Shepard Fairey won counterculture acclaim in the ‘90s for his iconic OBEY Giant campaign which spread virally around the world in what he dubbed "an experiment in phenomenology”. The many faces of Andre the Giant on street lights and buildings have become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to recall a time when they weren’t always in the corner of your eye. Now his success as an established artist - movie posters, album covers, Fender guitars - is probably what drives The Splasher to smear his sour grapes on Fairey and others working their way up from the streets. But Fairey’s transition from renegade street artist to insider art professional doesn’t seem to have dulled his radical edge. In town to install his new solo exhibit, Fairey sounded off on The Splasher, Giuliani and his crazy encounters with New York City cops.
You've got a new show opening in Chelsea and DUMBO this week called E Pluribus Venom. Can you elaborate on the theme of the exhibit?
Well, some of the largest pieces are dealing with critiques of both the American dream and its naïve shortcomings. And currency as a symbol of government indimidation and domination in capitalism. You know, E Pluribus Unum is on money and it translates as From Many One. And I guess it represents ‘many people united behind one idea’. And I actually think there are a lot of people who aren’t united behind the war and a lot of other stuff that’s going on.
If you know my work it’s an evolution of a lot of the ideas I’ve had in the past but I think one of the slight departures is that I’ve used sort of a ‘50s nuclear family Norman Rockwell aesthetic in some of the stuff and sort of twisted it. I think that’s a departure from most of the stuff I’ve done in the past that has a little bit more of an aggressive propaganda aesthetic. The real message behind most of my work is ‘question everything’. So I’m picking apart some of the symbols of Americana that a lot of times people just adhere to out of some idea of this vague abstract American dream, and the way that a lot of times politicians use these hollow symbols as a way to get people to get behind ideas that normally they probably wouldn’t support if they were deconstructed.
Would you say your work has grown more political during the Bush administration?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, I’ve spent a lot of time in New York, I have a lot of friends who are new Yorkers and I was really distressed by 9/11 - as much as the next person. But I think it created a climate of fear that was an easy way for Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld to push through an agenda that ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten through. And so there’s one side of me that’s totally sympathizing with the idea that maybe there is some sort of benefit in the placebo of finding a scapegoat and everyone’s venting. But it just went way, way too far.
I think the war in Iraq was completely unrelated to 9/11 but I think it happened because people were just looking to take action; you know you feel so vulnerable and powerless after something like that. So I guess where a lot of artists started censoring themselves because they felt like it wasn’t a good time to speak out because people were feeling sensitive about everything going on, I felt like it was the time to speak out the most because I think democracy and being a patriot is about trying to make the country the best it can possibly be. And I saw a trend of going towards a decrease in civil liberties, privacy and a lot of things happening I did not think were healthy for democracy in general. So yeah, I got more political during the Bush administration but especially during the build up to the war and ever since it started.
And I guess once you’re really paying attention it’s hard to go back because you’re like, “Ignorance is bliss, man, I wish I just didn’t know.” But I try to maintain a sense of humor about it because I don’t want everything I’m making just to be depressing. Art needs to hit people on a visual level that they enjoy and intuitively they’re going to respond to when they see it. And if you can have a message in there that’s great too but you don’t want it to be so heavy handed and depressing that people don’t want to look at it. That’s my problem with activists; they’re just no fun to be around.
Yeah, that reminds me of that V for Vendetta line: “A revolution without dancing is not worth having”.
Yeah, exactly. I liked V for Vendetta except I thought that blowing up Parliament was kind of like, “Okay, yeah, sure it’s symbolic but what’s the new thing, what’s the solution?” Everyone’s like, “Rah, rah, revolution!” but then like, what’s the new thing? Because dust has got to clear and some sort of order has got to be maintained. I’m not an anarchist at all; I believe in improving the system, not just destroying things. I’m very much an integrationist and I believe that creative people that are maybe somewhat more radical still need to work within what’s realistic, not pie-in-the-sky, “Yeah, let’s rip it all down!” Look at the people who do that, like Castro and Che Guevara: They failed. Lenin failed. But I’m about working within capitalism even though I’m critiquing it and working within our two-party system of democracy but trying to make it better. I think people get the wrong idea sometimes; they think that if you’ve got some complaint that you’re anti-everything. I’m definitely not. I’d be a hypocrite to sell art work if I was anti-capitalist.
