NEW YORK — Before picking up an honorary degree at Friday’s commencement ceremony, street artist Shepard Fairey had a confession for Pratt Institute’s president Thomas Schutte — 23 years after the fact.
Chatting about RISD — which Schutte headed in the early Nineties, when Fairey was an undergraduate — Schutte recalled an incident where someone changed around a billboard of former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. Laughing heartily, Fairey said, “I just told him, ‘Uh, that was me,'” raising his hand as a sign of accountability.
Surrounded by Pratt grads in Madison Square Garden, Fairey was reminded of his 1992 graduation from RISD and the four years that followed, in Olynville’s Atlantic Mills building, honing his skills in a studio large enough to house all of his screen-printing equipment and a skateboard ramp. “That was a real luxury, to be broke and to have all that space,” he said.
Eventually, the Charleston-born designer outgrew the indie city — literally running out of large-scale buildings to house and tag his work — and left. But Obey, the absurd sticker campaign he started at RISD in 1989, has since evolved into a multimillion-dollar apparel brand with thought-provoking political messaging. Fairey said, “The awesome thing about the clothing business is that it allows me to do a lot of other things,” including several he will start Saturday in Detroit. One of those will be his largest work to date — 185 feet tall (about 17 or 18 stories high) and 60 feet wide.
With the design mapped out and some blocks of color already in place, Fairey and three assistants will be hoisted up on a window-washing rig to paint the detail, working across the building in sections like a grid. “I enjoy doing these because you’re working up against a wall, then when you get back to see something that big taking shape, it’s a very gratifying achievement. It’s not like working with a [size-] two hair brush and being a master craftsman on a canvas. It’s a lot more blue collar, work hard and get it done,” he said. “Wind is bad, but we’re harnessed in. Sometimes we do things with boom lifts, and those are very, very sensitive to wind. And those will really feel like the thing will tip over. I wouldn’t be here if one ever had.”
Having completed more than 50 large-scale murals — a few hundred eight-foot posters were used in his first monograph, in 2005 — Fairey photographed every last one until he tired of the redundancy of an exercise in repetition. “I’ve traveled all over the world and used up a lot of paper,” he said, but is still undeterred by heights. “I used to do a lot of illegal stuff. Just climbing up a lot of drain pipes and ledges — anything to get to roofs of buildings, to billboards or whatever. A lot of stuff that I would consider a lot riskier than these murals.”
Intrigued by Detroit’s enthusiastic residents, textures and the silver lining in a place with such industrial decay, Fairey was all-in when Library Street Collective came calling. The Detroit gallery that has worked with favorite artists such as Tristan Eaton, Swoon, Revoke and Cleon Peterson offered Fairey a big wall in an art-covered alleyway, a DJ and a show. “I’m a populist. I try to engage people in different ways, and they ticked off every box,” he said, “Juggling so much, the challenge is to have all the right variables come together to make the time to go to a place like Detroit that’s not New York, San Francisco or Tokyo. Some of the most fun shows I’ve done have been in places like Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh and Detroit — places where people aren’t spoiled or jaded.”
In September, Rizzoli will publish his fourth book, “Covert to Overt,” which covers Fairey’s work from 2010 on, following the Jeffrey Deitch Show.
Obey supports a new cause each season, and Fairey said he has always used the clothing label to “reach an audience that isn’t predisposed to going to galleries, museums or even caring about art with a capital ‘A.'”
“It’s good to support things like Honor the Treaties, because clothing can be so superficial. This is a way to remind people that I do all these things not just to move units — not that I’m ashamed of making a good living. But there can be something altruistic woven into it,” he said.
As someone who works closely with his design team, which includes a women’s designer who used to work for Vivienne Westwood, he said, “It’s a tough business, but I like it. A lot of people don’t understand that I’m the creative director for the brand. They think, ‘Oh, he just collects checks — he gets somebody else to do it.’ I’m actually very involved. But I’m also always making new fine-art paintings, working on these street-art projects and charity ones.”
As influential as Fairey’s 2008 “Hope” poster of Barack Obama was in helping to brand the future president, he has mixed views about today’s culture of self-branding and its role in politics. “There are things that are fundamentally flawed about the two-party system, about campaign-finance structure that make me want to push principles, not personalities, to try to change the nature of the system. Because the system corrupts even the most idealistic people, Obama included,” the artist said. “Branding is always going to be part of our culture, especially with all the social media, white noise and how quickly people digest things. It’s very easy now to be very superficial and to have people take you at face value and not question it, because they’re so impatient. They just go on to the next thing. It happens in media all the time. You see a press release with a very specific point of view, basically just propaganda regurgitated by media outlets, because they’re too lazy to go deeper.
Fairey declined to comment about the legal copyright battle with the Associated Press over the “Hope” campaign poster that was settled out of court in 2011. The following year he was sentenced in federal court in Manhattan to two years of probation and fined $25,000 for tampering with evidence in the case.
“With my work, I’m trying to make people look deeper into issues,” he said of the famed poster. “Even with the ‘Hope’ poster, I was trying to say, ‘Check this guy out. Let this be the start of the conversation.’ This is not the way propaganda normally works, where this is the end of the conversation and you’d better accept it.”