Graphic artist Shepard Fairey, designer of the Barack Obama Hope poster, surprised two USC classes yesterday by dropping in to explain his life’s work of exposing cultural truths and inspiring social change through graphic and street art.
Students in the School of Cinematic Arts’ IML 420: “New Media for Social Change” and the Roski School of Fine Arts’ PAS 371: “Art in the Public Realm” class asked Fairey questions about his work for the last 30 years.
“I reclaim American symbols and turn them toward change,” Fairey said of his art. “There ought to be windmills where the buffalo roam.”
Fairey emerged in the art scene in the late ‘80s with his grassroots “Andre the Giant Has A Posse” campaign that has since spread worldwide.
“The OBEY poster was not about a specific social change, just that there are forces that want you to submit that are more covert that overt,” Fairey said. “You have to realize that you have choices to make about structures you follow.”
Fairey has also produced art for the Occupy movement, the Japanese tsunami relief effort and environmental change. He is also launching a series, Rebel Music, with MTV-U that will focus on young people in areas of conflict around the world and use music and art to sponsor change
Fairey, who was wearing a leather jacket and Sex Pistols T-shirt, said that he wanted to reach a larger audience with his work outside the elite, privileged circles of the art world. Street art has allowed Fairey to get his message across to a wider demographic.
“I used everything at my disposal to get [my message] out,” he said. “The age of only showing in galleries and in elite circles is really not relevant anymore. Figure out ways to engage people meaningfully and powerfully but take into account a very short attention span. You really need to take it to people.”
Sometimes Fairey’s methods, however, have gotten him in trouble with the law. He has been arrested 16 times for vandalism.
In 2008, Fairey’s iconic Obama Hope poster went viral and became one of the most widely recognized symbols of the Obama campaign.
“I opposed the Bush agenda from 2000 on and thought I should make work opposing the Iraq War and shrinking civil liberties,” he said. “At the time, he seemed to be the antithesis of these ideas.”
Though the poster appeared on street corners, billboards and bus stops around the country, it was also very popular on the Internet. Fairey said the digital side of his art allows him to expand his message.
“Before, people would see my work on the street and think, ‘Yeah, that’s punk rock,’” he said. “Now, you can write about whatever you believe in. It’s an opportunity to share the concepts and statistics behind my art. You draw them in with the visual but this can be the pathway to finding out a lot about an issue.”
For the Japanese tsunami relief effort, Fairey tried to create a beautiful aesthetic with an underlying social message. He sold his print, Dark Wave/Rising Sun, to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross.
“When it’s a heavy topic, people don’t want to feel worse,” he said.
Fairey, however, has not always been a fan of his popularity. He pointed out the proliferation of his clothing line on figures such as Justin Bieber.
“I’ve seen frat guys [wearing my T-shirts] and it’s just made me really nauseous,” he said.
The “New Media for Social Change” class studies theory but implements them through digital media. The “Art in the Public Realm” class focuses on art in the public realm that has social or political issues in mind.
Overall, Fairey says he creates his art in part to remind people of the absurdity of some of the claims that are made by the government and large corporations.
“I encourage people to question the propaganda,” he said. “I make propaganda to get people to question propaganda.”