SHEPARD FAIREY

With an exhibition on graffiti and street art at MOCA and a dazzling book to his credit, you’d expect that Shepard Fairey would be in the mood to talk about his past work, right? Wrong. No, the man who befuddled the world with his 1989 Mongoloidian OBEY poster has turned his screen printer to rock ‘n’ roll—and trying his hand at dj-ing. Treats! drops by his studio to discuss the hotness of Blondie’s Deborah Harry, his alterego DJ Diabetic, how Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones stalked him & and what it’s like to have your wife say one afternoon, “Honey, Jello Biafra is on the phone.”

by Harvey Kubernik

 

Clad in loose fitting blue jeans and a Velvet Underground t-shirt, a Coke firmly in hand, Shepard Fairey greets me at the door of his warehouse/office in downtown LA. The place has the air of an architect’s office mixed with a small record label: paints, fabrics and art materials dominate the place; Jimi Hendrix and Woody Guthrie silk screens cover the floors, classic rock tattoos that constantly remind the half dozen or so staff members that music helps to unlock the creative process.

“I play a lot of music during creation,” Fairey says in an energetic burst. “There’s music going in my office and my
studio everyday.”

And music, especially classic rock and punk, is currently his artistic frontier. Fairey, who is 40, is part fanboy, music geek and rock historian all wrapped up in a Quentin Tarantino-like whirr of enthusiasm. Like most people his age, the Sex Pistols and the Clash welcomed him to teenagerdom. He retreated to the garage with his music and began designing t-shirts.

“I first got into making t-shirts because I really wanted to make my own stencils of imagery from my favorite music,” Fairey says. “That was like the way that I could actually even personalize that same experience of like looking at the record and looking at how they embodied their thing visually. Then, well, I’ve got to wear it and take it further.”

As the eighties were bleeding into the nineties and Kurt Cobain, Pulp Fiction and snowboarding were about to make
mainstream pop culture do cartwheels, a strange “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” sticker began appearing in urban landscapes all over the country. No one quite knew what to make of it but Fairey knew what he was doing—sorta. Although Fairey’s Obey Giant methods and ideology are rooted in self-empowerment and reinforced by the DIY counterculture of punk rock and skateboarding, took cues from contemporary rock music, popular culture, commercial marketing and political messaging, he thought the sticker wouldn’t amount to much more than a one-off joke. But it was, bafflingly, an immediate and emotional phenom; its equal hints of humor, sarcasm, suggestion, and reverse psychology resonated greatly with Gen Xers. “When I made the first Giant stickers,” Fairey says. “I never thought I was beginning a project that would inspire and permeate most of my art and career for the next 17 years and counting.” And, well, even he couldn’t have dreamed that one day his art would influence a presidential election. Fairey’s art reached a new height of visibility and prominence in 2008, when his 500,000 “HOPE” posters of Barack Obama became the iconic image of the campaign (and a cover for Esquire magazine) helping to fuel an unprecedented political movement. The original image now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Obama sent Fairey a letter “thanking him for using your talent in support of my campaign.”)

But these days, it’s all about music. In 2010, Fairey provided the front cover design for author Antonino D’Ambrosio’s book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears; he did a couple of limited edition Jimi Hendrix images in conjunction with the Hendrix estate; he created a logo and a poster for Dylan and Petty; and has even given John Lennon and Yoko Ono the “Fairey treatment” by doing a limited edition screen print of the couple.  “As an artist I grew up in the post-Warhol era,” Fairey says.“For me the idea of giving new power to an existing imagewith some sort of artistic transformation so that the end resultboth immediately resonates but also re-sensitizes is not an easy job but it’s an important job.” He’s even taken a shot at re-sensitizing the public to former louche Brit bad boy, Russell Brand, designing the book jacket for Brand’s memoir, Booky
Wook 2. “He’s my neighbor,” Fairey says, proudly. “We also worked together on a pop-up shop in Los Angeles at the Beverly Center called The Free Store. It housed some art, personal items of Brand, and even a dress from Brand’s wife Katy Perry.” The Brand/Fairey collaboration also encouraged people and patrons to trade an unwanted item of their own for an item in the store.

