Shepard Fairey is a graphic designer and street artist. Street art describes any artwork created for a public space, including stickers, murals, graffiti, and sculpture. Fairey’s best known works are his “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign and his Barack Obama “Hope” posters.
Frank Shepard Fairey was born in Charleston, South Coralina in 1970. He began making art when he was 14. He placed his drawings on t-shirts and skateboards. He attended high school at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, and he went to college at the Rhode Island School of Design.
In college, Shepard took a part time job at a skateboarding shop. While there, he used a newspaper image of Andre of the Giant, a French wrestler, to teach a friend how to make stencils. The stencil inspired Fairey to create “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stickers to amuse his friends and classmates. He and his peers placed the stickers in cities around the world though! The images inspired people to question their surroundings and investigate the mysterious stickers. This reaction forced Fairey to consider the use of “ambiguous images” in public spaces. “I began to think,” He wrote, “There was potential to create a phenomenon.” The sticker soon evolved into the “Obey Giant.” Fairey continues to use the icon as a personal symbol and signature.
After graduation, the artist started a small printing business. Alternate Graphics made silkscreens for stickers and t-shirts. Fairey later founded BLK/MRKT Inc., a design studio that specialized in guerilla marketing. Its clients include Pepsi, Hasbro, and Netscape. Shepard also founded Studio Number One with his wife, Amanda Fairey. Through their design agency, he created album covers and movie posters. He even started an arts and culture magazine, Swindle. Some of Fairey’s fans were disappointed by these business ventures. They wanted the artist to remain “a cult figure.” These businesses provide a steady income though, and they allow Shepard Fairey to continue making his own artwork.
Fairey shows his work in galleries, he creates art for charities, and he makes posters for his preferred politic causes. In 2008, he created a series of posters supporting Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Fairey distributed 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters before the election. His iconic “HOPE” portrait was called “The most effective American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You.’” Although the Obama administration denied any connection to the “illegal work” of an “independent street artist,” Barack Obama did send a thank you letter to Shepard Fairey. “I am privileged to be a part of your artwork,” The president wrote, “And proud to have your support.”
As a street artist with strong political views, Shepard Fairey has faced legal problems. Placing artwork on other people’s property is illegal. In 2009, Fairey was arrested for graffiti, vandalism, and property damage. He was also sued for plagiarism and copyright infringement. This is ironic because Fairey has threatened to sue people who reuse his work the same way. In 2012, Fairey pled guilty to contempt of court for “destroying documents and manufacturing evidence” during his trial. Despite these controversies, Fairey’s social and political messages do seem sincere. He donates heavily to his favorite causes, and he often reinvests money he earns back into those efforts.
Shepherd Fairey has already earned a place in history. He is a leader of the street art movement that defines this era of art history. More importantly, Fairey’s “HOPE” portrait has become a part of America’s political history. It was acquired by the US National Portrait Gallery and is part of its permanent collection. Regardless of its political leanings, that poster alone is a historic illustration of an artist’s ability to affect change.
Shepard Fairey is political, controversial, successful, skilled, criminal, and timely. Can you think of a better character to launch our school year? Studio lessons spring to mind, but I’m more interested in the conversations that this artist might generate. With an election around the corner and his posters in the hall, I’d be surprised if my students and their families didn’t bring the discussions home and back to the art room again.
Portrait of Shepard Fairey by yours truly, Rama Hughes. Bayshore Billboard print by Shepard Fairey.