Have you made a decision yet about any of the current presidential candidates?
Just from what I read I like Obama but I don’t know if that’s a smart idea because I voted for Nader in 2000 and look what we got. I just never thought that Gore wouldn’t win.
Well you probably didn’t vote for Nader in a swing state. Were you in California?
Yeah, I voted for him in California. But I think it’s too early for me to decide whether I’m going to have to compromise my ideal choice for something that’s more practical to prevent the more evil person from winning. I definitely don’t want Giuliani; I hate Giuliani. Giuliani got a lot of credit after 9/11 but it’s just because he seemed like he maintained his composure and was a leader or whatever - which was his fucking job. And he was a totally Nazi about people having an open container on the street or doing graffiti or doing any of that stuff. His quality of life and zero tolerance regulations - I mean if this is going to make me look bad because everyone loves Giuliani don’t print it but he’s a fucking piece of shit.
It won’t make you look bad in New York. The whole apotheosis of Giuliani after 9/11 is farcical, and I think a lot of people recognize that.
Yeah. Well, anyway, I like Obama.
I think that even though your work has become perhaps more directly political it still retains this aspect of playfulness. In fact the poster for your DUMBO opening - and this may not be your idea - says something about “Free Cash While Supplies Last”.
Yeah, that’s legit. That was my concept. I write the press releases, I write the copy, I do the art - though I do have assistants who help me with the art. I did a series called Two Sides of Capitalism. It’s a bill and one side is more like a stock certificate and if you look at stock certificates it’s always celebrating the positive contributions their company has made. Like Exxon wouldn’t have the Valdez on their stock certificate. And the flip side of the Two Sides of Capitalism is based on the U.S. currency - the backside of the dollar bill but it’s all changed around; the eagle is a vulture and it’s holding a missile. So I printed up 20,000 of these bills, and I’ve been leaving them on the sidewalk, kind of crumpled and folded with the U.S. currency side facing out because it looks like a real dollar and people pick it up. And it’s funny because we’ve got these huge images on the wall here in the space and a homeless lady stopped in the other day and was like, “Oh, this is that OBEY? I wondered what that is! I found a dollar of that on the street!” And I felt bad; she was probably all stoked she found a dollar, but hey, it works, right?
Christian evangelicals do that trick. So I’d be psyched to find one by you; they use twenty dollar bills and you pick it up and it’s a bunch of religious stuff.
Yeah, right, right. Well I’m sure there are some people that are going to pick mine up and throw it back on the ground. You know I did some in L.A.; I’d eat in a restaurant outside and leave one on the sidewalk to see what happens and only one time did I ever see someone rip it up and throw it back down. Every other time they read it, folded it up and put it in their pocket.
Did you confront the person who ripped it up?
No. You know, sometimes I just like to be a fly on the wall. I’ve learned the hard way with confronting people because I’ve wanted to get inside their heads and see what they were thinking.
That’s what I was wondering.
Yeah, I could tell you some stories but I got a lot of work to do over here still.
Are you doing any other stuff on the streets when you’re in town?
Yeah, I’ve already rocked a few spots but I’m being real careful because I can’t get arrested before the opening. But yeah there’s some new stuff going up.
Are there any neighborhoods where people should keep their eyes peeled?
Where are you?
I live in Williamsburg.
Yeah, I haven’t done anything in Williamsburg yet but I’ve done some stuff in DUMBO and at 17th Street there’s a real good spot if you’re in Union Square. There’s spots around the Lower East side like Kenmare and Bowery. There’s some spots around and I’ll be doing more before I go, so I’m sure you’ll just stumble on some stuff. I’m sure Williamsburg will get hit too.
What’s your take on The Splasher?