Would you think this boy’s insane? Spill it all over the page. Indeed.

 

Where were you born & how important was music to you as a youth?

I grew up in the South.When I got into skateboarding and punk rock everything came to a head at a rapid pace. I got into The Clash and The Sex Pistols, and those bands lead me to Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedy’s. All of a sudden these groups and music were a force of culture and politics—music versus the establishment.

 

What album really rocked your world?
When I was six I remember listening Wings’ “Band On The Run” on the radio. That’s an early memory of radio rock. Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones on the radio. My parents liked The Beatles and Smokey Robinson and played them at their house.  When Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” came out I was like, ‘This is cool!’ I think I had seen images of Debbie Harry as a nine year old and thought, ‘Boy, this chick is hot.’ But there was something about it. There was something in the blend and I started to look for that feeling. I really liked Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” and, of course, Devo.

 

So has music always been a part of your creation process?
Yes. If someone said, “You have to lose your hearing or your eyesight,” it would be really a tough choice for me.

 

Dare I ask about Iggy Pop and The Stooges?
Ha! I got into the Stooges because of the Sex Pistols. They covered “No Fun.” I used to meticulously look at all the
songwriting credits and stuff. In 2010 I did a graphic mash-up for the Iggy and The Stooges Raw Power deluxe DVD. When I do these things, and if my art fan base doesn’t know the Stooges, I’m trying to cross pollinate my audience to these things. Sometimes people like things because they’re not popular and that therefore they feel superior; they feel elite. But my feeling actually is that it’s great when somebody does something that maybe they were ahead of the curve and eventually finds an audience. And they get to feel they did the right thing and made
stuff. Ultimately, they’re validated. Iggy’s a total personality; he could have stayed as the Stooges but he evolved. I’m honored to be part of it.

 

The Dead Kennedy’s?
The Jello Biafra and Dead Kennedy’s albums Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and Plastic Surgery Disasters really started making me think about our foreign policy. Jello’s lyrics had a great dark sense of humor but very intelligent. I think that rather then it sounding dogma or rhetoric, even some of the Clash stuff comes off as a little simplistic, like it’s sloganeering, as much as I love it. Anything that gets someone to think about an issue has value. But it was a little deeper with Jello. Later, of course, the crazy thing was that there was also the WTO protests in Seattle and the No WTO Combo band with Jello Biafra, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Kim Thayil the guitarist of Soundgarden and Gina Mainwal, the drummer of Sweet 75, played a show. The Seattle Weekly asked me if I would do their cover: I did a globe with a big ominous hand with a dollar sign. Jello saw it and called. One day my wife said, “Jello Biafra is on the telephone for you.” I was shitting! His voice sounds just like he does when he does spoken
word on his records. He wanted to see if I would be interested in re-purposing the cover for an album. “Um, yeah!”

 

 

Your route to “populist” artist was stickers, posters t-shirts, not necessarily fine art. Did you view groundlevel commerce as a way to get into galleries? 

Well, my goal when I started, and this might sound trite, was to empower myself but also to create a case study for other people. I was really inspired by the DIY culture of punk rock. When I started making stickers and put a few of them up in Providence that got a reaction in a local newspaper. I thought,‘This can happen in other places.’ Then the word got out to New York, LA., San Francisco. Then all of a sudden this do it yourself viral punk rock chain letteresque sticker has become something people have seen and they go, ‘Where is this coming from? No, it’s not
coming from a corporation. No, it’s not coming from a person who is heavily funded.’ This is something that makes people think about the control of public space in their environment but also think about their power over it. Repetition, consistency, and persistence over the years yielded a growing audience for both my outdoor and gallery art. As people started to request more versions of my images, I began to embellish upon my utilitarian printing techniques by printing on wood, metal, and canvas, as well as incorporating stenciling back into the work. Some of these pieces began to function as one-of-a-kind mixed media paintings. To keep my work affordable and accessible, I also made screen-print-on-paper editions of my fine art pieces.

