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Shepard Fairey’s Image Problem
By Liam O'Donoghue
As if Wal-Mart didn’t have enough controversies to deal with, imagine the consternation in the PR war room when news hit that the retail giant was selling t-shirts bearing a Nazi SS skull. As the story unraveled, it turned out that Wal-Mart’s designer had ripped off the image from pop art superstar Shepard Fairey, whose reference for the Gestapo logo was 1960’s “biker culture.” Oops.Using the international notoriety of his global “Andre the Giant has a posse” street art campaign as a platform, Shepard Fairey has leveraged his prolific output and iconic, anti-authoritarian style into a mini-empire. Through his ObeyGiant company (Motto: Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989), he churns out screen-printed posters, clothing, and limited-run merchandise including skateboards and laser-engraved watches. His other design company, Studio Number One, specializes in branding, promotional campaigns and “identity systems” for corporate clients including Mountain Dew, Virgin, and Honda. He is also founder and creative director of Subliminal Projects art studio in Los Angeles and uber-hip Swindle magazine. His audience and the value of his work has surged in recent months on the popularity of his now-ubiquitous Obama posters.
Although Fairey “didn’t get bent out of shape” about Wal-Mart ripping him off, he originally launched his ObeyGiant clothing line because he saw that the Urban Outfitters chain was selling “bootlegged” shirts with his Giant logo. “To see it in there, just ripped off, knowing that somebody just made a bunch of money selling the t-shirts to Urban Outfitters, and here I am, just barely being able to pay my rent was definitely upsetting to me,” Fairey told me during an interview for Mother Jones. “The reason I get pissed off about stuff like that is because I didn’t build up the resonance for that image just to hand it off to someone to exploit.”
This irony is not lost on Lincoln Cushing, an art historian and author who recently brokered a royalty agreement between Fairey and the estate of deceased Cuban artist Rene Mederos over a design of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos that Fairey essentially swiped and slapped his “Obey” logo onto. When confronted, Fairey was quick to cut a check to Mederos’s family, but Cushing described the Mederos episode as a common dynamic. “Many U.S. artists don’t seem to treat the intellectual property rights of third world artists the same as fellow U.S. artists,” Cushing said, and added that artists aren’t the only ones willing to steal from those still isolated from the U.S. economy. "For many years the web-based sales catalog of Barnes and Noble marketed over 30 unauthorized digitally-reproduced ‘Cuban posters.’ I contacted them many times about dealing with this properly, and they never responded.”
Cushing has since posted a list of ”Best Practices” for recycling art on his Web site, offering suggestions such as “admit that you are using preexisting art” and “ask for permission.” However, prior to the Mederos episode, Cushing had already begun working informally with a group of political artists and art historians including Favianna Rodriguez, Josh MacPhee, and
Mark Vallen to catalogue Shepard Fairey’s many appropriations with hopes of bringing attention to the artists and social movements from which they originated and advancing the dialogue around the ethics of art appropriation.
Although Fairey has lifted designs from sources ranging from 19th century Austrian artist Koloman Moser to fellow “streetwear” designer Erik Brunetti (creator of the influential Fuct brand), his most common (and usually uncredited) “references” are taken from 20th century radical popular movements and communist governments, including: the Industrial Workers of the World, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Black Panthers, various “third world” solidarity movements, and, of course, the former Soviet Union, China and Cuba.
Far from denouncing all forms of art “sampling,” Josh MacPhee and Favianna Rodriguez have just published “Reproduce and Revolt,” a compilation of more than 600 copyright-free images from artists around the world. They hope the book will facilitate networking among artist activists and provide an inspiring cache of graphics for social justice groups. According to Rodriguez, “We want to build a support network, but also talk about accountability, because a lot of young artists want to be successful like Shepard, but they don’t realize he’s disconnecting images of important struggles from their roots.”
Through the Justseeds artist cooperative, MacPhee has also been “waging a war” against cultural amnesia since 1998 with an ongoing “Celebrate People's History” poster series, which he often uses in classroom presentations. “The People’s History posters are not about taking graphics from history, but producing new graphics about that history, and encouraging people to learn, to pique their interest,” said MacPhee, who recently posted a long analysis related to the Fairey controversy on his blog. “In some ways, Shepard’s project is the complete inverse of that. His is about stripping the historical context from actual graphics and using them to make money because they imply some sense of authenticity.”
Straddling the corporate world and the streets (which Fairey is still known to “bomb” with wheat-pasted posters occasionally), Fairey’s reputation is an incendiary topic in the blogosphere, with his fans and detractors in dispute over the legitimacy and implications of his work. Fairey, himself, makes no apologies. He said, “Knowing that I have an audience that’s younger, a lot of the stuff that I do is designed to try to circulate things that I think are awesome back into a new crowd. My desire to learn about Che Guevara was due to the massive perpetuation of the image.”
Realist painter and art activist Mark Vallen, whose “Obey Plagiarist” article provides a deep examination of Fairey’s specific “appropriations” doesn’t buy Shepard’s spiel. He said, “There is no more chance of learning about revolutionary art and politics through Fairey's self-promotional posters than there is in understanding Beethoven's music from hearing it used in advertising jingles.”
According to the Web site of Fairey’s Studio Number One company, “Our clients turn to us knowing that we possess the expertise to tap into the counterculture seamlessly.” Due to his undeniable knack for capturing the attention of the ever-fickle youth market, it’s no surprise that the recent flurry of attention regarding his plagiarism has not put a dent in Fairey’s burgeoning marketing and commercial design career. Fairey will undoubtedly continue to speak alongside creatives and “futurists” from Sony and Starbucks at conferences held by the likes of PSFK Consultancy & Trend Research Services, as he recently did in Los Angeles.
Regardless of originality or aesthetic preferences, it’s Fairey’s corporate relationships and business model that trigger the most resentment from some of his critics. “The people who pay Fairey are the corporate elite that have oppressed the very people he’s stolen from,” Rodriguez said.
“What is important to me is how Fairey exemplifies in many ways the operational model of capitalism,” MacPhee added. “He extracts resources largely from political struggles of Third World and working class people, and then simultaneously sells a slightly processed version of the resources to both wealthy elites in the North, but also cheaper mass-commodity versions to the very same people he is stealing from!”
The research that preceded this article was conducted for an interview I did with Shepard Fairey for Mother Jones magazine (March/April 2008. Here is a link to that interview:
Lincoln Cushing’s response to this interview was published in the following issue of Mother Jones (May/June 2008)
Journalist Aura Bogodo disputed Fairey’s version of a conversation between them that was mentioned in the Mother Jones interview. Here is a link to her powerful response:
Credit for Angela Davis images: Libertad para Angela Davis (Freedom for Angela Davis) - Félix Beltrán, Cuba, 1971. Original silk-screen print created by Beltrán in solidarity with Angela Davis when she was a political prisoner in the US. Right: Fairey’s plundered version as a street poster, which neither credits Beltrán nor identifies Angela Davis. See more image comparisons at: http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm