With a career spanning close to 30 years, Shepard Fairey is a veteran of world street art. In Sydney to talk as part of Vivid Idea’s Game Changers program as well as unveil a new mural work (his largest to date) and exhibition, he spoke of his early days building the now iconic Obey project and his approach to melding street art with commercial design work through his career.
Leaning forward on the edge of his chair in a biker jacket and Black Flag tee, there’s an immediate intensity to the man. He looks like he’s ready to pounce, talking with an intense gaze, but with a thoughtful nature underneath. He spoke at length about starting Obey as an in-joke between he and a friend before noticing its power as an image and running with it to cover an estimated 1million images worldwide between 1989 and ’96, before he’d even began making any money. He spoke of rigging print machines so they’d give out free prints, and of doing commercial work for people he didn’t like (the Black Eyed Peas were his one regret).
When asked about criticism between his anti capitalist works while also running a successful clothing line, he was forthright, saying those who criticize are “maybe running around naked all day”. He went on to clarify that his work isn’t necessarily anti consumerism as mush as it is pro conscious consumption. He discussed the great efforts he goes to make his clothing ethical, as well as numerous charity t shirt runs which often come at the mirth of retailers looking for profit. He touched on street art purists who now call him a ‘sell out’ for doing commissioned murals and hanging in galleries but pointed out that artists should never limit themselves to one arena, saying that it was narrow-minded to consider street artists as only being capable of one thing.
Across 90 minutes, he spoke of his famed Obama ‘Hope’ image, pointing out that it was not a commissioned work and then talking of his issues being sued by the owner of the original photo which inspired it. He’s turned down various brand collaborations when they don’t align with his ethos (car and cigarette companies for example), and sang the praises of Portuguese artist Vhils, who he’s about to collaborate with.
He finished up discussing his new mural at 309 George St, featuring the waratah, which he had discovered was a ‘hearty and resilient’ plant before joking it was a great way to pander to Sydneysiders. He skirted around questions of the fact it had been commissioned, politely pointing out that he enjoys making both political and non-political works and that provided the image had a message pf peace he would never bite the hand that feeds.
Shepard Fairey appeared as part of Vivid Ideas on 17th June 2017.