I think The Splasher is probably a disgruntled street art or graffiti person who likes street art but is uncomfortable with there ever being the potential for it to transition into something that could make money. So what they’re doing is destroying other people’s stuff because it’s something that they probably want to do but they think they’d be a sell-out so they want to project on everyone else that they're a sell-out. It’s like a stalker mentality. The analogy that I make - and I’m no psychologist - but there have been a couple people I’ve known in my life that were super-homophobic and then came out of the closet years later. I think it’s that. Everybody that makes art wants to somehow be able to earn a living from it. I think when you’re doing street art and it’s free for people and then you make some stuff that you can sell it’s like the best of both worlds.
I don’t know what their problem is. If I catch them I’m going to beat their ass for sure. I’m all about peace but I’m about justice too. And they need a really big ass kicking because they’re just trying to undo hard work by good people who are making street art. I mean SWOON is the sweetest girl and they’re fucking with her stuff, Banksy, WK Interact, you know, it’s like they’re choosing all the best people to go after and it’s de-motivating for those people.
I’m still going out; I don’t care. I’m still going out anyway. I mean, street art is something that you know is not going to last; you just hope it’s going to last longer than someone that’s probably one of your peers getting to it and throwing paint on it. That’s just stupid. Have the city come and clean it or let it get buffed by a building owner or whatever; at least not somebody who’s coming from similar cultural territory doing it. But anyway, I’m just moving on from it. I put up stuff all over the world and The Splasher obviously can’t travel because they’re not making any money doing what they do. So they’re going to get the stuff that’s in Lower Manhattan or Williamsburg and that’s where their career ends.
Was there ever a place or country you were shocked to see the "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" sticker?
The only time I went somewhere and saw one that I didn’t put up and wasn’t expecting to see one was in Australia. I was at this place Bells Beach which is a good surf spot and I got out of the car and I went to go put a sticker up like I always do. And I went around to the front side of the sign and there was a sticker already there. And I’ve never been to Australia before and so that was a surprise. That was pretty interesting. But you know I’ve given a lot of stickers to a lot of people and I hear stories about people seeing them in weird places. They get around like a chain letter or whatever.
What was your strangest New York experience while throwing stuff up on the streets?
I’ve been arrested three times here and the undercover guys who work here are a pretty tight unit. They patrol the same areas and I liked to put stuff up in a lot of those same areas. So I got arrested by this guy in 1996; it was right before I was moving to California and I was kind of trying to go out with a bang. And back then I would just walk around with a bucket of paste and a bunch of posters in a messenger bag and some stencils and stickers and do a lot of stuff in SoHo. SoHo was starting to be fixed up more but it’s not like it is now so there were still a lot of buildings that had graffiti on them or were abandoned or were being fixed up and had good places to put posters.
So I was down there and the undercover cop car pulls up on the sidewalk and they jump out and they start talking to me, going, “If you tell us what the deal is with all this Andre the Giant stuff we’ll let you go.” So I go, “Oh, well, yeah it’s this project, an experiment in phenomenology and I’m about to move to California so you won’t have to worry about me throwing anymore stuff up, I’m actually leaving in a couple days.” Which was true.
And so then of course they turn on me and they’re like, “Awesome, we got the guy, we got the Andre guy, we’ve seen his stuff in six precincts, we’re gonna nail his balls to the wall!” It was the whole, ‘we’re going to be nice so give us the info and we’ll use the info against you’ routine. So that was a bummer. They take me to jail and they tell me, “You’re going to be in jail for months and there’s going to be $100,000 in fines.” Man, I was freaking out; I was so scared.
Well, I was putting a poster on a building and they couldn’t get the building owner to press charges on me and they somehow couldn’t develop a real case on me. For whatever reason they couldn’t prove anything. So the only thing they got me for was “possession of a tool with criminal mischief”; which was a can of spray paint. If an old man was walking down the street with a can of spray paint and he said, “I’m going home to spray paint my rocking chair!” the cops wouldn’t mess with him. It’s one of those things they can selectively enforce. But after two days in jail and dealing with the public defender I get let out time served and that’s that.
