A Punk Rock Interview with Shepard Fairey, Featured Artist for Alternative Press Magazine's 25th Anniversary Exhibit

Shepard Fairey, the DJ
Shepard Fairey, the DJ

Although his most recognizable (and controversial) work is 2008's Barack Obama "HOPE" poster, influential street artist Shepard Fairey's biggest motivation comes from connecting with music, not making splashy headlines. Old school album art, flyers and T-shirts from bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols played a much bigger role in shaping Fairey's ironic, conceptual aesthetic and his politics than anything he experienced at galleries or museums while coming up.

Naturally, Fairey was selected by music magazine Alternative Press to take part in an exclusive group art exhibit celebrating the iconic glossy's 25th anniversary, opening Friday July 9 at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery. For the exhibit he created a series of faux album covers he describes as "like the golden age of LP design, 12-inch format with nice bold graphics." Fairey's work will be showcased alongside original paintings, photography and drawings from nearly 25 other visual artists and musicians including Marilyn Manson, Tim Armstrong, Adam Jones, Pete Wentz, Gerard Way, Travie McCoy, Matt Skiba, Tara McPherson, and Shirley Manson. Also on display will be unearthed rarities from the AP print archives.

L.A. Weekly got Shepard Fairey on the phone to chat about the AP exhibit, punk rock, and what he calls "audio-graphic design."

L.A. Weekly: How did you hook up with Alternative Press for this event?

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Shepard Fairey: Music is a really big influence for me and I incorporate music references in my visual art a lot. I've actually done some illustration work with Alternative Press in the past and I'm a fan, so it's one of those things that came together naturally. I've written stuff in my books about how art should work more like music does.

Some musicians might say music should work more like art does.

Shepard Fairey: [Laughs] Well, maybe from a revenue standpoint now. But as a street artist I was doing the free download model by putting art on the street, and not being paid for it, for years. Now things have gone the other way for me. Now I actually get to charge for my art and all these people who used to charge for their music can't. I've done a lot of album packaging over the years, one of the reasons being that album art and band flyers and T-shirts were some of the most influential things for me, more than what was going on in art galleries or art museums. Working with a band whose music I like and having their audience make a connection while listening to their tunes, I feel like I'm getting the good end of the deal with what I've done as an artist. I also like a lot of the images that are conjured by lyrics from bands. A couple months ago I did a Rise Above piece that referenced the Black Flag song "Rise Above." I remember I incorporated a Sex Pistols lyrics into my "Greetings from Iraq" piece... "Enjoy a cheap holiday in other people's misery" from the song "Holidays in the Sun." There are Clash lyrics that I've used. There's a really strong connection with music for me, is what I'm trying to say.

Shepard Fairey's LP cover art featuring Steve Jones on display at the AP 25th anniversary exhibit
Shepard Fairey's LP cover art featuring Steve Jones on display at the AP 25th anniversary exhibit

Is there a particular musician's work you're really looking forward to seeing at the AP show?

Shepard Fairey: I like Tim Armstrong. He really loves art and he makes great art but he's kind of shy about showing it. I think with him, just because we're both really big Clash fans and dig a lot of the same punk rock and politics and everything, I'm excited to see what he did. I'm looking forward to seeing all of it. Whether it's a musician who makes art or an artist that loves music, a lot of people who are creative are capable of being creative in several areas. It's nice to see that renaissance approach to things. I DJ as a hobby and I'm not a musician, but I understand music structure well enough to be a solid DJ. It's fun; it's like audio-graphic design. I'm experimenting with combinations of things until I find ones that are pleasing together. And that's how I experiment with things as a visual artist. The marriage of art and music is something great to celebrate.

What pieces do you have in the show?

Shepard Fairey: I have four different screen printed record covers. I take apart old LPs and do collage on top of them, but leave some of the original stuff bleeding through. Then I make designs that are faux album covers. They're meant to look like the golden age of LP design, 12-inch format with nice bold graphics. I have three that are more decorative -- and they all work as a series -- but one has Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols in it, who's a friend of mine. The Sex Pistols were life changing for me. They're a perfect example of a band that got the art-music-fashion crossover. Right before Indie 103.1 FM shut down I did a graphic of Steve leaning against a jukebox that never got used for anything so I made an LP cover with it. You'll see them. They're just tributes to LPs.

The Alternative Press 25th anniversary art exhibit opens at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery with a VIP party Friday, July 9 and public opening Saturday, July 10. The entire exhibition will be on view at the gallery from July 9 -- July 23.

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