"SHEPARD THE HERD" - A CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE STORY, FOR OVERSPRAY MAGAZINE
The year is 1988. You are an 18 year-old art student at Rhode Island School of Design. You are a big time skateboarder and a punk music fanatic. You were born in middle class, conservative Charleston, SC to a cheerleader and the captain of the high school football team. Your rebellious spirit has guided you thus far and now you’re making your way through the world guided by your own choices, far from home. You work at the local skate shop selling boards and shirts, often ones that you hand-stencil and sell under the table when the boss isn’t around. You are captain of the skate team, which makes you king of the skater hill in Providence. You make all your own t-shirts and your sneakers are always hand-painted, getting you a lot of attention from other kids. One night, a friend comes over to your house and asks you to show him how to cut a stencil. You say “sure” and start flipping through the local newspaper. You find an image of human giant André Roussimoff, a 7’4”, 500lb wrestler and B-list celebrity, and suggest this for your homie’s stencil. Him, being a fickle fan of only the ultra-cool, says, “No way! That dude is stupid!” What do you do?
If you change your tune and agree with him, turn to chapter 2.
If you get inspired by his close-mindedness and say “No way man, you just don’t know! André is the shit. We’re gonna start a posse and everyone is gonna want to be down,” then turn to chapter 3.
Tail between your legs, you back down and find an image of the Sex Pistols logo for him. He learns how to cut the stencil and starts making his own shirts. He starts his own line of shirts and you are no longer the only kid in town with stenciled clothes. You both go on to day jobs as stock designers for a large skateboarding apparel company. You die.
Inspired by the kid’s lack of adventurous spirit, you make him feel like he’s out of the loop on something. You cut the stencil, spray it on some paper, scrawl a mysterious ‘Andre the Giant has a posse’ next to the image and take it out to the local Kinko’s where you run off a ton of paper stickers. You put these up all over the city and watch as people start to react to the campaign. Some think it’s a band, others think it’s a secret society, others don’t want to admit to being in the dark and make up their own myth about it. This intrigues you, so you take the experiment further. Broke art student that you are, you’re very resourceful, so you figure out how to rig the copy machines at Kinko’s to give you free red and black copies. You start running four machines at a time, all night long, leaving in the morning with more stickers than you can carry. That original friend is long gone, leaving you a lone warrior. You put these up all by yourself and watch as the stickers gain popularity and momentum within the local culture. Your little experiment has started to intrigue you in a more serious way and you decide to take it to other cities. People’s outrageous reactions, coupled with your long-standing interest in propaganda art, inspire you to simplify the image and create a real campaign of sorts. Mixing all of your counter-cultural influences into your experiment, you draw on the work of one of your favorite artists, Barbara Krueger, and drop a red rectangle on the bottom of a simplified version of the André image. Inside the rectangle you put the word ‘Obey’, borrowed from a cheesy film you saw called ‘They Live’. Using the Kinko’s scam and screen-printing skills you picked up at art school, you produce larger posters and thousands of stickers promoting André’s mysterious posse. The Rhorschach test-like response the project gets balloons with its multi-city growth, and it is even starting to spawn its own bootlegs. You create a manifesto for the project. Although it’s fun, André’s posse isn’t bringing home the bacon. When it comes times to graduate from RISD and you are faced with the myriad opportunities of an art student, André’s head goes on the chopping block in exchange for a busy professional life. What do you do?
If you responsibly shrug off your juvenile project and decide to throw yourself into looking for any design position that will support your dreams of having a family, turn to chapter 4.
If you decide that this experiment is one of the most interesting things you’ve ever started and the social implications of its results are far too important to let go of, turn to chapter 5.
Life in the fast lane is good for a while. You score a high-paying job designing campaign paraphernalia for presidential candidate Ross Perot. You eventually get fired when it comes to light that you made and put up a sticker around the office showing Mr. Perot, Dumbo, and a bloodhound dog that says ‘Perot’s ears have a posse’ (you couldn’t resist). You are blacklisted as a graphic designer. You die.
Although you do want to be successful, you decide to take the more guerrilla route. In your junior year you started a little screen printing business and post-graduation, you make this your full-time gig, printing and selling t-shirts. Over the next couple of years you move to California and eventually, already $30,000 in debt, start your own design firm with your friends Dave Kinsey and Andy Howell. Simultaneously, an urban culture/art magazine runs an article on the Obey Giant campaign and people start buying your posters. Instead of taking a traditional approach to marketing your company, you do it your way: You and the boys call yourselves the FBI (First Bureau of Imagery). You go out in grey suits and aviators and take pictures as ‘agents’, then create a printed ‘file’ and send it out directly to the companies you want to work for. Jackpot! You score work from Netscape, Pepsi, and other ‘evil’ corporations. They immediately tap your company (a trio of skateboarders) to create marketing propaganda for extreme sports products and the X-games audience. People start asking questions, like ‘Why are you selling your work to these companies? Aren’t you paid? You’re up everywhere!’ You feel your street cred start to slip. What do you do?