Well four years later I’m back in New York; I would always come back a few times a year to put posters up. And a friend showed me how to get up to the roof of the building where that DKNY mural is on Houston and Broadway. And I always wanted to do something up there. It’s one of the busiest intersections in the world; it’s just amazing. So I go there with a backpack and a huge 6’ X 8’ foot icon face, which is divided into two strips because the widest poster the copy places would do was 3’.
So I walk by the security guard with all my paste and brushes and all that stuff and just act like I’m going to work on the building, saying, “Hey all right, how you all doing? Yeah, working late!” But when I go up to the roof and start putting the poster up I realize that when I’m putting those strips on that I brought two of the same half of the face by accident. So I go back down to the car, come all the way back up by the security guard again, put the second half of the face up, then I go back down and walk across the street.
My cousin who was with me had gone to a corner bistro and grabbed a couple of beers and had them in brown bags to celebrate. We’re standing there across the street and we both put one sticker each on a pole and all of a sudden out of nowhere there’s three cops in plain clothes. Guys with gold chains in tight shorts with mullets standing around us and they pull up their shirts and they’ve got badges on their waistbands. And I’m thinking it was for the beer, so I didn’t run. Then they get on the radio to another guy and he drives up and it’s the same guy who caught me in ’96! And he gets out and he’s like, “What were they doing?”
And they’re pulling stickers out of our pockets - I had like 300 stickers on me. And this one cop was saying, “Andre the Giant stickers! I’ve been wanting those for my toolbox for years!” So they’re dividing up the stickers. But then they throw us in the back of the cop car and my backpack is sitting there with me. And the other half of the icon face is still in my backpack. So we’re in the cop car and they’ve got the windows rolled down and the guy who caught me in ’96 is standing outside the window and he’s saying to me, “Hey, you know, you’re coming from California, you’re 30 years old, what are you doing? I caught the real punk who started this thing a few years ago! He was just a scumbag; there’s no reason for you to be his disciple putting these stupid stickers up!” And I was like, “I just saw it on the internet and thought it was cool! I ordered some stuff and I was in New York and I just wanted to be part of something!” I played it off like that.
Well, I’m in the backseat with the backpack and my hands cuffed behind my back. Next thing I know he’s tapping his fingers on the top of the car and saying, “I’ll damned! Would you look at that!” And on my license it says Frank Shepard Fairey so they were calling me Frank. He goes, “Frank! You’re never gonna believe what I’m looking at!” And I was like, “No, what are you looking at?” And he opens the door, pulls me out the car, grabs my hair and points my face at the huge icon on the building across the street. And he says, “That’s just a coincidence right? There’s that, and then you’re putting up almost the same sticker?” And I say, “Well, of course it must be a coincidence. How could I ever do something that big? Look, all I have are these stickers. Didn’t you say there was a thing going on at The New Museum with that guy? That’s right up the block! Maybe it’s a paid advertisement for that.” And he says, “I don’t know but I got my suspicions.”
So I’m thinking that if they prove I did something on that building I’m going to be really, really screwed. So he shoves me back in the cop car and he’s still - window open - tapping his fingers on the roof; so his chin is basically on the roof and I’m literally a foot away inside the car. And I realize that as soon as we get to the station they’re going to open up the backpack and they’re going to find the other half of that face. So he and the other guy who wanted the sticker for the toolbox are out there. And I hear one of them say, “He couldn’t have done that; that’s too big. They don’t make stickers that big.” The other guy’s like, “No, he could have gone to Kinkos and blowed it up!” And the other guy’s like, “No, they don’t make Xeroxes that big!” It’s really hilarious except for the fact that if that I don’t get rid of that thing I’m dead. So I lean over, unzip my pack with my teeth, scoot the backpack so I can stick my head in it and lift the other half of the icon out with my teeth without making enough noise so that the cop will step back six inches and see me. I drop the thing on the floor and kick it under the seat and they never find it. And then, same thing, I go to jail and get out in like a day and a half, two days later. Time served. [Laughs] But that was pretty intense. There was another time where I got beaten up by the cops too but that’s not nearly as funny.
Beaten up? Can you break that down for me?
