Fairey plays influential role in evolution of street art

Street artists are usually seen as troublemakers. Many tamper with public property, create controversial pieces with charged messages and sometimes end up being arrested for the art they create.

One of the biggest issues any street artist encounters is getting his or her work accepted as actual art. It’s tough to convince the average civilian a poster illegally placed on a telephone pole is an important work of art.

One artist who has managed to break into mainstream popular culture is Frank Shepard Fairey — better known as Shephard Fairey.  This topical artist hasn’t had it easy given his arrest in 2009 and lawsuit by the Associated Press. This reputable law breaker, who consistently challenges society with his works, will speak at the Tutor Center next Wednesday, at 7 p.m.

If you’re wondering who he is and why you should care, it’s simple: Fairey has created quite a stir in the art world.

He’s complicated the idea of the underground street artist by producing popular works like his famous Obama poster and by designing his iconic OBEY clothing line.

He isn’t just a street artist out to garner fame by placing his works in the city. He’s an important figure in the history of art, street art and society’s perception of art.

Fairey gained an interest in art as a teenager, but didn’t start out in the streets. Like any diligent art student, he attended a specialized school — the Rhode Island School of Design — to pursue a bachelor’s degree in illustration. Fairey worked at a skateboard shop after graduating and eventually went into stenciling and designing T-shirts.

In 1990, Fairey revealed a manifesto for his work, taking ideas from the philosophies of phenomenology and Martin Heidegger. He also launched his personal art career by creating posters and stencils of various sizes featuring Andre the Giant, an iconic French pro wrestler with the word OBEY over his head.

Fairey created the design with the hope of making people really think about their surroundings. For Fairey, the piece did not necessarily have one clear meaning; instead, it was merely meant to bring attention to the power of images.

Soon, the Andre the Giant design was everywhere, from telephone poles to building sides. But Fairey soon realized not everybody loved the image, — some found it annoying and destructive. The kids who loved graffiti art, however, made it their emblem.

Today, it’s not uncommon to see someone wearing an OBEY poster in the form of a T-shirt. In that sense, Fairey has been able to use us as canvases, and has managed to get his name on our lips in the process.

For many street art lovers, however, Fairey’s mainstream success makes him a sellout.

There has always been a battle between creating underground art and making money — people tend to be skeptical about the authenticity of an artist who turns a huge profit from his or her art, even if he or she started out creating works in the street. Considering Fairey’s original OBEY poster was also meant to shed light on all the commercial images that surround us, his creation of something as commercial as a clothing line felt like betrayal to some fans.

But sticking to an accepted image of artistic authenticity doesn’t pay the bills. To be fair, Fairey still took the same legal risks as all the other street artists out there. And when he wasn’t in trouble with the cops, he took the time to involve himself in activities that gave back to the community, from an art sale to benefit the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center to creating works for the recently opened West Hollywood Library. Fairey has constructed a multi-faceted image, and in the process has changed the notion of what it really means to be a “street artist.” The street artist is no longer just a kid on the street pasting up his art — he or she can be an entrepreneur, a social activist, philosopher and philanthropist at the same time, too.

Though Fairey had many significant predecessors, his prolific presence today seems to ensure the street art movement will not die out any time soon. Those OBEY posters and T-shirts might not seem like a big deal, but Fairey proves that street art — and the street artist — have much more substance than what we might think.


Eva Recinos is a junior majoring in creative writing. Her column “Art Box” runs Thursdays.