Fairey Tale: Graffiti Artist Shepard Fairey at the ICA

Fame can come with a price, as Shepard Fairey is learning.

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Fairey's Levi Strauss Image.

Photo By Obey Giant Art and Jonathan Levine

Fairey's Angela Davis Image.

Photo By Obey Giant Art and Jonathan Levine


Visitors to the ICA show, which runs through Aug. 16, will see the Obama poster, of course, but will also get a look at a diverse body of work that ranges from massive, floor-to-ceiling murals to Post-It size stickers. The exhibit is sponsored by Levi’s, which has a long-standing relationship with Fairey, hosting one of his first shows in 2002 in the brand’s San Francisco flagship. The company plans to unveil a special Fairey-designed garment on May 1, to be sold at the ICA store.

Much of Fairey’s work is based on the bold, graphic aesthetic of Bolshevik and Chinese propaganda posters of the Twenties and Thirties, and themes of power, conformity and modern consumer society permeate his oeuvre. Like artist Barbara Kruger, Fairey often incorporates text tinged with political irony into his images.

“What I’m interested in showing is the complexities of life, and the paradox in a lot of situations,” said Fairey. “Depending on which cultural perspective you are coming from, good and evil can be interchangeable.”

Ambiguity has been a calling card in Fairey’s work from the beginning. Prior to his Obama coup, he was best known for his absurdist campaign to ubiquitously sticker and stencil an image of the late professional wrestler Andre “The Giant” Roussimoff around cityscapes. Begun in 1989, while Fairey was still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, the project took on a life of its own as the skater community began disseminating the image around the U.S.

But the meme was meaningless, according to Fairey. “The whole thing really started as an inside joke,” he explained. “I thought it was an interesting experiment in phenomenology — that you could create something out of nothing.”

Apart from his street art, and now his fine art (which is sold via New York’s Jonathan LeVine gallery), Fairey is a partner in the streetwear label Obey Clothing, which is distributed in about 200 accounts and an e-commerce site. “I consider T-shirts one of my primary mediums, and clothing is a very important part of how I put my art out there,” said Fairey.

Since 2001, Fairey has also operated an L.A.-based graphic design and marketing firm, called Studio Number One, which has done work for clients including Honda, Toyota, Dewars, Virgin Megastore and, this March, the new Saks Fifth Avenue “Want it!” spring marketing campaign.

Fairey is fiercely loyal to his streetwear roots and he was initially gun-shy about shilling for an exclusive retailer like Saks. However, Terron Shaefer, group senior vice president of creative and marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue, persuaded him to come aboard after pointing out that artists like Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince weren’t losing credibility by collaborating with Louis Vuitton.

“Listen, I don’t think I have to apologize for working with Saks. I still sell my prints for $45 online. This was a high-caliber creative project and an exciting opportunity for my studio,” said Fairey.

As for Saks, the choice of Fairey was easy. “This is about being noticed,” said Schaefer. “If it got Obama elected, how bad can it be?”


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