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 Times headline 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.”
When I express some surprise at this sort of devotion, Blake grins and lifts his black T-shirt sleeve, revealing four Obey Giant tattoos stacked on his shoulder.
“Man,” Blake says, “you know how some people look up to professional athletes? For me, Shepard is like that.”
And Shepard is back, frozen-pizza boxes in hand. A stocky guy — his body a testament to his football-playing father — he sports a green Puma T-shirt under his Obey-brand jacket, a poofy black parka with fake-fur trim on the hood. He looks young; though he is 31, he could easily still be in college or even high school. Fairey speaks in a loud, almost angry-sounding voice. Tireless when the subject is his Giant, he also shows a hint of defensiveness, as if he were about to be scolded.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why have you devoted your life to the face of a dead wrestler?
SHEPARD FAIREY: Andre has the perfect balance of creepy and goofy. There’s a power to that face that I was very lucky to discover accidentally. It was the summer after my freshman year at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], and I kind of ran a skate shop. I was captain for the skate team. While I was there, I was excited about — though I later became bored with it — the whole mentality of the kids coming into the shop. They were kissing my butt because I was master of that domain. I was the employee and a good skater, so I could dictate what was cool. I have to admit that I enjoyed being the boss of the clique, but at the same time I thought it was silly.
So where did the image come from?
One night my friend was over, and he wanted to learn how to make stencils. I looked through the newspaper to find a picture for him to practice on and found a wrestling picture of Andre the Giant. He said, “No way. That’s stupid. I’m not doing that.” It had this effect on me, and I said, “Come on, man. This is cool. This is the shit. This ‘Andre the Giant Has a Posse’ is the new thing.” I chose the word posse because it was still kind of taboo to be down with rap if you were a white person. So he was like [adopting a stupid-sounding voice], “Oh, all right.” If you’re a really good orator, you can have influence over your friends. You can be convincing. I kept saying, “Eric, man, come on, we gotta stencil this on our grip tape. This is going to be the shit,” and just kind of whipping him into a frenzy like that. And he was like, “Cool.” It was that ironic juxtaposition of a cutting-edge cool word, posse, with a totally “uncool” image and forcing this image on the people in our clique. If you really analyze that, it’s a good metaphor for everything it’s grown into. People, you know . . . [voice turning theatrically sinister] mold them like clay. [He pauses, then grows reflective.] There’s a very devious, manipulative side to my personality that I completely acknowledge.
So you liked convincing people that this image was “cool”?
By now I was obsessed with it. I went ahead and made the stencil and wrote the words Andre the Giant has a posse. I took it to Kinko’s and made some stickers. I figured it would be a two-week joke. Next thing you know, after sticking it on stop signs and at clubs, I hear people talking about it at line in the grocery store. It was empowering for me. It was exciting to be the originator of something that people seemed to like. Positive feedback is intoxicating. I was really excited by the idea of a snowball effect and exploiting that, taking it as far as it could go. At first on a local level, but as I saw the reactions grow, my ambition grew. “Maybe I could do this in Boston . . . Wouldn’t it be great to take a trip to New York?”
Now the image is all over the world.
I took what I saw in the graffiti world, the street-art world, the skateboarding world, the punk rock world, and put it in a project that took it to a new level. It became more visible. I don’t think I invented anything. I was inspired by different things. What I’ve done is be very focused and persistent. I don’t think that anyone has done what I’ve done on such a large scale.
Except, of course, governments and corporations. Propaganda and Russian Constructivism have been major influences on you, haven’t they?
In college I became fascinated with propaganda posters. The idea of a message being condensed to its most essential elements: to get your attention, to communicate an idea and have an image that resonates emotionally. It can be used for very ethical or very sinister purposes. It wasn’t just the commie forms, but World War II posters, Cuban revolutionary posters, Chinese propaganda, German propaganda. If there’s really a style that cohesively integrates typography, composition, color, with a restrained palette, it’s Russian Constructivism. It’s the best bang for your buck in the whole design world.
Not surprisingly, you’re an admirer of Andy Warhol. What specifically drew you to him?
I like the idea of mass-producing images. Pop art just took everyday objects and made them into art. Warhol did that, and it was a great joke on the fine-art world. It kind of opened the door for an acceptance of things that look more like advertising as art. That was really important to me. Also, he manipulated the media. Plus, he used the Velvet Underground as a way to make an association with something that people have a positive visceral response to. It gets their blood pumping, and then he’s got this piece of art that goes with it that, by default, has a positive association with it. These are really brilliant marketing techniques.
You seem fascinated by the processes of advertising and marketing.
I appreciate advertising because it’s really pure. It’s pure in that it has no goal other than to get you to buy something. It’s always, directly or indirectly, leading to something that makes money. It thrives on manipulation. I enjoy seeing all the psychological methods that advertising uses. I used to feel threatened by the people doing the advertising, but in more recent years I’ve shifted to the idea of “Don’t be a victim.” I encourage people to be aware of the devices that are being used to manipulate them. That actually frees me up to do advertising myself [laughs] without having as much of a guilty conscience.