If you decide you’d rather sleep in your van for the rest of your life than sell your soul to the conglomerate devil, turn to chapter 6.
If you want to get out of debt, rent your own apartment, get a nicer computer, and eat, turn tochapter 7.
You tell Netscape, Pepsi and all the rest to take a hike and try to compete as a skater in the X-games. Your partners are pissed at you for jumping ship and they stop speaking to you. Upon arrival at the X-games registration you see that Netscape and Pepsi are the major sponsors of the event, and your boys are sitting in the sponsors’ booth with Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi. They come over just long enough to tell you that they have been hired by Helen Stickler, a documentary filmmaker, to design the poster for her new film about skater-turned-murderer Mark ‘Gator’ Rogowski, someone you looked up to while growing up. You end up dirt poor living out your punk rock ethos in a van with your mangy ass dog and your one crusty dead kennedys t shirt.You die.
You accept the work, excited to cash a semi-consistent paycheck while firmly explaining to those who question your motives that you ‘have to survive!’ Meanwhile, despite risk to your professional career, you never stop production of your posters and stickers. André’s posse has grown into something of an underground cult, and every time you go anywhere you make sure to roll deep, getting up as much as you physically can. 1998 rolls around, bringing your punk heart a lot of boy band fever, a Madonna comeback, Britney Spears and the knighting of Elton John. You decide that San Diego is not the city to be in if you are serious about your graphic design business and, following the split of your partners Dave and Andy, you and Kinsey haul ass up to L.A., setting up shop in a space that also houses a gallery. You both want to showcase working artists and get exhibitions up right away. Eventually, clients start getting wind of the fact that you’re the mind behind the Obey Giant campaign, and they are intrigued. Jobs start flowing in steadily, bringing exposure, money and devouring your time and street cred, but you STILL get up. You’re working all day for the man, printing at night and going out to get up at least a couple times a week for yourself, oftentimes ridiculing the very ad campaigns you are being paid to design.
The Obey campaign is so popular at this point that it has its own website where people can write in and request an Andre stencil or sticker pack. Kids have started putting your image up for you! Your work has become a springboard for a budding street art culture all over the world. Kids start with your image, get bored and move on to their own, and you love it! The populist in you feels like you’re contributing to the natural evolution of a community, and that satiates something deeper in your motivations for making art. You are at a high point in your life, feeling like you are ‘rocking it from both the inside and the outside’. You’re committing ‘the ultimate coup d’etat’ so your inner punk is also at peace, well fed, safely housed and still getting his way.
Fast forward five years to 2003: sadly, you are having irreconcilable differences with Mr. Kinsey and you split; he keeps the company name (BLK/MRKT) and you keep the office and gallery spaces. Andre and Obey are the best known campaigns in street art, which has ballooned into a full blown international phenomenon, hailed as the second coming of graffiti. It has spawned hundreds of impersonators and inspired thousands of young street artists. You’ve been featured in a slew of books and magazines and you and the campaign are virtual celebrities within the Los Angeles and New York art and urban culture scenes. You have now had solo shows in most major cities and you’ve partaken in group shows all around the world. Although you are sending out more posters and stickers through your website than ever, you haven’t raised your print price, you sign each one and you STILL put up 80-90% of the Obey work that is out there. The clothing line has been co-opted by a larger manufacturer and the clothing is selling well in retail outlets internationally.
You are 33, married and your Giant ‘baby’ is now 12 years old. You have a house, a car and a booming professional career and you are still fascinated by the results of your ‘experiment in phenomenology.’ Never one to sit still for very long, you are anxious to broaden your cultural reach and see how far you can get, so in 2004 you found Swindle magazine with your long-time associate Roger Gastman. The goal of this is to create a further extension of the mentality behind the campaign, the clothing line, the design studio and the gallery, furthering the careers and work of creative individuals everywhere and promoting creative culture to people that the website and other endeavors might not reach. Also, you wanted to feed your insomnia.
Then disaster strikes. While bombing in New York, you get arrested. The cops pull some serious bullshit, claiming that you attacked them and they beat you up severely. In the clink, no one believes you about your diabetes or your rather urgent need for an insulin shot and you come dangerously close to passing out. Throwing up all over the place, they finally get you the shot, but when your pregnant wife shows up to bail you out, you’re not in great shape. A serious talk ensues. What do you do?
