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Fame can come with a price, as Shepard Fairey is learning.
In what should be a triumphant moment in the street artist’s career — his first museum retrospective opened last week at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art — Fairey instead finds himself in a maelstrom of controversy. He was arrested on Friday on graffiti-related charges while trying to enter the museum, and he’s also become embroiled in a legal battle with the Associated Press, which has charged him with misappropriating a copyrighted photo as the basis for his now-iconic Obama “Hope” portrait from last year’s election. Fairey has filed a preemptive lawsuit in response to the AP’s public charges, in an effort to have a federal judge rule his use of the photograph is legal.
“They targeted me because I’m a symbol. I think my arrest was a reflection of an old way of thinking and amplifies the abuses of power that are discussed in my work,” Fairey told WWD following his arrest. “They’re trying to make a statement about the culture that I’m promoting.”
Fairey, 38, is no stranger to legal flak. He’s been arrested 15 times now by his count — at least one of which resulted in a nasty beating — and jail time is an occupational hazard when your canvas consists of public property. Fairey has pleaded not guilty to the most recent misdemeanor vandalism charges in Boston, but he faces a potential prison sentence, fine and loss of his driver’s license.
“I think every taxpayer owns a piece of public property,” said Fairey of his justification for using public spaces for his art. “Street art is a way to connect with an audience directly, without any bureaucracy. Being arrested is a risk I take, and I think it’s worth it.”
Despite the legal implications, the ICA has clearly given Fairey and street art an imprimatur of cultural relevance and establishment recognition. “Think back to the Eighties and Keith Haring and the East Village school — there’s a freshness and inventiveness and wit to street art. It’s a very democratic form and that feels very resonant today,” said Nicholas Baume, chief curator of the ICA. “When people see this exhibition I think they are going to be bowled over. Fairey’s mastery of technique, form, color, texture and layering is incredible.”
As for Fairey’s lawsuit against the AP, which is asking a federal judge to declare his Obama portrait does not infringe on the news organization’s copyright claims, Anthony Falzone, the artist’s lead attorney, said there was no doubt about the legality of the Obama portrait. “He used [the AP’s] photograph for a purpose entirely different from the original, and transformed it dramatically,” explained Falzone, who is executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society. “The original photograph is a literal depiction of Obama, whereas Fairey’s poster creates powerful new meaning and conveys a radically different message that has no analogue in the original photograph.”