In Sex Sells Magazines magazine you compared generating hype for your Giant with Malcolm McLaren’s “different strategies for making the Sex Pistols famous.” How much of the Giant project is hype?
Jeez, most of it. I’m into the idea of making quality art, but if it were that alone I don’t think I could have ever gotten this far. Hype. Hype. I consider generating hype as part of the project. It’s such a reflexive project that you say, “I kept opening boxes inside boxes inside boxes, and I got to the bottom and there’s nothing there.”
Are there other artists you know of who are working the same vein?
There’s this guy Ryan McGinnis who will take a graffiti tag and show the process of it being co-opted into a corporate identity. It’s simplified, refined; new typography is put with it. It shows how fine a line there is between something that’s completely outsider and something completely establishment.
You designed the “MD” symbol for Mountain Dew, which is owned by PepsiCo and appeared on 700 million cans. How does your corporate work go over with your anti-establishment fans?
I had this one really long, abrasive e-mail from this kid in Philadelphia. Urban Outfitters sponsored this show I did in Philadelphia — sponsored meaning they gave me $500 to produce fliers, and then I came into the Urban Outfitters and shook people’s hands. This guy saw one of the fliers, and I guess he had been a fan of what I was doing prior to that. He got really mad about it. He said, “You’re letting these evil people co-opt your thing. You sold out and betrayed your fan base. People recognize your style, and because it’s been underground so long, it’s something that we implicitly trust. You’re endorsing products that you may or may not actually believe in, but you’re sending out the message that you believe in them.” I sort of understood his point, but that’s a little naive. The whole good-vs.-evil, black-and-white issue with underground artists and companies. Not all companies are inherently evil or are trying to manipulate you in bad ways.
The Obey Giant is often seen as being an attack on Big Brother. Are corporations the American Big Brother? Or is it someone else?
Without a doubt it’s the government. It’s really a spectator democracy. You don’t have a choice about whether there will be parking meters on the street. That someone will be arrested for feeding the meters for someone else just shows that the meters aren’t intended to generate the revenue of the change placed in them. It’s exploiting human fallibility. The government is, in so many ways, really screwed up.
What do you think needs to be done about it?
I don’t have a solution. I wish I did. I don’t see myself as particularly revolutionary. I’m not trying to rock the boat. I’m just trying to live my life, too. I’m not some sort of martyr.
Though most people don’t spend their free time bombing the city, putting up posters and running from the cops.
The act of putting stuff up, it’s the feeling of putting one over on the system, the feeling that you don’t have to bow to the Man. I’ve always been mischievous, so the idea of getting away with something is fun.
In ’94, Coca-Cola tried to launch a new soda, which didn’t do so well. How were you involved in that?
It was right at the tail end of grunge, and Coke was doing this product called OK soda. The low-end aesthetic was really becoming co-opted, and I felt like it was sacred ground not to be trod upon by the corporations. If I saw someone with a punk rock T-shirt, I usually thought I had something in common with them. That OK soda campaign really made me mad. The style of the thing was really close to stuff that I was doing. I felt my stuff had a purity that this thing didn’t have. It was trying to capitalize on the grunge lo-fi look to sell soda. I felt like I had to protect the people from being suckered by OK soda. I decided to target that campaign and sabotage it. I made posters in the same type that said AG instead of OK and pasted Andre’s head over the OK soda character’s head. It was great. It kind of jammed their whole project.
It sounds like in ’94 you had a mindset similar to that kid in Philadelphia who criticized you.
Yeah. Yeah, I would say so. I have a much broader perspective now. It’s just marketing. I’m a little less offended by that now, but at the time it really pissed me off. It made me analyze a lot of forms of advertising closely. Analyzing how they try to manipulate you also helps me do advertising for other people now [laughs].
I’m quoting you: “It’s pretty amazing that this guy [the real-life Andre] who was so ugly and so big took his misfortune and turned it into a lucrative career.” Has the Andre image triumphed in a similar fashion?
Completely. One of the ironies is that I took the image of Andre, a really pretty ugly guy — almost freakish — and turned that into an art and fashion icon. It’s like, “Wow.” I must have done something right with my technique to pull it out of the ugliness. Andre was embedded in very lowbrow, white-trash wrestling culture, and I made it into high art, fine art, high fashion, something that beautiful waif girls are wearing around on Melrose Avenue. If you’re clever about your technique, then you can beat the odds. It’s like the emperor’s new robe or something. No matter what disadvantage you’re at, if you put across an image, then you can succeed.
It isn’t until I’m driving home that I realize Fairey has inverted the story of the emperor’s new clothes, and it’s more than just a slip of the tongue. For Fairey, the hero of the story isn’t the kid who calls the emperor’s bluff and exposes his nakedness; for him the hero is the emperor himself, who, lacking any real clothes, still manages to “put across an image” and be treated like royalty. Like it or respect it or believe it or not, Shepard Fairey has created a fable for our time.