 

You studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Is it there that you learned to embrace public art as both exhibition and commerce?
I always believed in art as a part of public dialogue, and my Obey Giant street art campaign aspired to arrest visually and provoke intellectually. With the need for me to compete with well-funded advertising, screen-printing posters myself was the only way I could afford to create large quantities of materials to share on the streets. My theory was that I could print an image on thin paper for the streets and on thicker paper to sell. I was broke, so I needed a process that was affordable and efficient. I printed my posters in a consistent size and color palette so I
could build modular grids of images and constantly expand my image library for large outdoor installations.

 

How important is drawing to your process?
Well, I studied illustration and drew and painted all through college. Then I started to learn this technique which is
a variation on drawing which is cutting images out of a screen printing film called Rubylith. That’s how I still make
my illustrations. It’s a hand cut illustration out of Rubylith that I then scan back into the computer and work out my compositions. Like the John and Yoko image. It’s two layers of Rubylith. One for sort of the mid-tones in their face and hair and a second one for the darkest areas. Then both of those are illustrated, scanned and recomposed. Then I make stencils and do collage and make the pieces that way. There’s a lot of steps in my process to make a fine art piece. Then I photograph the fine art piece and make that the poster.

 

When did you learn to become proficient with the screen printing process?
I started to learn how to print in high school. I was making 3 t-shirts of an image; one for myself and then I’d sell the other two to friends. But once I got to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 I started to learn more sophisticated screen printing like what Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Robbie Conal and people like that were using to create multiple images to disseminate their work. It became more appealing to me because I saw there didn’t have to be a distribution of printing as a fine art medium and printing as a production medium. So to me it was very logical to try and master that technique to both make art the way I wanted to make it and to be able to have multiples to disseminate. Street art has to get out there somehow. So a lot of what I was going was screen prints and some things were xeroxed. Even the two color xeroxes I did the techniques were based on how to separate images
I learned from screen printing. I’m a product of the era of mass production and the mass culture it has created. I can’t imagine my art practice without the influence of, and the use of, printing. Some of my biggest art influences were not paintings, but printed things like album covers, skateboard graphics, punk flyers, and t-shirt designs.

 

 

Did you see your guerilla distribution methods as a potential cash cow?
Money was never important to me other than after I gave a bunch of stickers and posters away for years and was in debt. I was like, ‘This project either ends or I have to start making some money.’ But I also had a theory that the way cultural currency works: If something becomes pervasive, people get intrigued and it finds an audience. And you’ll be able to make something out of that. I had some faith my project would not be a completely fruitless effort though it wasn’t created as sort of a ten year teaser campaign to cash in after a certain amount of time (laughs). I felt like there would be some sort of outlet for me to make a career out of it. Thom Yorke said, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.” There’s a fine line there. I’ve seen people become famous or successful, you know, just for the
purpose of it. For me, making stuff is the goal. And if that leads to acknowledgement, great. I just have to make stuff all the time.

 

Your Supply and Demand book seems to be all about environment.
Yeah. Especially all the outdoor stuff is about environment. When I do something on the street and it doesn’t have a message, like the Andre The Giant thing, people don’t know how to interpret it. There’s the context in the environment that it’s just putting it up as something illegal as an act of defiance and therefore it’s politicalized. That’s why I use the medium is the message slogan on some of the pieces that document that. I guess making sense
of how everything in the world does fit together and how that can be altered. It’s just an ongoing exploration.

 

Did you grow up worshipping Jean Michel Basquiat?
I really loved doing the poster for his documentary. Basquiat listened to jazz and Be Bop all the time when he painted. I did the poster and my studio did the credits for it. It’s all designed because Basquiat’s art was busy and we decided that we needed to go clean. So we took the inspiration of all the Blue Note and classic jazz covers. And the way that we timed so that all the hits were when letters appeared and slide across trumpet stabs. It all works.

 

What’s this I hear about cannabis cookie-fueled all night tagging sessions?
Oh, yes! I remember this one time in San Francisco I ate some cannabis cookies and it had an effect on me that all of a sudden I had an acute sensitivity to music. I was listening to Deep Purple. I was like, ’Man, the guitar is going straight through my arm hairs’ (laughs). And so I went out and did about ten big spots in San Francisco in a few hours—totally fearlessly. My whole thing, whether it’s cannabis, religion, anything that is a personal decision, if it works for you, if it makes things happen for you, then go for it. I’m personally an atheist. I would consider myself
spiritual in the sense that I’d like to think some version of karma that if you do good things you won’t be hit by a bus.

