Street artist's star rises with Obama portrait

Thursday, January 29, 2009 | 4:56 p.m. CST
Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey poses for a picture with his Barack Obama Hope artwork in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. Fairey designed the famous Obama campaign poster and also the "Obey-Andre the Giant" poster of a few years back.

LOS ANGELES — It isn't in Shepard Fairey's nature to ask for a subject's permission before the outlaw street artist illustrates that person.

But in Barack Obama's case, Fairey made an exception before breaking out paper, pens and computer and creating the iconic illustration of a pensive Obama staring off into space that became the talk of the 2008 presidential campaign.


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"Normally, my thing is, 'Screw you if you don't like it. I'm doing it anyway,'" Fairey says as he sits in the second-floor conference room of his studio on the edge of downtown. "But I really wanted to help Obama. This wasn't about me, it was about him."

Fairey fretted that his many arrests for drawing on buildings and other private property without permission, his penchant for mocking consumerism and his portrayal of President Bush as Satan in a 2004 campaign poster might come back to haunt Obama.

Now, the Obama portrait's stunning use of color and seemingly Warhol-inspired use of imagery has transformed one of the leaders of Los Angeles' street art movement into a national star.

"Shepard has always been a key figure in the urban art arena, but the Obama image really catapulted him into the mainstream and really changed the way people look at his work," says Pedro Alonzo, who is curating a Fairey retrospective that opens at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art next month.

On Jan. 17, Fairey was in Washington, where his illustration of Obama was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. While there, he also attended Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, as well as his first inaugural ball.

"I certainly wouldn't have attended the last two unless it was to throw a shoe," laughs the liberal artist.

Piled on the table beside him, and in the hallway outside, were hundreds of anti-war posters from his popular feminist peace series waiting to be signed for an upcoming exhibit. He also designs album covers, stickers, a line of clothing and fine art pieces that have shown in galleries around the country.

Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt bearing one of the designs from his Obey clothing line, Fairey is reserved but friendly. A youthful-looking 38, he has short dark hair with wisps of gray.

"I consider myself a populist artist," he says. "I want to reach people through as many different platforms as possible. Street art is a bureaucracy-free way of reaching people, but T-shirts, stickers, commercial jobs, the Internet — there are so many different ways that I use to put my work in front of people."

It was just a matter of time, says fellow artist and fine-art printer Richard Duardo, before one of those forms would allow Fairey to break through to a wider demographic.

"I think I've seen 500 or 600 artists go through the doors here, and I'm talking everyone from David Hockney to Raymond Pettibon," Duardo said from his Los Angeles studio Modern Multiples. "Shepard Fairey was the first guy who walked through our doors and I went, 'Oh my God, this guy is going all the way.' You could just see it."

Fairey, he said, has a perfect eye for color and can visualize to the smallest detail exactly what he wants to create when he begins a project.

Fairey arrived on the California art scene in the 1990s, soon after attending the Rhode Island School of Design where he made a name for himself by slapping posters and stickers of Andre the Giant, the 7-foot, 4-inch, 500-pound professional wrestler, all over. The Andre campaign began as joke when a friend he was trying to teach to silkscreen T-shirts balked at putting a picture of the gargantuan wrestler on one. His friend thought it would look stupid.

"I said, 'What are you talking about? Andre is awesome. His crew is going to be the new posse,'" Fairey recalls joking.

After creating the image himself, he added the word "obey" as a means of mocking the subliminal advertising campaigns that sucker people into buying things they don't need. Soon after he began plastering Andre's image over ads for real things, his reputation as a counterculture artist was sealed.

In an ironic twist, Fairey acknowledges with some embarrassment that he recently worked on an ad campaign that kicks off in March for Saks Fifth Avenue. The promotion — called "Want It!" — has brought him criticism among bloggers, but he defends working for the luxury retailer, saying such clients help keep his studio open and his nearly two dozen employees working.

Fairey himself, who is married and the father of two young daughters, works relentlessly, cranking out a new poster just about every week.

The son of a doctor in Charleston, S.C., he became all but obsessed with art as a 14-year-old skateboarding punk-rocker when he discovered that he could put his drawings on his boards and T-shirts.

"I think one of the reasons I work so hard is because failure wasn't an option," he says. "There was nothing else that I could think of that I could do."


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Sara Jane Maaranen January 29, 2009 | 7:33 p.m.

It'd be cool to have an image of "Obey-Andre the Giant" that's mentioned in the photo caption.

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