Monday 9 March 2009


A Poster That Helped Change the Tides 

Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol once defined art as “what you can get away with.”

That short provocative phrase turns up in the work of Shepard Fairey, the celebrated street artist and graphic designer who created the now-iconic Obama “Hope” poster during last year’s presidential campaign.

Fairey has a knack for blurring distinctions between fine and commercial art and for using pop-culture images to connect with non-art audiences. He’s also an acknowledged master of screen printing, a commercial art technique that Warhol helped popularize through his silkscreen portraits of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities.

Of course, defiance of one sort or another ~ of government tyranny, social taboos, private property, even good taste ~ is one of the prime motivations for street art. Whether they carry a backpack full of spray paints or (in Fairey’s case) a stack of posters and a bucket of wheat paste, many street artists see themselves as part of a larger social and political struggle. Fairey is one of the best and takes street art truly up to the level of art, as does his cohort Banksy.

Fairey’s art, which has its roots in the skateboarding and punk rock scenes of the 1980s and early 1990s, fits easily into this anti-authoritarian tradition. Indeed, Fairey has been arrested several times for vandalism ~ something he, like most street artists, considers a badge of honor. When a recent show opened up at the Boston Art Museum, no sooner where things winding down than the police showed up en masse to arrest him on a series of charges for "defacing property".

But Fairey’s politics, like his art, are more nuanced than you might expect. Rather than espousing a particular cause or movement, most of Fairey’s work is designed to do something even more radical: get people thinking and talking about the world around them.

Rock the Vote

Such borrowing has gotten Fairey into trouble. The now-famous Obama poster, for example, was based on an Associated Press photograph taken at a 2006 panel discussion on the genocide in Darfur. So far, the photographer, Mannie Garcia, has declined to take legal action, but others have accused Fairey of illegally benefiting from someone else’s work. Fairey, meanwhile, has strongly defended his actions on both legal and artistic grounds.

"Question everything," urges Shepard Fairey,and so, dutifully, one does ~ beginning with: Is it possible to be painfully earnest, and sizzlingly cool at the same time? And then: Could it be that graphic design is better than fine art, because more people take notice?
And not least: Can a street artist with 14 arrests under his belt establish his own clothing line, receive letters of gratitude from an American president, and show in a swish art museum, all without losing his counter cultural cred? So far, Fairey seems to be doing it all and doing it well. He is not one to feel constrained by his creative artistic ambitions and seems to leap from one success to another while still maintaining his insightful edge.

Only a relatively recent blip on the art world's radar, Fairey appears to be riding not just a popular swell but a veritable tsunami of cultural change. His smart, peppy, decoratively frenetic visuals are as ubiquitous as you can get without buying up great swaths of advertising space ~ and these days who has the money for that?

More than any other artist of his generation, except perhaps Banksy, a fellow street artist from Britain (described by Fairey in the catalog as his "favorite artist"), Fairey has managed to capture and shape public consciousness. And that, for a visual artist, is no small thing.

And yet in many ways Fairey is so right-on it hurts. Here's a guy capable of celebrating the linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky with a street poster that reads, in part, "I lived with the system and took no offense/until Chomsky lent me the necessary sense"; a man who talks humorlessly about the "semiotics of consumption," "empowering yourself," and "making a difference."

Combining authoritarian chic from Russia, China, and Japan with '60s psychedelia, First World War propaganda, '50s advertising, album cover art, the Pop Art styles of Warhol, Barbara Kruger, and Roy Lichtenstein, and ~ above all ~ gorgeously rampant patterning, Fairey has the graphic designer's knack of the instant hit, along with an ability to convert quick glances into longer looks.

In more recent, large-scale works such as "Commanda," "AK-47s," and "Arab Woman," the decorative patterning is taken to vertiginous extremes, conjuring the horror vacuity, or fear of empty space, associated with traditional Arab ornamentation. But Fairey's main graphic components remain crystalline, the compositions sturdy and monumental, so the eye senses a clear hierarchy of visual cues.

But, in truth, my reason for this post is simple. I am an anarchist. It is time people began to understand there is actually something valuable in such pursuits. Anarchists are not the devil painted by the government of the time, they are people who think outside the box and act with love and concern if it must be done. This covers everything, and violence is not part of the way, if at all avoidable. Positive action goes a very long way. A fine example is the Vivi Palestina convoy traveling from Britain to Gaza, doing what the British government refused to do, taking aid to the people who need aid, bypassing the system completely.

But also, street artists recognize that some people are intimidated by galleries so they go out there and put their work up for all to see. Thank heavens for this in a world becoming greyer every day!


Peace Girl

Nouveau Red

Rose Girl

Peace Goddess

Zapatista Woman

Peace Mujer

Peace Woman

Mujer Fatale

Muslim Woman

Afrocentric (Black Panther Angela Davis)

Arab Woman Red

Sunsets to Die For

Proud Parents Offset
Peace Bomber

Vivi la Revolucion

Dual of Humanity One

Duality of Humanity Three

Duality of Humanity Four

Malcolm X

Tupac Blue

Bob Marley

Uncle Scam


War is Over

1984 and Animal Farm

Guns and Roses

Rose Shackle

Love Unites

Rise Above

Kiss Me Deadly

Peace Bomber

World Police State Champs Gold


Lotus Ornament Red

No, I'm Vegetarian

Molotov Man

Visual Disobedience

Toxicity Inspector

Big Brother City

Cold Chillin Blue

The Cost of Oil

Tyrant Boot

A Mutt Like Me

More Militerry

Say Yes

Welcome From Iraq

Monkey Pod

Peace Tree

Zeppelin Mothership

Rock the Casbah

Chinese Soldiers as Street Art

Join the Revolution


  1. There's a big debate now over Shepard's fair use (or not). but he gives himself a bad name when he turns around with stunts like this:

  2. I have to say that anarchists do not make big posters of demagogues with the word 'HOPE'.

    There's some good images, but nothing that says anarchist to me... and the HOPE poster is a 180 degree turn off.

    Banksy is superiour, but I do like Fairey's stuff, it's just not anarchist.


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