If you don’t know the name Shepard Fairey, you’ll definitely know his work. The South Carolinian native, who cut his teeth at the Rhode Island School of Design, and has been a huge proponent of free art in public places since garnering fame for his ‘Andre The Giant Has a Posse’ Street art campaign back in 1989. More recently, he’s become know to the masses for his OBEY brand, which comprises large-format street art, stickers, posters and a hugely successful line of streetwear.
He’s also the dude behind the ubiquitous 2008 US election HOPE image, which plastered the walls of America (and indeed the world) with a red, white and blue stencil of Barack Obama during his run for president. Though his efforts were not officially linked to the campaign, Obama personally thanked Fairey for his support after he’d won office, and Shepard was awarded person of the year by GQ a year later.
The mural, which is placed smack bang in the middle of George St, near Martin Place (I’m not giving you an exact address, if you can’t find it you’re blind), employs Fairey’s common, politically charged message of ‘obey’, but with the positive angle his work has begun to embody lately.
“I’m now addressing, what I think, is a full spectrum from angry and provocative to very gentle and more diplomatic. More about harmony.” Fairey says. “It’s much easier to get approval for large public works that are not controversial. Sometimes I submit designs that, when it’s something where there’s bureaucracy involved, they’re a little bit more provocative, I always have a backup plan. Either way, I know that a piece like this, if someone likes it and they don’t know my work and they want to find out more about my work, they go to my website and it’s got the full range of everything. The idea that not every piece that I do needs to be confrontational in order for me to be able to share that I do have some confrontational work in my body of work. It’s sometimes the carrot, sometimes the stick.”
Depicting a woman’s face with the native Waratah flower, there’s a distinctively ‘Sydney’ feeling to the work, whilst maintaining the raw political LA themes endemic to his work.
“This mural is tapping into themes that are always present in my work. Pro peace and harmony. Looking at the better side of human nature that we all can aspire to and the things that we have in common rather than focusing on our differences and things to argue about. I’m always one for debate but I think that especially now, with the anonymous social medial culture, the idea that you can abandon any respect for human dignity and diplomacy because you’re anonymous, is deeply disturbing to me. This piece is promoting peace and harmony but it’s also featuring the Waratah… I did a little bit of research about flowers from the region…
“…the Waratah is, first of all it’s really beautiful and I was like, oh I always use red but I’m using blue on this mural so the colour’s off. It’s really beautiful but it’s also really hardy. Then there are all these different things I read about people saying that its essence helps people get through times of struggle, that it wards off evil and I felt that was very appropriate for this mural. That’s something that’s specific to the region that’s in the mural. A lot of the work that I do – yeah I hope that it transcends even language, though I like to use text in my work, I’m hoping that if someone didn’t speak English, if they looked at this piece, they would get a sense of meditative harmony and peace from it.”
Fairey’s commitment to street art has meant many a brush with the law at several points in his illustrious career.
“Yeah, I’ve been arrested a lot – 18 times. I’ve literally been invited to do pieces on city hall in a city in Boston and then was arrested and charged with 30 felonies later by the police, who had some beef with the Mayor, so I might have just been caught in the crossfire there. One of the things that I think I thought, that I did think when I was younger was that somehow government was some sort of monolithic thing that was in perfect lock step with every one of its departments factions, not true at all. You’ve got people from cultural departments who love creativity that pushes the envelope and then you have uptight people that think that that’s gonna lead to anarchy.
“I’m used to navigating all of that and one of the ways that I’ve described my approach is that’s the inside / outside strategy. I’m willing to work outside the system as I had to from the beginning, at any time, still. If I can’t find allies within the dominant structure, but if I can find support to do projects with integrity on the terms that I believe are essential to what I want to say ethically and philosophically, then of course, I think it’s great to work with the system.
“Sometimes it’s an easy process because there are people that really thoroughly understand where I’m coming from and want to support it. Other times it’s… I think that maybe I’m getting over a little subversively because maybe they don’t know exactly what they’re gonna get. I don’t go into any situation assuming these outsider artist types are going to be exactly the kind of people I like and these other people from government or wherever, are someone to be suspicious of. In fact, I’ve had the coolest indie music labels totally screw me over and then governments and corporations that were so cool and took care of me. I don’t generalise any of it. I just try to navigate each situation as constructively as possible.”
Fairey will be delivering a talk at Town Hall on the 17th June as part of Vivid’s Game-Changer series. Other than the mural on George, his work is on display at the Revolutions public art display at the Darling Quarter, and at Printed Matters Sydney at Chippendale’s aMBUSH Gallery until next month.