Shepard Fairey, mainstream and guerrilla graphic artist, author of the 2008 “Obama Hope” poster, spoke at Idyllwild Arts to an audience composed mostly of IA students. Fairey, a 1988 IA graduate credited early teen skateboard and punk rock influences as the bases for his development into an iconoclastic, guerrilla street artist. “I was really into mischief, the whole skateboarding underground mentality,” he remembered. Looking at the IA students he said, “I’m different from everybody except all of you.” Recounting his beginnings as a guerilla artist, during the later Reagan years, he said, “I wanted to explore social commentary through rebellion to cut through the propaganda of the Reagan administration. I started with homemade sketches and T-shirts. That set me on the path to being the graphic artist I still am.
[“I’ve been arrested 16 times for doing what I do [street art],” he noted. “I’m not saying it is good to steal. I just had to keep my thing alive by whatever means necessary.” Fairey talked about post 9/11 as a time when one had to demonstrate nationalism to be considered a patriot. “I wanted to show [through public art] that there were dissenting voices and one could still be a patriot. I wanted to encourage people to speak up and be brave. The dominant system does not want you to work outside of or hijack the system.”
Fairey said he still does street art because he can afford to. “I do street art because I think it is important for public expression and discourse,” he said. “Putting an image up in a public space that is not advertising was new when I began. It’s important because perceived power becomes real power.” Fairey’s images and his successful marketing company www.obeygiant.com have given him measurable influence in the public arena. He recently completed the 2011 Time Person of the Year cover, “The Protester.” But he still scales buildings, with his associates, to post street art in unauthorized places because he believes it is important.
Concluding his IA presentation with an homage to his street art origins, Fairey said, “When there are no legal alternatives [for an art project or expression], I seize the night — carpe la noche. I cannot cave to the same [system] injustice I’m trying to fight.”