Shepard Fairey and OBEYing Your Wallet

Writer’s Note: Well this took longer than expected. I sat down expecting to knock it out in a day or two and found myself spending a week on it. Oh well. It feels to me like it sums up a personal experience as well as the evolution of an artistic virtuoso. I like Shepard Fairey’s work. In no way am I diminishing it. Remember that as you read my words.

It must have been somewhere around 2004 when I first ran across the art of Shepard Fairey. I was still young and Borders Books’ wheezing income was only now beginning to turn to a death rattle. For me (a self-contained, introverted little weirdo), Borders Books was my haven. Endless stacks of books, the hushed silence of a library with price tags, and the occasional thrill when someone had wandered in off the streets and fell asleep (or passed out) and was inevitably kicked to the curb by security. What can I say? I must’ve been easily impressed as a kid.

Around that time, it seemed I couldn’t take ten steps inside Borders without running across those mass-produced street art coffee table books sold for fifty bucks. They were all the same. Every image was in the next collection on the shelf. It often seemed as if every editor had all watched the same 60 Minutes story and decided there must only be four punks out on the street painting shit up. “You’re telling me vandalism is art? Well, I see dollar signs in this,” I imagine an editor thinking, as their blank stare illuminates from the box-set television.

So, we quickly get a storm of an endless supply of graffiti oriented books. Street Art, Art on the Streets, Graffiti City, Graffiti Art, Artists Without Canvas’s, Punks with Paint, and don’t think I forgot Street Punk Art Graffiti the-artists-receives-no-compensation Free Exposure World. Alright–some (all) of those are made-up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I found one at Barnes & Noble.

In retrospect, all of these books are just clouded memories. The titles and the words never held any value to me. Instead, I consumed each photograph like a hungry wasp. “They might be repeated in the next book, sure, but they’re in a different order!” I’d tell myself to justify another hour spent.

Finally, a word in one of these books had stuck out to me: “OBEY.”

At the crux of everything, it seemed there was one image I couldn’t escape. It was on the covers, on the book spines, it came as a special fold-out poster, and it was peeking out from behind the neatly aligned barcode.

Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey, a skater from Charleston and graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, was becoming a powerhouse. A graffiti juggernaut with a clear message of anti-establishment messaging. Fairey conveyed his beliefs through what I could grasp at the time were posters and stickers. It was simplistic and yet eye-catching. I can still remember my first reaction as a kid looking at Fairey’s most famous piece before Obama’s “Hope” came along. The work in reference was “OBEY Giant,” a large and up-close design of iconic wrestler Andre the Giant. Beneath the image were the words that seemingly trace Fairey’s entire span as an artist: “Obey.”

I didn’t know Andre the Giant at the time and I was still a few years off from even finishing elementary school but still, something about the plastering of “OBEY Giant” on every art collection left me confused and captured by a world unbeknownst to me. A world where things had more than one meaning and if you spoke loud enough, someone would listen. The idea of a metaphor (which I didn’t even know the word for) was reeling me in.

Needless to say, I became obsessed with graffiti art. Shepard Fairey’s art was a mainstay but others always distracted my attention, and yet, in the background of this all, Fairey was becoming one of, if not the largest graffiti/graphic artists in the world. Exhibitions in New York, London, and Los Angeles; and then, a well-liked senator from the midwest begins a campaign for the 2008 presidency on a slogan that would become inseparable: “Hope.”

Shepard Fairey’s poster of Barack Obama wasn’t a slow burn. Instead, it was more of a “wake-up and the yard has been TP’d invasion.” Bumper stickers, buttons, banners, and of course–posters; the “Hope” design was, at a point, even more successful than the Obama campaign (although the campaign rejected affiliation with Fairey due to the legality of vandalism). The design was used on countless magazine’s, television news stories, and of course, street walls.

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl went as far as to call it, “the most efficacious American political illustration since “Uncle Sam Wants You.’”

During this time, Fairey passed out a total of 300,000 stickers of the piece and even more posters clocking in at 500,000. That’s a lot of fucking “Hope.” And then a strange thing happened. The public awareness of Shepard Fairey seemed to become so widely distributed that he wasn’t “Shepard Fairey” anymore he was now just “OBEY.”

And if you saw his art on the street, you might mistake it for an advertisement for the latest fall fashion catalog of OBEY Clothing. OBEY had become a money-making success machine; a company that produced high-end hats, jackets, shirts, and pants marketed to rich kids in suburban neighborhoods.

In the early 2010s, OBEY Clothing was the newest fad. So you want OBEY? How about hungry teenagers with deep pockets and starvation for popularity buying up your clothes featuring the art you had designed with anticapitalism messages in mind?

This fad was any capitalist’s dream. For a good two or three years, Fairey’s OBEY Clothing was being sold in big retailers, Pac Sun, Zumiez, and Urban Outfitters, to high demand. These were companies far from the skating street culture and antiestablishment ethics Fairey originated from.

Writing this, I wonder how Fairey truly felt. As anyone would, he took the money. I don’t blame him. That’s the goal in life, isn’t it? To become so good at what you do you can sell out and be a success? Better yet, Fairey’s art was being worn all across the world–each day attracting more buyers. So is it art or is it clothing? What separated this latest fad from Silly Bandz and fidget spinners?

Not much apparently as after the high peaks of the early 2010s, OBEY Clothing had disappeared from schools, fashion shows, and public demand. It had become the latest brand to be tossed into the thrift store bag in a feverous rejection. Shepard Fairey was again, the artist.

To play devil’s advocate here, I don’t get it. OBEY Clothing wasn’t bad in any way. I’d go as far as to say it was (for a time) great despite high-prices and the feeling an artist I loved had sold out. If anything, the problem and subsequent fall stem from the creator. Fairey was a creative skater, not so much a fashion designer. OBEY Clothing took Fairey’s most well-regarded works and plastered them across tee-shirts; all long completed works. No new designs were coming out per se. It was reorganizations of the same art. Think a so-so remix of a song that was popular last summer. On top of this, maybe people began thinking about what “Obey” really meant. Die-hard Fairey enthusiasts and 80’s horror fans may know what OBEY really meant; a reference to John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live about mass brainwashing.

The decline of OBEY Clothing saw Fairey return to his basics–higher in the public knowledge than ever with exhibitions across the world; Austria, Moscow, and Portugal just to name a few. To say that Fairey’s clothing brand had hurt him would be outlandish. If anything, this brief period on top skyrocketed his worth to new heights for a street artist born in South Carolina–now appealing to masses across all continents.

The intention of a street artist gone mainstream is a slippery slope. To create with a message is one thing–to repurpose with intentions of a fat bank account is everything most street artists would scoff at.

Fairey, in my opinion, should take no blame. He’s gone from a skate punk in the South to a trendsetting artist living in Los Angeles. Perhaps, in the end, Fairey is now closer back to where he began, designing and spreading art across the world all while embracing social commentary. The more art, the better. Or should would we replace art with money? I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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