 

Rock albums and vinyl are dead. Why do them now?
I’m actually working on top of album covers; I let some of the original information bleed through. It would be disrespectful to take a really great album and do my thing over it. So I actually never do that. What I do is find a lot of those Experiments In Stereophonic Sound, and all those sort of weird records and I use some of the stuff bleeding through but then I collage over and put a new image over it. What these images are sort of a fusion of my homage to music with a lot of the graphic elements that I would do in my pieces that are more political or whatever. There’s a combination of stuff going on. But these are decorative pieces that say, you know, not everything has to be heavy. Music is really important and these are tributes to the influence music has had even if it’s not directly.

 

Were you one of those kids in high school that sat in your car in the parking lot blasting Led Zeppelin?
I wish! There’s a lot of great stuff that happened in the ‘60s with rock ‘n’ roll. I love The Who, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Doors. Classic rock is something I’ve thought about a lot. Why isn’t anybody now making things that seem to have the same weight and the same soul or authenticity? The feeling you get from great music is so abstract it’s really difficult to define verbally. But you know when you hear something that is great.

 

And now John Paul Jones worships you!
Ha! Led Zeppelin is kind of a rite of passage for most high school students. They are maybe second only to the Beatles in terms of genius. It’s weird how the Led Zeppelin Mothership thing happened. John Paul Jones is a real fan of graphic design. I was talking to the Metallica camp about doing something with them but that never worked out but they are the same management company for Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones wasn’t happy with anything he was seeing and was like, ‘We’ve got to figure this out.’ They had wasted a whole year on it going through 10 artists. The three Led Zeppelin band members couldn’t agree on anything. Finally, my Metallica guy said, “Let me show some designs to them.” When he showed my stuff, John Paul Jones said, “Yeah, I know that guy’s stuff. I like it…a lot!”

 

Tom Petty is pretty much the coolest guy on the planet.  What did he teach you?
Tom’s daughter Adria liked my work. She makes films. She put Tom’s manager in touch with me and he wanted to do some stuff to hip up Tom’s brand. He already had some classic iconography and they wanted to update it. Stuff like the flying V and the puncturing the heart with the banner. The original version looks a little 70’s sissy, like that could be on an Air Supply album cover, you know? So they hit me up and I did a few projects: A logo and a poster for Dylan and Petty. And the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers The Live Anthology box set in 2009. Tom is a real cool guy and I always respected him as somebody that just made good rock ‘n’ roll and is consistent.

 

What music inspires you these days?
Hmm. Jack White is an iconoclast. And he’s super inspired by Led Zeppelin and all these other blues guys—but he’s filtering it through his thing. I don’t like every White Stripes song but there is something in him that is coming out that is really authentic in the same sort of essence as what I like about a lot of that classic rock stuff. And I really liked “Touch Me I’m Sick” by Mud Honey. Those guys love the Stooges but they’re kind of doing it their way.

 

Johnny Cash was a badass. No one today could carry his cigarette case, right?
Basically, I was late to the game with Johnny Cash. I grew up in the South and a lot of people listened to Country
music and talked about Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. I just kind of lumped the whole genre together. Johnny is unique. He is almost impossible to categorize. I mean, he’s a great storyteller. And eventually I realized he’s a complicated guy but his empathy or sympathy towards peoples’ struggles was something that really resonated with me. When I started to appreciate Dylan, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, I realized Johnny Cash is at the epicenter of a lot of this in terms of his practice and influence. So I love his work—not all of it, the Gospel stuff I do not like as much. But I really liked doing the book cover for author Antonio Ambrosio’s Johnny Cash Bitter Tears and, of course, the movie poster for Walk The Line.

 

Do you sing his songs in the shower?
Ha! The thing for Bitter Tears was that I only actually knew the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”—a very powerful song.  And I knew the story. So I thought that was an intriguing entry point. And then reading up more and listening to that record and realizing how controversial it was at the time. Of course, I appreciate people who are risk takers. They stand behind a cause whether it’s popular or not. And Johnny Cash took out advertisements in Billboard and spent his own money. And what I wanted to do with the book cover was to capture a bit of the idea that’s it’s a Native American theme thing. So the landscape has a Pima Indian motif—and the angst of Johnny Cash, the troubadour with a guitar.

