ton of people and shooting photos and blogging," the artist recalls.
Once he was released, Fairey got back to work, being the point-man in what to some might seem like a one-man campaign to get Barack Obama into the White House. "I did a lot of very mainstream middle America type press events where I was very careful how I chose my words to not be inflammatory and be positive," Fairey says. "Then I went out doing my postering around town like I always do — punk as fuck. I like that I can navigate those two worlds and be able to do both. That's important to me."
And how Fairey navigates those two worlds is apparently A-OK with the Obama campaign. In fact, the Los Angeles-based artist received a letter from Obama himself. It reads in part, "Dear Shepard, I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can help change the status quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign."
When Fairey designed the Hope poster, he wanted it to embrace a group different from his normal audience of skate punks, taggers, and ad-busting anarchists. He says, "[Obama] needs to seem moderate and safe enough for people in the middle to embrace. I didn't want to make an image that would be circulated among the hard-core Obama supporters. I wanted an image that might pique the curiosity of the curious centrist."
And connect the poster did.
"What I think the image did was become a symbolic reference point that allowed Obama supporters to see that someone was being vocal and that encouraged a chain reaction," Fairey says. "I think that's the power of an image. It's something that's easily digestible and memorable that can be symbolic of something that's a lot deeper, that's more complex and more profound."
But for at least one art critic, the Obama image struck a nerve. Meghan Baum, a writer for the L.A. Times wrote, "There's an unequivocal sense of idol worship about the image, a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality; (b) a controversial American figure who's been assassinated; or (c) one of those people from a Warhol silk-screen that you don't recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way."
Fairey dismisses Baum's take on what may become his career-defining work. "I find it very positive, very optimistic," he says. "The whole African dictator thing, that to me is like, whoa, yeah, he's half African American, he's half black. Gee, that's a tough one. Drawing this line between the turbulence and lawlessness of a lot of the African countries and the genocide over there and Obama — it was subtle, but that comparison was drawn — I felt that was very dangerously un-PC. Not that I believe in being PC all of the time. But it exposed a bit of racial bias on the part of that editorial writer that I found far more disconcerting than the image itself."
However, the creator of Obey Giant acknowledges how some might find the image off-putting. "There is an element of this Lenin-style propaganda to making any figure into a super iconic representation. I get that," the artist says. "I think the look he has isn't in any way sinister. To me it seems thoughtful. I felt these were strong enough ingredients to counteract any kind of negative association with a historical precedent."
And while some criticisms may be valid, others are not. Consider a recent letter to the editor of the Island Packet on Hilton Head in which the writer attempts to put Fairey in the same camp as the other Obama bogeymen the rabid right loves to talk about, men like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and Tony Rezko. In the letter, Fairey is called "an admirer of great socialist realism" and "Obama's technology advisor on the campaign." Both are wrong.
"Technology advisor? What? I'm telling Obama how to program his VCR?" says Fairey, who notes that he donated a design to the Obama campaign but he has no other affiliation with them. "Also the style of art used in the Obama thing is not social realist. It employs a lot of different styles. Social realism is a painting style that was under Stalin. It's not even a style of constructivism, which I was influenced by, which is an earlier Soviet art form."
"But they are trying to paint me as some sort of socialist?" he adds. "I'm very thoroughly capitalist."
And that's a point that can't be argued. Fairey sells Obey Giant posters, stickers, and clothes, and he runs a design firm and gallery.
"I've always had an inside-outside strategy, like if I needed to do things by passing the mainstream power structure, to do it on my own terms, or if I could infiltrate and change things from within I would," Fairey says. "And I'm still going to be employing that."
Shepard Fairey is very much a successful small businessman. And very much a part of mainstream America. It's just that in Fairey's America, all the lamp posts on Main Street are covered in stickers and the abandoned buildings are decorated with wheat-paste posters. He is an insider and an outsider, a true maverick.