Street artists tend to work undercover, often hiding behind pervasive aliases, like Neckface or Gaia, or no tag at all. That is, of course, until they make it big.
Shepard Fairey began his career in the early 1990s with “OBEY Giant,” a street art sticker campaign that featured an image of Andre the Giant that spread all across the country.
Commercial work designing album covers for the likes of the Black Eyed Peas and posters for films including “Walk the Line” followed, as did recognition by the art community for his street art, with exhibitions in major galleries and museums.
The artist’s fame grew exponentially two years ago with his Obama “HOPE” poster, which may be the most famous campaign poster since Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” recruitment propaganda.
The Los Angeles-based artist continues to blur the lines between fine and commercial art — but he’ll no doubt face questions about his Obama image when he takes questions and talks about his 20-year career at the Brooklyn Museum on April 25.
“That piece has definitely put my work in front of a much broader audience than before,” said Fairey. “Unfortunately there’s a portion of the culture I emerged from that considers it ‘selling out’ to engage with the mainstream. Between the new exposure and the backlash, it’s hard to say what the net result has been, but I did what I felt at the time was the right thing to do, so I don’t put too much stock in anything the peanut gallery has to say.”
One voice he’s had to listen to is that of lawyers. In a case currently in the courts, the Associated Press is suing over credit of a copyrighted photograph that Fairey used as a basis for his Obama poster. The artist has filed his own lawsuit against the AP, seeking protection from copyright infringement claims because his use of the image was fair.
“I’m not shying away from that belief,” said Fairey. “There’s a lot at stake, not just for me, but for all artists who work from references to make transformative artworks. Especially in the case of political speech, it’s dangerous for this type of art to be suppressed.”
Fairey’s new work, which is part of a Manhattan exhibition called “May Day,” uses bold, colorful portraiture to honor individuals he admires, including Jasper Johns, Debbie Harry, Cornel West and the Dalai Lama. The works continue to question the role of street art in the art world, while also championing free speech.
“By creating both indoor and outdoor work for this exhibition, I want to show that there doesn’t have to be a choice or a compromise between the populism of the street and the ‘high art’ of a gallery,” said Fairey. “I try to take a multi-pronged approach that deals with each side appropriately, and hopefully it will broaden people’s perspectives on both ends.”
Shepard Fairey at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. near Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000] on April 25 at 3 pm. Admission is $10 (suggested). For info, visit www.brooklynmuseum.org.