Shepard Fairey is an American graphic designer, illustrator, social activist and an integral part of a street art movement which has successfully transitioned to fine art galleries, along with other artists such as Banksy and Space Invader.
His art has been displayed at institutions including the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, MOMA in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and various other venues around the world.
A member of the punk and skateboarding sub-culture, he frequently supports social causes and opposes corporate influence through his art. Expanding on the legacies of artists such as Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey art disrupts the distinction between fine and commercial art, and provides a social critique through his prints, murals, stickers, and posters shared in public spaces.
Many individuals now look to invest in Shepard Fairey art as the artist’s career continues to develop, and his work attracts further attention from iconic publications, brands and bands.
“Art is not always meant to be decorative or soothing, in fact, it can create uncomfortable conversations and stimulate uncomfortable emotions” – Shepard Fairey
A brief history of Shepard Fairey art
Shepard Fairey was born in 1970 in Charleston, South Carolina, later attending Idyllwild Arts Academy in Palm Springs, California and the Rhode Island School of Design. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
As a punk and skateboard-obsessed art student, Fairey first realized his interest in the street art culture through drawing on T-shirts, skateboards and pasting homemade stickers. He later found further inspiration in Soviet-era propaganda, 1960s-era psychedelic rock poster art and paintings from Works Progress Administration campaigns.
While attending the Rhode Island School of Design, he became known for his “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” (…OBEY…) sticker campaign which appropriated images from the comedic supermarket tabloid Weekly World News.
The Obey Giant is intended to inspire curiosity and cause people to “question everything,” including their relationship with their surroundings. Rooted in the DIY counterculture of punk rock and skateboarding, it also makes reference to popular culture, marketing and political messaging, with its sarcasm verging on reverse psychology.
“The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.” – Shepard Fairey
The ‘Obey Giant’ campaign grew over time, taking on a life of its own thanks to a network of collaborators. Within a few years, OBEY stickers could be seen all across the US, gaining national attention, and one million street art fans chose to buy Shepard Fairy art in the form of a sticker featuring a refined version of the iconic portrait and the single word Obey. Fairey later called the campaign “an experiment in phenomenology”.
Over time, the artwork has been reused in a number of ways worldwide, and Fairey founded OBEY Clothing formed in 2001. Aligned with his populist views, the clothing became another canvas to spread his art and message to people.
Shepard Fairey art creates ‘Hope’ in US politics
The most famous piece of Shepard Fairey art is arguably his iconic 2008 “Hope” portrait of then US presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Fairey distributed 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters during the campaign, funding his grassroots electioneering through poster and fine art sales. He also created an exclusive design for Rock the Vote, and Fairey’s influence throughout the presidential election was a factor in the artist being named a Person of the Year for 2008 by GQ.
“The most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You'” – Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker
Fairey’s iconic “HOPE” portrait of Obama was used as cover art for Time magazine’s 2008 Person of the Year issue, and later featured on the cover of Esquire Magazine in 2009, this time with a caption reading, “WHAT NOW?”
In 2009, the original “HOPE” portrait was made part of the permanent collection of the US National Portrait Gallery. However, Fairey later supported the Occupy Movement in 2011, changing his Obama portrait to challenge the President directly.
More recently protesting the perceived racism that emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign, Fairey also created a series of three posters titled “We the People” which recalled the colours of the “Hope” poster but instead featured minority women as subjects.
Shepard Fairey art has also been used to address other political issues. In 2011, Time Magazine commissioned Fairey once again to design its cover to honour “The Protester” as Person of the Year, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and other social movements around the world.
The following year, Fairey created a portrait of slain African American teenager Trayvon Martin for Ebony magazine.
In 2014, Fairey painted a towering 9 storey high mural in Johannesburg, paying tribute to Nelson Mandela and the 25th anniversary of the Purple Rain Protest. The mural is Fairey’s first work in Africa, and seen by many as a sequel to the iconic Barack Obama HOPE poster.
Most recently, as a tribute to the victims of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Fairey created a poster representing French national icon Marianne, surrounded by the national motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. In June 2016, this design was painted as a mural on 186 rue Nationale, Paris, and a poster was gifted to Emmanuel Macron, who hung it in his office upon assuming the presidency of France.
Shephard Fairey has also ventured into the commercial side of the art industry. He has designed covers for The Smashing Pumpkins’ album Zeitgeist, Flogging Molly’s CD/DVD Whiskey on a Sunday, Led Zeppelin’s compilation Mothership and movie Celebration Day, and Anthrax’s The Greater Of Two Evils. He was also asked to design posters for the British bands Bauhaus and Black Sabbath.
Along with Dave Kinsey and Phillip DeWolff, Fairey was a founding partner of the design studio BLK/MRKT Inc. which specialised in guerrilla marketing. Clients included Pepsi, Nike, Hasbro, The Black Eyed Peas and the film Walk the Line. In 2006, Fairey joined NYC based Ad agency Project 2050 as founding Creative Director and was featured on the cover of Advertising Age magazine.
Fairey’s recent collaboration with Justin Peck, one of the country’s most sought-after ballet choreographers, numbers among his most notable and unique projects. Fairey’s art featured as the backdrop for a ballet called “Heatscape” after Peck was inspired by Fairey’s murals in Miami’s Wynwood arts district.