Yeah, there was a blank billboard on the roof of a building in Chinatown; when you were coming over the Manhattan Bridge you could see it perfectly. So I was like, “Oh man I’ve got to go get that!” I mean, it was blank so if you put a poster on it they were going to put a billboard over it, so you’re not really creating an inconvenience for anyone. I mean, you’re getting free love on the billboard but one of the ways I like to look at things is that I try to cause as little hassle for anybody as possible so that if I do get caught the repercussions are as minimal as possible. So a spot like that is really ideal because I look at it as a ‘nobody gets hurt’ kind of situation. So I go up to the roof of the building with some of my friends; there was a staircase that went straight to the roof and I put my image on the billboard.
I guess someone saw us go in there because we looked suspicious being a couple of white guys in Chinatown. So all of a sudden I see flashlights coming up on the roof and I climb down from the billboard and there’s no fire escape but there are balconies that go down the side of the building. And so I run to the side of the building and drop down to the first balcony and then I swing from balcony to balcony down six stories to the ground. Then when I get down there there’s a fence with barbed wire on top of it and I have to climb over it - which I do - and right as I jump over the fence two more cop cars are pulling up.
And they see me and hem me in against the fence. And so I just put my hands up and they tackle me. The cop who was on roof had been yelling at me that if I didn’t stop he was going to shoot me. I mean, this is not made up. You would not believe how crazy the cops are. Which is why I run now. Because I’m diabetic and I’ve been sick every time I’ve been I jail because they don’t give me my insulin. And so I always figure I’m better off taking my chances running. So I give myself up and they tackle me and they’re punching me in the street after they put the cuffs on. One of the cops cut his knuckle punching me and had to get stitches. So they press assault charges against me saying that I assaulted them and that’s why they had to fight back. And the only way I didn’t get convicted of assaulting the police - which I would never do; I’m brazen but not stupid - is that I had witnesses that saw it; the cops didn’t realize they were there. They weren’t hauled in because they seemed somewhat impartial - which of course they weren’t because they were my friends - but they were telling the truth. And so I had to fly back and forth to New York three times and pay $10,000 in legal fees and eventually the case got dropped because the city realized that between the witnesses and my good attorney that it was going to make the police department look really bad.
But they did the shadiest stuff; they didn’t take me to the hospital because of all my bruises and cuts from them punching me; they took me to the hospital because I got sick from my diabetes and they didn’t want me to die in the cell once I was there. So only then did they take me to the hospital. Once I was there the doctor’s examining me and seeing all these bruises all over my chest and asking what happened. And so I tell him it was the cops. But the cops were in the room with me and I was handcuffed to the bed. And so they say, “Okay maybe we should do some X-Rays.”
So I go and get X-rayed and when I finally get released my attorney says to me that I need to go get all my medical records to prove what they did to me. So I go to the hospital and I get the medical records and the little form that says, “Does the patient have any abrasions, lacerations, swelling,” - all the different things that would have shown some sort of trauma. And it was all checked “No”. And I had seen the cop stand over the nurse’s shoulder while she was filling it out and he was saying something to her but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. And he’s telling her, “Don’t check off that this guy has any of this stuff going on.”
But I was going to be able to make them look real bad because they forgot that I was X-Rayed and I was able to get the X-rays which showed all the damage. I mean, it’s so corrupt it’s just insane. And you know, I’m doing illegal stuff; a lot of people would say I’m asking for it, that I deserve it. But it’s not the kind of thing you want to think about the police doing. It’s one of those things that just comes with the territory: If I don’t want it to happen I can’t put posters up so I’m willing to take the risk.
Thanks Shepard, that’s terrific. I’ll let you go; I know you’re knee-deep installing your show. But thanks for the stories!.
Yeah, no problem. You know, I love New York, my goal is not to make New York look bad. Please put in the disclaimer that I love New York no matter what and it’s all this intensity that makes it exciting. You know what I mean? I don’t want to sound like I don’t love New York, it’s my favorite place to put up posters in the world.
Shepard Fairey’s solo exhibition in DUMBO opens tonight and continues through July 7th. His exhibit at the Manhattan Jonathan LeVine Gallery opens Saturday and will be on view through July 21st. Photo by Kyle Oldoerp.