 

How was it working with Yoko and the Lennon estate?
I didn’t know John Lennon personally so I can’t say how much of the things he did with Yoko would have happened were he not with Yoko. But based on the things he was doing prior to being with Yoko, I have a strong feeling that she was a catalyst for a lot of stuff. She was a visual artist. And the idea of how their politics and their ideas could manifest both in music and visually. I think that is incredibly powerful. I did a poster for Paul McCartney’s benefit for the David Lynch Transcendental Meditation Foundation and I met Yoko at that event in New York. And then, coincidentally, my gallerist there had done shows with Yoko, so I had a connection. I made a request for a photo—and she provided one. Of course, it is amazing for Yoko Ono to supply a photograph for me to work from. I mean, the Lennon estate is notoriously difficult.

 

Who is DJ Diabetic and is he summoned in a phone booth or a light in the sky?
It’s funny, because in a lot of ways DJing is like autographic design. Graphic designers frequently arrange pre-existing materials to be as appealing as possible. Where I would consider the art world analogy would be somebody who writes their own music is the artist, the DJ is the graphic designer of that world. As a DJ, even though I don’t make music, I’ve come to understand the structure of music. When I spin, I’m doing several things: I’m sharing songs I love. I don’t play a single track that isn’t something that I love to try and please a crowd. I play stuff I like; I have 5,000 albums. I love that balance of how things are blended, sequenced, the push/pull aspect of it. You’re looking for the the inertia of something that you know people know and like but you can put something in the audience may not be familiar with. But they will be open to it because they’ve been primed. You’ve got that inertia. That’s a real art. A lot of people just think you’re a human jukebox. But sequencing is really important. And knowing when you’ve ridden a vibe long enough, when it’s time to drop it into the next field, the next thing, etc.

 

Who said, “Printing has changed the world. Prior to the invention of the printing press, artwork had to be viewed in person, limiting the influence of styles and specific images to local audiences or those wealthy enough to travel great distances.”
Me! Yes, the printing press may have begun the democratization of art. Andy Warhol made art based on accessible products and personalities from pop culture. In addition to his attempts to democratize art through his subject matter, Warhol used screen-printing to produce multiple versions of his images. Where elitism, preciousness, and scarcity had been the ruling principles in the art world, Warhol embraced commercial reproduction techniques and mass culture. Further down the line, two of my biggest street art influences— Barbara Kruger and Robbie Conal—used printed posters to spread their artwork and messages in public spaces.

 

How tricky is it to deal with people who say print is dead?
I say you can never replace the provocative, tactile experience of an art print on the street or in a gallery. Printing still matters.

 

What has turning forty done to your sense of yourself and your art?
My older work was far more derivative to my influences: Jamie Reid, Sex Pistols’ posters, John Van Hamersveld, Barbara Krueger, Robbie Conal. These different influences began to synthesize into what I do. I feel like my work was about being youthful and being optimistic because I was naive and had not accepted the restrictions of the real world. You make decisions. Nothing is permanent. You can always make another decision later. You adapt. In some ways there have been plenty of things in my life that were stumbles and mistakes. Had I not made those mistakes I would have not learned what the next step was that actually was important in my evolution.

 

Does having a MOCA show with Banksy mean you two will go for a cocktail after?
No comment! But I’ll say this. Twenty years in I am really grateful. My career has amounted to far more than I ever thought it would.

 

Harvey Kubernik is a Los Angeles-based writer & pop culture historian. Kubernik, a true fly-on- the-wall of history—he’s had vodka and cherry juice’s with Keith Richards, was the one who sug- gested that Jimmy Iovine produce Ton Petty’s debut record, bought screwdrivers for Bukowski, and finally got Grace Slick to admit she’d had sex with Jim Morrison (“He was inside me...but he was also...somewhere...else...”)—has written for Melody Maker, Crawdaddy!, Musician, The Los Angeles Times, MOJO & UNCUT.

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