• Shepard Fairey, born 15th February 1970, is a street artist and designer well known for his thought-provoking, and often controversial, designs. Graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration, Fairey’s first major work was reproducing black and white images of the wrestler Andre ‘The Giant’ Roussimoff. The posters, paper and vinyl sticker reproductions of the wrestler were originally targeted at punks and skateboarders, but eventually became a more widespread phenomenon. They featured an appropriated image of the wrestler with the words ‘ANDRE THE GIANT HAS A POSSE 7’4in, 520lb’, but after the threat of a lawsuit against the use of the trademarked name ‘Andre the Giant’, Fairey applied the word ‘Obey’ to the same image instead. This was also to become iconic and a decisive move in Fairey’s career, particularly in subsequent works which featured the ‘Obey’ word without any associated image.

    The ‘Obey’ sticker campaign, according to Fairey’s website, was an experiment in phenomenology. Fairey says, ‘The ‘Obey’ campaign?had no meaning, except to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning?’. The intention was to provoke people through disassociating words with images that normally have an underlying motive (i.e. to sell a product). Fairey was responding to the effects of subliminal commercialism on audiences, prompting them to question their own role in digesting and utilising information and to get them to think beyond their own existence. Subsequently, the ‘Obey Giant’ street art campaign, which was posted throughout the streets of California, led to Fairey’s arrest on a number of occasions (as it is essentially a form of graffiti); an effect which resonates in many of his more contemporary works as well!

    Fairey, who himself is a member of the punk and skateboarding sub-culture, attributes his rebellious art streak in part to this, as well as Soviet-era propaganda, 1960s-era psychedelic rock poster art and paintings from Works Progress Administration campaigns, all sources from which Fairey derives great inspiration. One of his more recent controversial works was a series of posters titled ‘anti-war, anti-Bush’ which he created in collaboration with artists Robbie Cond and Mear One in 2004. Images in this series include the former President, George Bush, hugging a bomb and another depicting George Bush as the devil. The Obama poster campaign, however, was a shift away from this. It did not hold that antagonistic streak reflected in these previous campaigns, but rather the Obama posters captured Fairey’s own forward looking and hopeful prospects for a new direction for the United States.

    The first Obama poster produced by Fairey, which he dubs his ‘grass roots’ poster because it was produced without any connection to the official Obama Presidential Election Campaign, showed a portrait of Obama (gazing upwards in the guise of a visionary leader) with the word ‘Progress’ underneath. Initially, official Obama campaigners kept a distance from the poster, but eventually embraced it, asking Fairey to produce two revised versions. The first replaced the word ‘Progress’ with ‘Change’ and the second used the word ‘Vote’. Fairey estimates that some 300,000 posters were produced for the campaign altogether, in addition to 500,000 stickers and badges. The Museum has three examples of Fairey’s work related to the Obama campaign and victory in its collection, including the President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden inauguration poster, a ‘Hope’ badge and ‘Yes We Did’ car bumper sticker.

    Apart from initiating his own art campaigns, Fairey does select commercial work (he helped to develop a design firm called Studio Number One for this) and he designs for album art, skateboards, film posters and clothes (he also has his own clothing line which came about as a result of the ‘Obey’ sticker campaign). Examples of Fairey’s commercial work includes designs for the Black Eyed Peas album covers for ‘Elephunk’ and ‘Monkey Business’; the 2009 promotional material for the Earth Hour initiative and a range of creative branding designs for Pepsi, Nike, Electronic Arts, Hasbro and Netscape, among others.