RECOGNIZE THIS? OF COURSE YOU DO. YOU'VE SEEN IT SOMEWHERE. ON A STICKER? OR A SHIRT, PERHAPS? HOW ABOUT A WALL? A PUBLIC WALL. PLASTERED. HUGE. IN YOUR FACE. COVERING A BILLBOARD. STENCILED ON A LAMP-POST. IT'S A PART OF YOUR CULTURE. IT INVADES YOUR SPACE. IT MAKES YOU THINK. IT MAKES YOU QUESTION. THE MAN BEHIND THIS CURTAIN? SHEPARD FAIREY: THE STREET ARTIST BEHIND THIS OBEY PHENOMENON; ONE-THIRD OF THE GRAPHIC DESIGN ENIGMA THAT IS BLK/MRKT; AND THE WILLING PARTICIPANT OF A TASTES LIKE CHICKEN PHONE INTERVIEW WITH VINNIE BAGGADONUTS.
vinnie: So, I know very little about the show in May, like what you're going to be showing, or if this interview is supposed to be more about Obey Giant or BLK/MRKT or both. I have a shitload of questions I could ask you.
Shepard: I know that the work I'll be showing will mostly be Obey Giant work, because that's what I make as my fine art. We do have some BLK/MRKT promotional posters that might be in the show, also. And it's all kind of linked together in other ways. It's just that the stuff that I do for clients, they produce and they have their agenda with it. I just try to make it look good. And then my stuff, I have my own reasons for doing it. But the style is recognizable. People can recognize work I do for clients as being mine.
v: Yeah, that's one of the things I was gonna ask you about. The stuff you guys do at BLK/MRKT reminds me of the stuff that Paul Rand and David Carson did, in that they had a style. It was like their personal work. And when I saw the stuff you guys did for Mountain Dew, and for Virgin Records-- like, I remember seeing something you did for Jazzmatazz. It was just this poster of Guru-
S: Oh! That poster. I know which one you're talking about, and we didn't do that poster.
v: Are you serious?
S: It totally looks like ours. We had just done this thing for Ben Harper that was in the exact same style, and they just had somebody else do it in our style. Everybody thought that Jazzmatazz thing was my poster. You're talking about the one with the sunglasses on, and the really high contrast?
v: It was like blue and black.
v: See, I saw that Ben Harper thing, and I just assumed that Jazzmatazz thing was yours. Like you were doing all of them.
S: No. When I did that Ben Harper thing for them, they then went and tried to get their in-house design guys to knock the style off for Ben's next album cover. And it's just because they wanted to save money. That's the dangerous sort of thing. If something goes well, and people don't want to spend money, they just try to knock it off. But that's gonna happen whether you refuse to do the work or not. A lot of my detractors say, "You know, the Obey Giant project is a really pure thing. Why are you watering it down by doing commercial work in the same style?" What they don't understand is that I get calls from art directors who say, "You know, my boss just tried to get me to rip your style off, but we couldn't really do it. So he finally decided to just let me outsource the job to you." Once your work reaches a certain level of visibility, you really can't help that people are going to try and rip it off. And I really don't have a problem doing commercial work for most companies. I don't want to do anything for a cigarette company, because I don't want to encourage smoking through my art. We live in a capitalist system. I'm just trying to make cool stuff and earn a living.
v: When you started doing posters-- you mentioned graf, and I know that you're very aware of graphic design history-- which was a bigger influence.
S: Graphic design or graffiti? Or pop art? There are a couple of things. First of all, when I was out in LA for an art fair in high school, I saw this poster artist named Robbie Conal had posters around the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the fair was. It was Ronald Reagan-- an unflattering portrait-- with the words "Contra" above, and "Diction" below. I just thought it was really great because it was powerful typography; really bold and clever word play, and a really cool piece of art. It was a way of integrating his politics and sense of humor into his art. I also remember going to New York in 1990, a year after I started making the original Andre stickers, and seeing all the graffiti on the freeways, and what lengths people were going to, to get up some impressive pieces. That's one of the things that made me want to do bigger stuff. Barbara Kruger, also. Her really bold, powerful combination of images and type heavily influenced me. The idea of maximizing your communication in something you can look at for a split second. I started looking back at propaganda posters, as far back as WWI. As far as the actual act of doing it though, graffiti was the influence. The fact that you can go out into this world of stress and take something back by seizing the space and putting something of yours out there. The medium is the message. And I guess the idea with the Obey thing was to suggest that people had been conditioned so thoroughly to be obedient, that you didn't even need to tell them to obey anymore. And when you put the word “Obey” in front of them, they get really mad because then they start to think about the fact that they're asked to be obedient. It's just so ironic.
