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February 11, 2009 8:30 PM

Eye, Fashion, Media

Shepard Fairey: Art, Commerce and Crime

Shephard Fairey with one of his artworks. What's the difference between street art and graffiti?Like many things, it's in the eye of the beholder, and that's why Shepard Fairey can simultaneously be honored with a high-profile retrospective at Boston's...


Shephard Fairey with one of his artworks.
What's the difference between street art and graffiti?


Like many things, it's in the eye of the beholder, and that's why Shepard Fairey can simultaneously be honored with a high-profile retrospective at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art and be arrested by the Boston police department on vandalism charges at the opening-night celebration for the exact same exhibit.



The police apparently weren't impressed by the fact that the street artist two days earlier had been honored at City Hall by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, or that he had been a personal guest of President Obama at the presidential inauguration last month -- an acknowledgement of Fairey's "Change" and "Hope" portraits of Obama that became defining images of his election campaign. The police were more concerned with making an example of the suddenly high-profile Fairey, who they alleged had posted his ubiquitous André the Giant "Obey" posters and stickers on a number of illegal sites around Boston as far back as 2000.
"It was obviously a big inconvenience," Fairey, 38, told WWD of his arrest, adding that he had no knowledge of the outstanding misdemeanor charges against him prior to the police putting him in cuffs at the ICA. During interviews, Fairey was unrepentant about using public property for his work, noting he's a taxpayer and that outdoor advertising, in his mind, is much more obtrusive and obnoxious than street art. He also boasted of posting new work on illegal sites around Boston, as he prepared for the ICA opening.


Adding to his legal headaches last week was an effort by the Associated Press to garner some credit and compensation for the copyrighted photograph that Fairey used as the basis for his original Obama portrait. Fairey filed a preemptive lawsuit asking a judge to rule that his creative, artistic interpretation of the photograph was "fair use" and did not violate the AP's copyright.

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All the legal wrangling turned a story about an artist at a high point in his career into one involving intellectual property law and the ethics of "tagging," or the practice of graffiti artists leaving their marks on cityscapes -- a popular practice in the skater community. Fairey is an avid skater and also a co-owner of streetwear brand Obey Clothing.


Nicholas Baume, the chief curator at the ICA, was diplomatic about honoring one of Boston's most wanted with a retrospective. "Many artists are rebellious, radical figures, and that can be confrontational and upsetting," he noted. "Sometimes it's through transgression that you can break through to a new type of understanding. That applies to the whole history of art."


Fairey's arrest, his 15th to date, certainly put a damper on the opening-night festivities at the ICA, where 750 people were waiting to party with the artist. But fashion marketers don't appear put off by that impressive rap sheet: Levi's is sponsoring the ICA exhibit, online streetwear retailer Karmaloop.com sponsored the opening-night party and Saks Fifth Avenue next month will launch a splashy marketing campaign designed by Fairey's graphic design firm. Even rebellious street artists have to pay the bills.


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