By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
in Hollywood and beyond
Maybe you were on the freeway when you saw it: an ugly face wheat-pasted to a building or billboard, another blip in your peripheral vision. Maybe you spotted a sticker first, stuck to a stop sign, a parking meter or a seat in the bus. Or maybe you’ve seen the posters appearing alongside images of Stalin, Lenin or Saddam Hussein. But at some point, if you live in an urban center, you probably became aware of the ubiquitous stenciled face of Andre the Giant, crudely delineated in bold black lines, his hair, chin and cheeks closely cropped by a heavy black box, and stamped beneath it the solitary Helvetica command: OBEY.
Often misinterpreted as a communist logo, a Nazi symbol or the banner of some sort of cult, Andre the Giant (a.k.a. “the Obey Giant” or just “the Giant”) is the Frankenstein’s monster of guerrilla artist–cum–marketing whiz Shepard Fairey, who created the image while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. For the last 12 years, Fairey has almost fanatically promoted the cause, plastering by his estimation more than 1 million Giant stickers and thousands of posters from New York to Tokyo.
Over those years, Fairey has described Andre variously as “commentary on pop culture,” “a Big Brother–type icon,” “a wrench in the spokes of society,” “a purely absurd image,” “a Rorschach test,” “reverse psychology that teaches people to disobey,” “a method of opening people’s eyes to the system” and, from the “manifesto” on his Web site (www.obeygiant.com), “an experiment in Phenomenology . . . [that aims] to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment.”
What any of that means, exactly, or what it all adds up to is questionable. But that doesn’t seem to have hurt Fairey — or the Giant, who has grown and thrived alongside his creator. Fans from around the world have joined the street-art crusade; Fairey’s had shows at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Merry Karnowsky Gallery here in L.A., and his work is part of the permanent collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (A group show featuring Fairey opens this Saturday, February 16, at Merry Karnowsky on La Brea Avenue.) And the alternative press has championed Fairey as a culture-jammer and cultural phenomenon. A New Timesheadline called Fairey a “poster artist [who] rages against the machine.”
But not everyone believes that, perhaps least of all Fairey, who has if anything embraced the machine — though with one clenched fist raised. First, he started his own clothing line sporting the Giant logo, in the process alienating many in his anti-establishment skater fan base. Then he abandoned his humble Rhode Island screen-printing business to start BLK/MRKT Inc., a graphic-design firm promising “underground campaigns that rise and spread.” That message appeals to both “underground” and prominent, decidedly aboveground clients: In addition to designing punk album covers and the Web site for Skateboard.com, Fairey’s company has created graphics for the likes of Levi Strauss and Moun tain Dew. Originally based in San Diego, BLK/MRKT recently shifted its operation to the more lucrative Los Angeles.
Asked what he thinks of Fairey, guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal, one of Fairey’s early inspirations, responds via e-mail: “Shepard’s ‘OBEY’ poster has a sweet dialectical spin to it — a command of the dominant culture flipped by ‘just folks.’ It’s got a canny distribution tactic — put ’em up everywhere and anywhere (we don’t need no stinkin’ permission) — and a cute subversive wink to its punch line (by putting these up, we’re NOT obeying; we’re making mischief — he-he). If he’d do something else — anything — that isn’t an advertisement for a product or for himself, he could be really interesting.”
So it is with a mix of regard, curiosity and skepticism that I arrive at the BLK/MRKT offices in the Wiltern building, the regal art deco Koreatown concert venue. It’s around 6 p.m., and Fairey has gone out for frozen pizzas to fuel another late night — business as usual, I’m told. BLK/MRKT is on the second floor, and the loft offices are still unfinished; the mural that greets you as you come in, an ominous shadowed figure known as the Black Market Man, is incomplete, and buckets of paint are scattered around. Five guys in their 20s and early 30s, all dressed casually in brand-name sport chic — cargo pants, beanies, sweatshirts — are still Photoshop-fiddling on their G4s.
I’m introduced to a young guy named Blake; fresh from high school, Blake is Fairey’s intern.
“You want to see where he works?” Blake asks. He leads me to a corner office. Drawings and designs lie scattered across a drafting table. Huge filing cabinets, each filled with stacks upon stacks of Obey Giant posters, line two walls.
“Yeah, this is where it all happens,” Blake says, beaming. “I’ve been a fan of his work forever. I used to write him letters when I was in junior high.”