Sarah J. Edwards speaks to Shepard Fairey in which he opens up about his childhood, the beginnings of skate culture, his time at Rhode Island School of Design, setting up his screen printing business and many of the things that inspire his work.
The feature first appeared in the printed edition of BLAG Vol.2 Nø 9 in 2008, this is an edited version.
Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art by Shephard Fairey
We all know the art scene has exploded over the past year or two and the interesting thing is the title ‘artist’ has been applied to many talents who least expected the tag, professionally - so to speak. Artists are being invested in like property.
Shepard Fairey has become quite the phenomenon. Several years ago his mysterious ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ stickers ubiquitously sprang up in hard to reach places all across the globe and caught the eye of punk rockers, hip hop heads, skaters and street art enthusiasts. His work has evolved into a more complex style and he’s now a fully-fledged artist, businessman, creative director and fashion label owner. Here’s how it all began...
“As a kid going to private school and growing up in Charlestown which is really conservative, I was not happy, but I didn’t really know any alternative. In 1984 I started skateboarding, I had no idea about the whole culture behind it, but I enjoyed the activity, it was something that I could do by myself, [with] no need for a teammate and no organised sports aspect to it. It was a just a physical outlet, it was creative and you could do it alone. Then I got into skateboarding magazines and punk rock was so embedded in that culture, that it was just a natural thing that I would get into [through that lifestyle]. And there was no internet, you know? I’m in a small town but I started to find pockets of people that were into skateboarding and punk rock. It was a small scene, I would go into the record store and I would ask them to special order the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys and Clash records – things they didn’t carry normally. Surprisingly enough, I got fairly current on everything that was going on just by trading tapes with friends. It was the first time I ever felt like I had my own thing going where I wasn’t at the mercy of the status quo and that was so empowering and exciting.
“I’d always drawn ever since I was a little kid, drawings and paintings and stuff, but it was just something to do that was a technical exercise. It didn’t really have a cultural connection to anything I was excited by and then once I got [into that scene] – the whole stickers, skateboard graphics, stencil and T-shirt making, all that stuff, – then I could apply what I was doing with art to something that I was much more excited about, as sort of a being a signifier of what I was into. That was 1984... The name of my London show is NineteenEightyFouria. It’s both a reference to the culture of people embracing the 1984 mentality, where the Government does all your thinking for you and it’s much more convenient to have fewer freedoms and it’s terribly frightening. As well as the surveillance culture that in London is so huge, you know? That’s also the year that conversely – I love contrast – that my whole world kind of changed for the better.”
So when you went to the Rhode Island School of Design, did you know you were going to set up the screen-printing business?
“No, when I went there I was still was somewhat narrow in my view of art. What I was doing for fun all the stencils, stickers, T-shirts and stuff, I thought was just recreation and that you’d never be able to sub stuff like that for real art so...when I got to art school I majored in Illustration, because I could draw and paint.
“Illustration was a very open-ended major where you could take a lot of other electives and I knew that I wanted to do some photography and graphic design. I’d always done all my screen printing by hand or by cutting stencils and just putting the stencil on the back of a screen and pushing ink through, I’d never used photo emulsion or any of the dark room techniques to create film separations for screen printing where you can get more detail. So once I was at college and I learnt about that it was like, ‘Woah!’ A huge world of possibilities opened up and the one thing I really liked about screen printing was that it was a medium that I felt I could incorporate a lot of my influences into and it would synthesise them so that it didn’t look so much like I was schizophrenic. Like, OK, I like drawing over here, I like collage over here, and I like photography over here.
“Screen printing just by the nature of its process tends to make things look very unified even if you’re sort of applying several techniques in one piece. It allowed for a lot of experimentation, it allowed for me to not have just one precious original. One thing that I hated about drawing and painting is that you work on a piece and it’s the one that you have and you think, well maybe I should push it further, but maybe I don’t want to ruin it and over work it, so there’s this sort of preciousness about it. Then it’s like I can’t just distribute it freely, there’s only one and should I hang on to it or if I sell it, I’ve got to sell it for enough money that made it worth selling it. Where as screen prints I could just be so liberal with them. I could experiment, I could make multiples, I could put some up on the street, I could give some to friends, I could sell a few, and I could try different colour ways. It just felt so free as a medium.”
It was a business wasn’t it, that you set up whilst you were studying? How were you making it happen?
“Well the way I started off, the summer after my freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, while I was working at a skate shop, I was making some bootleg t-shirts to make extra money. I’d make a shirt of a band that I wanted a t-shirt of like The Replacements and the Misfits or something. Then I’d run off a couple of extra ones from the design I’d created – which usually derived from one of the designs the bands already had, but with me sort of putting my twist on it. Then I’d sell a few extras to the skate shop and that’s when I started making the original ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ sticker.
