One of the most iconic pieces of street art in recent decades began as a fluke. In 1989, while a 19-year-old illustration student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Shepard Fairey created stickers featuring the glowering face of Andre the Giant, the seven-foot, four-inch French wrestler and actor.
It “started as an inside joke with some skateboard friends,” Fairey says. “Yet, like a Rorschach test, it started to reveal things about how people process images.”
The stickers and, later, posters and stencil art began popping up on lampposts and traffic signs around Providence and, eventually, in cities across the globe. Within a decade, Fairey was one of the world’s most famous street artists.
He has been the subject of solo gallery shows and retrospectives from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Munich; founded a studio, an arts magazine, and a clothing company; created murals of everyone from Johnny Cash to Nelson Mandela; and is the focus of the 2017 documentary Obey Giant, which details, among other things, his 2009 trial in Boston during which he faced 14 felony charges for destruction of property. He also designed a red-and-blue portrait of Barack Obama (“Hope”) for the then-Illinois senator’s 2008 presidential campaign—perhaps you’ve seen it?—that is now considered one of the most effective political posters in American history. The original, fittingly, is in the Smithsonian.
A retrospective of Fairey’s work opens November 9 at the Over the Influence gallery in the Arts District, part of a tour that includes stops in Brooklyn, Paris, London, and Seoul. The L.A. show, Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent, features 30 original fine-art pieces, each inspired by a seminal work from one of Fairey’s 30 years as a painter, muralist, and street artist. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been [that long],” says the 49-year-old Fairey.
“I think I’m in a perpetual state of arrested development.”
The L.A. stop is no accident. Although Fairey made his bones as a street artist on the East Coast, he’s been a fixture in Los Angeles since arriving in 2001. The Los Feliz resident has created movie posters here, most notably for the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line; collaborated with local bands Ozomatli and the Black Eyed Peas; and opened an enormous workspace, Studio Number One, in Echo Park.
“The cutthroat competition of New York was motivating but exhausting,” he says. “I think L.A. suits my temperament better.”
Despite the retrospective, Fairey is all about looking forward—to the 2020 presidential election, for example. He says he won’t create an anti-Trump image this time around, having done so in 2016 for the cover of Franz Ferdinand’s Demagogue
album. Something for the Democrats, however, is a possibility.
He singles out Pete Buttigieg as a candidate he connects with: “Stylistically, I really like [him].” But he’s also a big fan of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris. He says he’s not picking anyone just yet and notes that he didn’t create his “Hope” poster for candidate Obama until around the Iowa primaries. “So, I still have some time,” he quips.
He also plans to create murals in various red and swing states.
“I’m from South Carolina originally, so I know in every one of the places I go to, there’s gonna be an opportunity to change some minds,” says Fairey, who grew up in Charleston. “The tendency can be to just speak to people who already agree with you, and I’ve always tried to not do that.”
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