In Shepard Fairey’s three decades on the street-art scene, his work has evolved from absurdist skate punk joke to guerrilla political activism to widespread critical acclaim.
Today, even the most casual observers know him as the artist behind the Obama “HOPE” poster.
Next week, the South Carolina native returns to what he considers his artistic birthplace, Providence, for a series of events in collaboration with his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Providence community arts center AS220.
Besides holding a talk at RISD on Monday, Fairey, 49, will soon create his 100th large-scale mural, this one at 91 Clemence St. The image will be a portrait of Anjel Newmann, director of programs and youth director of AS220. Meanwhile, “Facing the Giant,” the artist’s retrospective survey, opens at AS220’s pop-up gallery at 233 Westminster St. on Friday, Oct. 25, and runs through Nov. 16.
We caught up with the celebrated street artist to talk art, propaganda, and dissent.
Q. So this will be your 100th painted mural. How did you decide what it would be?
A. I’m collaborating with AS220; I used to go to events there when I lived in Providence, and as far as my belief in what art can provide society, AS220, there’s no more perfect a partner.
There’s a woman named Anjel who I thought was a really inspiring subject. I decided to make the mural a portrait of her, with some of the values that AS220 is pushing — justice, equity, creativity — and then some of my motifs that people might know, along with a quote from Anjel: “Creativity is the mechanism of self-liberation.”
Q. How did you select the pieces for your 30th anniversary show?
A. The core grouping of 30 images I thought were important in my evolution, strong aesthetically, and significant conceptually. You can see them as building blocks for my body of work. It’s a nice reminder for people who are familiar with my work of things I did along the way, and it’s a great introductory crash course for people who aren’t familiar with what I’ve done.
Q. How do you see your artistic evolution, as you look back at these pieces?
A. I’ve tried to have a dialogue with the public in terms of things I make — how things are received, what seems to resonate emotionally and visually.
The other way I’ve evolved, I used to be largely an antagonist without really thinking much about the consequences or the way things I did either broadened my circle of people I could communicate with, or just reinforced the existing relationships. Now I think about these things more.
I believe it’s possible to maintain the courage to go against whatever structures are out there, but also to infiltrate the structures and improve them from within. That’s something I didn’t consider when I was younger because I never had any access. It’s very eye-opening to see how things work when you’ve been an outsider and then get an opportunity to be an insider. My views on things are similar to what they’ve always been, but they’re more sophisticated because I have more experience.
Q. Your original sticker was “Andre the Giant has a posse.” When did “OBEY” get involved?
A. Obey was inspired by a movie called “They Live,” a John Carpenter film. Have you seen it?
A. It’s not a great film. But it’s worth seeing. I was already a fan of Orwell and Ray Bradbury, so the idea of these dystopian cautionary tales was something I was tuned into. There were some artists I liked that were addressing Big Brother and the machine.
In “They Live,” there’s a sequence when the protagonist puts on these sunglasses that allow him to see what’s really going on. And when he has them on he sees a portion of the population — the authoritarians and the rich people — are really aliens who have figured out how to camouflage themselves and control the humans. And when you put the glasses on, you can see what signs and ads really say. And they said things like “Watch television,” “Consume,” “Marry and reproduce,” and “Obey.”
Of all the words that were rendered concrete from the ether, “obey” hit me like a ton of bricks. What do we do most of the time? Follow the path of least resistance, don’t rock the boat. Do what we think is expected of us. But when you’re confronted with the word obey, it’s jarring. I decided that’s the word I’m going to start using with my work because it’s so powerful. If you’re asking, “Obey what?” then maybe you’ll ask questions about other things, too.
Q. How do you see propaganda versus art?
A. I think most art that has a concept to it could be called propaganda. But propaganda would like the conversation to end where it wants you to go, whereas a lot of art is more of a conversation-starter. That’s not always the case — there’s great art that’s propaganda. I consider what I’m doing, usually, as a way to ask questions of whatever the dominant narrative is. But anything that’s designed to affect your point of view I think could be considered propaganda.
Q. When you created the Obama “HOPE” poster, were you afraid people would think it was ironic?
A. No. I think it was pretty easy to tell, just by how minimal it was, that it was sincere. There was an earnestness to it that was very intentional; there really wasn’t much to peel away. There were a few people who characterized that as a piece of propaganda, [but] I even put it on my website: If you don’t know anything about him, don’t take my word for it, go on his website, watch videos, read some of his writing, and make up your own mind.
Q. What do you like about street art? You’ve talked about how we usually only see advertisements on the street.
A. Public art is art that people interact with in their daily lives. It disrupts the normal things you see — government signage, commercial signage. Everyone claims to value freedom of speech and expression, but in most public spaces there’s no social commentary, or even art as a visual alternative that’s meant to celebrate the human spirit.
For me, it was insane how lacking it was for that sphere. So that’s what drew me to it, and also the thrill of doing something mischievous. I was always a rebel. As a skateboarder, part of the enjoyment is, it might hurt doing it, but if you pull it off, there’s a thrill to it.
Q. Do you see an overall theme in your art? You’ve said it’s the iconography of America and Americana you’re into.
A. Well, yeah, I bring in some other cultural references in my work too, but I’d say the theme, really broadly, is “question everything.” But there are themes I keep coming back to on a regular basis, and that’s addressing racism, sexism, xenophobia, environmental destruction, abuse of power — you know, all the light issues.
Q. Did you plan your 100th mural to land in Providence?
A. I wanted it to be in Providence because that’s where it all started. Providence is seminal for me. Providence is the genesis. Providence is fascinating. I don’t know if I could’ve found that exact mixture of things that resulted in that Andre campaign anywhere else.