Shepard Fairey's name may not ring a bell with everyone, but you'd recognize his work if you knew what you were looking for. For the past 20 years, Fairey has stickered, wheatpasted, and postered the streets of cities all over the world — and that includes his recent "bombings" in and around Cambridge and Boston. (For years, his Andre the Giant "Obey" stickers were ubiquitous.) In recent years, he's enjoyed solo shows in international galleries, and next month, on February 6, his first museum survey, "Supply and Demand," will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art. I chatted with him last Thursday afternoon while he and his crew were creating a large mural for an outside wall of the Boston Phoenix offices.
VIDEO: The Phoenix interviews Shepard Fairey
You created an image of President Obama that was featured on the cover of Time's "Person of the Year" issue.
I made the Obama poster on my own as a grassroots effort, thinking that I've been making all this work that's against Bush and against the war in Iraq but it hasn't necessarily provided the flipside, which is a constructive solution. I saw Obama as that constructive solution to the problems under Bush, at least as a starting point. So I made the image on my own. And because of the Internet and because of my history, and people assuming that if I make an image it will get out there, it took off and became this crazy phenomenon, which I hadn't predicted. But I was really happy because if it was helping Obama, that's exactly what I wanted. I think also that it generated an emotional response from people that was different than a photograph.
There's a Web-site and Facebook application that can convert a jpeg of anyone into a similar blue-and-red image. How do you react when you see people changing images of themselves to mimic something you created?
Well, in some ways, the more something is copied over time, the less potent the original becomes. What that suggests is that the image is a powerful reference point that has affected a lot of people. But it also means the next time around, I'm going to have to come up with something different. At this moment, it's pretty exciting.
Have you spoken with the President about the poster?
Yeah, I have. I've met him twice, briefly. A month after I made the original image, he sent me a letter that said something close to "I'm honored you used your art in support of my campaign. Your images, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign, have the ability to encourage Americans to change the status quo and achieve change."
Did he feel like you got his good side?
[Laughs] Well, he didn't say, "And my cheekbones look excellent."
How does your work change when it's moved inside a gallery?
It definitely changes when you're doing work for a wall on the street. You never know how long it's going to last. You have to find the best balance between quality and expedience possible, also because if you spend a lot of time there, you might get arrested.
When I put my work into a museum, or a gallery, I try to maintain the spirit of what's on the street, but I make something that is a little bit more refined and has more subtleties, more depth, and more of a seductive surface quality. I make all the work with the exact same techniques I use for the street, so the spirit of the street is there. I feel like there's a fairly seamless connection.
What influence does your clothing line have on how your art is perceived?
I think clothing is an unintimidating canvas for my graphics. And no matter how much people say that's going to devalue my fine art, I'm always going to do it.
What's your most fucked-up arrest story?
There've been a few. Denver wasn't great because I literally had a gun pointed at my head for putting posters up at the DNC. But the worst one was in 2003. I got arrested in Chinatown [New York City] doing a billboard. Got beaten up by the cops. They were telling me, "Fucking stop! Don't move! We'll shoot you," and I knew they weren't going to shoot me for putting a poster on a blank billboard. Once I'm cuffed, they're tackling me and punching me in the street. One of the cops cut his knuckle on the ground trying to punch me in the face. So they pressed felony charges against me, and luckily there were some witnesses and so the case was dropped. . . . All in all, compared to all the stuff I've done, I've gotten off pretty easily.
We got pulled over earlier today by an undercover cop. I jumped out of the car and put a sticker on a pole. And the next thing you know, an unmarked car pulls up. [Makes siren noise] That's why we were late getting here.