Cover Story: Obey Giant Comes to Cincinnati

Breaking the rules with Shepard Fairey

Mar 10, 2004 at 2:06 pm

Almost 15 years ago, Shepard Fairey initiated a movement. The Obey Giant stickers, stencils and posters began to seep into the streets, growing in size and number, inspiring more questions. The clearly contrasting, Rorschach-test image of Andre the Giant creepily began to watch over more and more of America from its counterculture origins. Ultimately, the project achieves its purpose with each new viewer who questions its meaning. Its meaning? Question everything. We interviewed Obey Giant mastermind and graphic/street artist Shepard Fairey, whose work will appear as part of the Contemporary Arts Center's Beautiful Losers.

SR: What's the status of the Obey Giant Project now?

SF: That's always been my hobby/passion/art project, but it didn't start paying the bills until a couple of years ago... It's always just been building on the whole graphic language that I've established, making more and more images as well as keeping some of the basic images always in the public eye, to compete on a grassroots level with the total imagery bludgeoning that you have from Coca-Cola and McDonald's, you know, ubiquity. For the sake of making people question that imagery absorption where it becomes so ingrained that to reject it would be almost like rejecting yourself.

SR: And through the years, how has Obey Giant progressed?

SF: As far as the progression of it, I've been trying to go bigger and more bold. The billboard-sized images, which I've done a good number of in the last six years, I try to make more and more of them and make them more sophisticated. I've been painting a lot of them in, so the line between what is a legitimate commercial advertisement and what is illegal street art becomes even blurrier.

SR: And now your work has begun to gain social consciousness.

SF: I've been injecting a little bit more politics into the work because I'm really distressed about our president right now and the war. Generally I always kept (Obey Giant) superficially political, because people always scrutinize something they think is telling them something. But I wasn't trying to give them any specific message, it was more, "question everything." I have enough of an audience now, where I feel like if I see things that are really backwards, it's my responsibility to get people to question it. I don't like movements that are too self-righteous, too preachy, too didactic, so I try to do it with a little bit of wit and humor ... I feel like I can do that without corrupting the Rorschach test element of the (Obey Giant) campaign, which elicits a more honest response — people didn't know which way it was leaning. Of course, the medium is the message, and it's implemented illegally, so it's not some total square, conservative Republican. Obviously.

SR: And now you're going to have an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center, one of the most respected institutions in Cincinnati, and the show you'll be having will be very legal. How does that reconcile?

SF: For me, the street stuff is really important. It's not important because I feel like I've got to "maintain my street cred" or whatever. It's important because that's where it affects people most dramatically. One of the things I've been going for with the project all along is to achieve the biggest coup possible. A lot of people feel powerless, that they can't really make an impact, like they don't have a voice: "Voting doesn't count." "I'm not rich." "I can't buy a billboard." So getting into a museum, or even something as simple as this icon I created that's an abstraction of this very ugly wrestler becoming a hip women's clothing line icon, that's a major coup. The more success there is from people normally you would think would reject it, the better. I'm not being indoctrinated, I'm not losing my edge to "the man" or "the system." I feel like a double agent sometimes, because I go out at night and poster and do all this illegal stuff, and then during the day I'm on a conference call with the president of Sprite. I just like the idea of doing things people think you can't do, breaking the rules at every turn. ©