You are facing thousands of dollars in fines for a dossier of charges the vandal squad has been collecting and finally slammed you with, and further arrests could lead to jail time. Your wife is about to have a baby and you are now responsible for the jobs of numerous people in your different endeavors in California. If you decide that this is a good time to lay down the wheatpaste brush, turn to chapter 8.
Although this is a shitty spot, you don’t want to lead your wife into believing you are anything other than yourself, a true punk and vandal at heart. You know that you will never stop bombing, you just man up to the fact that if you are going to run 5 businesses, a burgeoning art career and be a responsible father to your yet unborn child, you’re going to have to tone down the bombing a bit and at least be more strategic about it. If you cant live without getting up but decide not to be stupid about it, turn to chapter 9.
You welcome a beautiful baby girl into the world, your wife is happy never having to freak out over your safety anymore, your businesses are successful and continue to grow, but your craving for that adrenaline rush of bombing never goes away. You take to drinking an extra drink a day to take the edge off, and slowly the nightcaps become daycaps. Without the credibility that came with your continuously-refreshed street presence, your design firm eventually blends in with the myriad other design firms on the market. People get sick of your fine art, and although it happens while you’re rich and famous, you die. Bored.
As a precautionary measure, you get the word ‘diabetic’ tattooed on your left arm (your only tattoo), and after another arrest in San Diego, mixed with $7,500 in fines and the threat of losing your driver’s license for a year, you decide to stop bombing there. You consistently dodge the cops with the excuse that your work is openly disseminated via the internet and vow to mark cities off your list of visits as your case files grow in them. Still, ‘ short of getting incarcerated’ you say you won’t stop.
2006 finds you in your prime. At 36 you are being hailed as the godfather of the new street art movement, your work is in permanent collections in a handful of museums around the world, you’ve had solo shows in innumerable important galleries and art venues, you’ve done graphic design work for the biggest and the best, your design firm has seven full-time employees and the magazine, gallery and clothing line are flourishing. You’ve collaborated with everyone from DJ Spooky to Robbie Conal and you’ve gotten your work out on every medium, including skate decks, vinyl toys, album artwork, stickers, CD’s and fine art prints; not to mention the fact that you’re father to a beautiful tiny girl! Just when people think it can’t get any better, you announce the pending arrival of ‘Supply and Demand’, your 350-page hardcover retrospective book, which documents your entire art career. You still get up at least once a week and you answer fan mail personally. But people now think you live in an ivory tower, drive a Ferarri and are only reachable by carrier pigeon. What do you do?
If you fire back at all the criticisms and take every shmo seriously that has any reason to be jealous or doubt you, turn to chapter 10.
If you keep an ear to the streets and respond respectfully and coherently to any direct line of well-informed questioning that you can, turn to chapter 11.
You look like an unprofessional bratty little boy with nothing to do but battle kids half his age. You and your career die.
You are Shepard Fairey.
Addressing ‘ everything’ about Shepard in one article is impossible. There are so many controversial topics to touch on.It’s easy to find a gaggle of people disappointed to find that the guy behind the world famous Obey campaign is ‘a white, 30-something, corporate tool’ (they want a real rebel, the subversive type – does that even exist anymore?). Many others see him as the godfather of street art and give him credit for where the culture is today. An article on him could have been endless. What I found to be most noteworthy is that everything about where Shepard Fairey is has been organic. He didn’t start putting up stickers with a notion of a career. His careers have rolled into what they are through the natural evolution of a capitalism embracing, entrepreneurial young designer/artist (not the Mother Theresa of street art). Is the arc of the experimental drive behind his street art coming to an end? Yes, when all his products are a google away the question he provokes comes with an answer of it’s own (what clothes are cool, what magazine should I read, etc.). But although the things he stands for aren’t particularly rebellious or avante-garde they aren’t half bad either (freedom of expression, peace, pushing boundaries, staying true to your passions, etc).
Fairey never claimed to be a martyr for the purity of the art form. Is he guilty of self promotion? Yes, to the highest degree. Is he guilty of abandoning his promises to his fans? No, because he never made any. Although we have made him into a poster boy, it should not be for the illegal art or punk causes. If anything, he is the poster boy for an unfortunately small group of people; those that decide for themselves. Shepard Fairey is, and always has been, quite simply, a graphic designer with an addiction to getting up stronger than most artists out there. Only those that need an un-faulted leader will be angry with Shepard, but he’s not here for them. He is here for those that don’t need a leader, those that feel a kinship with his relentless drive to do it all, and to do it his own way. So, he’s not in it to change your world, but if you’re the type to sit back and be perpetually influenced from the outside, he’s happy to be the guy doing the influencing.
In the end, ‘good art is good art’ and Shepard Fairey has donated to our collective consciousness a ton of it.
© Copyright, iO Tillett Wright 2012