v: I remember when I got the Plea for Peace compilation-- that image on there, I couldn't place it. But I remembered seeing it in my History of Graphic Design class. I remember thinking, "That's an appropriation. It's gotta be an homage to-- "
S: It's an old Russian poster for the state-owned drug store. What I do with a lot of stuff is I don't try and reinvent the wheel. If there's something great out there that can be used to communicate something I want to communicate, and it can be reinterpreted, I just use it. I don't try and disguise it. I just remix it.
v: I just thought that it was awesome that you were respecting a medium. If people go back and study it, they'll see how it has influenced your work. I was wondering if you consciously did this.
S: Yeah. A lot of stuff I do is definitely designed to be an homage. Now that I have my own following, I want to interest people enough to look further back at what I was inspired by. With the whole punk rock series of graphics, that was about the first time I heard the Sex Pistols. One of my biggest influences was seeing all the ransom note punk stuff that Jamie Reid was doing. Hearing their passion and their anger and politics was really stimulating. Funny thing is, I just did an art show in New York a couple months ago-- do you know who Espo is?
S: Well, I'm friends with Espo, and I dig what he does. He came up to me because he saw one of the Jamie Reid posters I did, with the buses. And Jamie Reid stole that from a public service announcement poster anyway. But Espo sees it and goes, "Hey, I hope you're sending a royalty check to Jamie Reid!" (laughing) And I was like, "Maybe he'll get a royalty check from other stuff he might sell, because people will see this and take an interest." In the spirit of the swindle, I stole it the same way he did.
v: So, let's talk about punk rock. On your site, you have that Nods’ song "Andre the Giant has a Posse". How did you discover that song?
S: It's kind of a cool story about how that happened. I was in New York in ‘92, and I was making some t-shirts with my graphics. I was literally walking around with a bunch of t-shirts on coat hangers slung over my shoulder, trying to find places I thought were cool to sell ‘em. And I'm putting stickers up with my other hand as I go, and this dude sees me putting a sticker up, sitting on a stoop on St. Mark's place. I think his name was Marq-- big black guy. I think he was the drummer. He says, “Hey, can I get one of those stickers? I’ve been seeing these around. What's the deal?" I told him, "Oh, it's kind of my goofy Dada art project." And he says, “Really? I kinda like em. I think it's funny. Do you have any bigger ones? I want to put one on my bass drum.” So I got his address and sent him some stickers in the mail. A couple of months later, they're playing that song.
v: That's awesome!
S: That was one of the first things I experienced where I was like, "Wow. This thing is becoming a part of pop culture in weird ways." It's amazing. Since then, I've been trying to think of ways beyond the street art to get it out there. I love it when bands are into it and it shows up in their packaging or at concerts or on MTV. I really see music as a great populace medium.
v: Do you and Dave (Kinsey, one of his BLK/MRKT partners) do a lot of street work together?
S: We go out bombing together. Dave hasn't been bombing as much lately because he's really busy with commissioned paintings.
v: So what kind of stuff are you bringing to the show at Blue Cube Arts in May?
S: I'll probably be bringing screen prints on wood and metal, and also some paper prints, too, so there's more affordable stuff. I might bring some original multi-color spray paint stencil stuff. I've actually been getting back into spray stencil stuff lately, because there's a better connection to the sense of immediacy of the street work. But I'm not sure if I'll bring any of that stuff. I might wait until I have a bigger body of it. I haven't looked at a diagram of the gallery yet, so I don't know how much space there is.
v: Okay, I have to ask you a really bizarre question now, because it's our trademark question. It's a very selfish thing for us.
v: Do dogs have lips?
S: Um, yeah. They do. I used to always look at the inside of my dog’s mouth. I was sure he had lips, but I wasn't sure what was going on with his gums, like why the tongue and the gums weren't the same color. That was the thing I was curious about. Right where that fur part ends and the skin begins, that's the lips. They're thin. They're tight-lipped, but I think they have lips.
v: I'm so disappointed.
v: I'm convinced that they don't, and I'm so in the minority.
S: Well, I'm convinced they have lips. They're not too meaty, not too chunky. I don't know if they can pucker. Only in cartoons.
OBEY GIANT AT OBEYGIANT.COM AND VISIT BLK/MRKT'S SITE AT BLKMRKT.COM