“Once I started doing that and I started doing more of my own designs, I decided well, I know that screen printing is something that I want to do. I was selling some shirts to friends so, I thought, when I graduate from school I’m not gonna have access to screen printing equipment, so I better figure out a way to make sure that I can have equipment around me and the only logical way was to start a screen printing business. Really there were a few factors, one thing was I knew that I didn’t want to be a commercial illustrator, like sending out slides to newspapers and magazines and trying to get illustration jobs, I just hated that idea. So I thought I could kinda call the shots more for myself doing screen printing contracts and then doing my own work when the contract work wasn’t busy. It was a very naive approach, it was actually totally stupid, but it kinda worked out because I’m really stubborn. Once I start going down a path I try to make it work out no matter how difficult it is. Screen printing just doesn’t make that much money, but what it did achieve was that after I graduated I was subsisting, barely making enough money to survive but I was making a lot of my own work and even though my work wasn’t yielding any money yet, I was putting posters up and stickers up and stencils up on the street and it was achieving a resonance which would then, you know, later come back around to benefit me and a familiarity that people had with the images.
“It was definitely a difficult way to go about things... Also, I always felt that art was really pretentious, the whole idea of art is terribly, terribly elitist and pretentious and so I very much liked the idea of making... You know, if you want to call it art, call it art, call it graphics, whatever you want to call it, but making stuff that was accessible and wasn’t too pretentious. So, for me making posters, t-shirts and stickers was going to allow me to make affordable items that I felt would work with the peer group that I identified with and share my work in a really, sort of like populist, non-elitist way. One of the things was, that due to my own insecurity, I didn’t dare call what I was doing art, I felt like, look if other people want to call it art then fine, but I’m not even gonna go there because I’m doing graffiti and skateboard stickers and stuff for bands and it’s all just sort of me putting my stuff back into the exact same culture that created me.
“While I was at RISD I was travelling in New York and Boston and seeing a lot of graffiti. I got really inspired by the street art world and decided where skateboarding and punk rock kinda would keep it’s art sort of in their circles, graffiti took it to the streets and made it like, ‘Hey, this is for anybody walking down the street to see it.’ So, I sort of took the style of the skateboard and punk rock stuff I that I was into and took it into more of a graffiti realm. You call it street art or graffiti or whatever, but the only way I was using a spray can was through stencils. I still took a lot of my ideas of how to execute from placements and everything, and inspiration and passion behind the applications of graffiti, it was very inspiring to me.”
So when did you start getting inspired by propaganda posters, Barber Kruger and artists like that? Was that during your studies or afterwards?
“Well, actually, when I was a senior I did a year of art in High School, out in California, near Palm Springs. We drove into Los Angeles to see an art fair. Do you know who Robbie Conal is?”
“He’s a street art poster artist, he inspired me because he’d done a series of Ronald Reagan, – very unflattering portraits – with ‘contra’ above and ‘diction’ below and I thought this guy is great. He’s got his own art style, he’s got a sense of humour and he’s got a political message all wrapped up in one striking piece, it’s totally accessible on the street. Based on seeing his stuff I started looking at other people like Barbara Kruger, Russian Constructivists, all the Soviet, Chinese and Cuban propaganda and anti-Vietnam war posters. It just so happened that at the time that I saw ‘They Live’ which I think you know, the John Carpenter film [which] definitely was inspired graphically somewhat by Barbara Kruger. Barbara Kruger also happened to be sort of the hottest shit around the RISD campus. If somebody was making [a poster like] ‘The Government Has Blood On Its Hands’ or ‘An AIDS Death Every Eight Minutes’, they would frequently lift Barbara Kruger’s style and I liked her style a lot. One of the reasons that I played off of it for the original ‘Obey’ icon image was not just that I was inspired by her, but that it would immediately get the attention of anybody who had been used to seeing that graphic language used for something with political importance.
“So you know at the time I’m not thinking like, ‘OK, this project’s gonna go really big,’ I mean I was putting stuff up in New York, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island and occasionally, Philadelphia and New Hampshire when I was driving to go and skateboard. So I was looking at it more from a much narrower perspective of the college student who’s inundated with graphics. And realising that certain graphics are perceived a certain way and I’m trying to hijack what peoples’ assumptions about what a certain graphic presentation are gonna be.
“Additionally, I had figured out how to rig the machines at Kinko’s Copies to make free copies and they had a red toner cartridge and a black toner cartridge machines, so everything that I was making – in order to make cheap Xerox street posters – were just red and black. Soviet Constructivism and Barbara Kruger were two things that I liked that used red and black, so there was also an element of style dictated by necessity. Yeah, but you know, I really liked Barbara Kruger’s work, but my intention certainly wasn’t to come across like a Barbara Kruger protégé. I was more or less grabbing at anything I thought was really powerful and just sort of shamelessly hijacking it. Eventually I think all of that stuff melded into a style that was a little bit more my own.
“At that time I wasn’t really thinking the art world might actually care and scrutinize what I was doing. I was just having fun and trying to get people’s attention and it wasn’t that I thought it was a worthless or silly pursuit; it’s more that I didn’t realise that some of the things that I thought could manifest really would. That seemed like a far fetched fantasy.”
“So much of things that are out there that are sold to the public are... it’s like an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon, where something really stupid has been sold like it’s the next greatest thing and people kind of believe the hype. Then it’s got the snowballing effect and that’s a bummer. What I try to do is question everything they are assaulted with, but at the same time I’m not going to apologetically watch from the wings as that stuff happens. I figure I might as well make the case for what I’m doing and so I’ll call myself an artist and say that what I’m doing I think is worthwhile.”