“I consider myself an artist before an activist,” Shepard Fairey explains in Hulu’s new documentary Obey Giant, named for the world-renowned provocateur’s brand of fine art and collectible prints. “If you call yourself an activist, you’re never doing enough. For an artist, I do a lot.”
It’s been close to three decades since the South Carolina native unintentionally anointed himself a counterculture maestro by co-opting the visage of the late wrestler André the Giant into a viral 1989 sticker campaign. What led to that point, and what he’s done since then, is the subject of Academy Award winner James Moll’s film (executive produced by James Franco), which traces Fairey’s roots in the skate and punk scenes, the evolution of his aesthetic—with its Orwellian themes and Russian constructivist design elements—his rise to mainstream fame on the back of the iconic “Hope” poster for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, his frequent brushes with the law, and his embrace by the fine art world.
Combining 18 years of archival and original footage, the November 11 release raises questions of public domain and fair use, but more pressingly it presents another vehicle for Fairey’s mission to advocate for creative freedom, political pro-activity and social responsibility. “It’s very easy and cathartic to call out the villains and pound your fists about all of the ignorance and hate and everything—it’s good therapy, for sure—but I’m trying to blend things that I think aspire to the better angels of our nature, and mix in a critique of injustice within that,” he says.
Now based in Los Angeles, where he also runs the design agency Studio Number One with his wife, Amanda (the couple has two daughters), Fairey spends his days creating art between his two studios in and around Echo Park. When we connect on the phone, he is anxiously prepping for his largest solo show in L.A. to date. “The only thing I really get nervous about is not getting enough work done,” he confesses.
Organized with Detroit’s Library Street Collective and opening November 11, “Damaged” will encompass 17,000 square feet in a Chinatown venue. (The address will be revealed on Fairey’s website in the days leading up to the opening.)
There will be new paintings, whose style builds on the portraits Fairey created for his “We the People” series, made available for free download in the run-up to the 2017 international Women’s March. A printing press will run, spitting out Fairey originals for visitors to take. An original newspaper, The Damaged Times, will be on offer, filled with writings by the likes of Naomi Klein, Henry Rollins and David DeGraw. He will release a 7-inch vinyl record containing covers of Discharge’s “State Violence State Control” and Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” with his art-pop project Nøise. There will be a live musical performance, whose headliners are, naturally, top secret. Sculptures will span a larger-than-human-scale figurative fiberglass sculpture to a “liberated” pay phone completely redone with Fairey’s work to a neon sign.
“I think the term ‘immersive’ is really goofy,” he says, “but that might be the word [to describe it]. The goal is to translate the viscerality of a street-art encounter…to a controlled environment. I want it to be inspiring to people, to make them think about how they can do things better in the world.”
In short, Fairey wants you to “question everything.” And he wants you to pay attention: to climate change, xenophobia, racism, sexism, the travel ban, DACA and campaign finance reform, for starters.
“Just making things that are beautiful reminds people to look for beauty in the world and ways to achieve it creatively—and be sensitive to it. That counts for a lot in terms of bringing out the best in people, which I think has a ripple effect on all sorts of issues,” he says. “But that’s not enough for me, I need more than that.” obeygiant.com.
Written by MELISSA GOLDSTEIN.