For those who regard Shepard Fairey as merely that guy behind Obey and the Obama “HOPE” poster, Hulu’s just dropped Obey Giant, a feature-length documentary of a rebuttal. Filling in the gaps between the artist’s most renowned works with footage from his skater days, run-ins with police, and street fight of a lawsuit with the Associated Press, the film explores not just the art, but the ever-evolving motivations of the man behind it.
Complex got on the phone with Fairey to pick his brain about the project, skate fashion, and how propaganda—even the well-intentioned sort like his—has affected our current state of political discourse.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Complex: How’d this Hulu doc come together?
Shepard Fairey: My wife and I have been collecting video footage for years. Shooting stuff ourselves, collecting from others who’ve been around and done video interviews with me where the condition was “you can use this for your thing but, afterwards, we’d like the rights to use it in an eventual documentary.”
Jennifer Howell, founder of Art of Elysium, a charity I work with a lot, ran into the documentary filmmaker James Moll on the way to Sundance and he mentioned that he really loved my art and she thought: “he’s won an Academy Award. Maybe he can direct this film.” He was enthusiastic about the idea. They pitched it to Hulu. And then James followed me around for close to two years. The resulting film is a combination of archival footage and documentation of my art pursuits by James.
The idea of having a film about my art and career has been thrown around for a few years but I’m always so busy it’s never something I pushed to make happen because my life’s been ongoing.
As someone so connected to skate culture, how do you feel about the current convergence of fashion and skatewear brands like Thrasher and Supreme have been elevated to high fashion status? Has it diminished the underlying “punk” ethos at the heart of skating at all?
Skateboarding’s had its moments where a Vision streetwear shirt shows up in a Freddy Krueger movie or a film like Thrashin’ or Gleaming the Cube shows up and people are like, “this is the death of skateboarding. The posers are taking over.”
I think I’m a little gentler at this point in my life. Being truly into punk rock, skateboarding, street art, or any of the things I’m into usually requires a level of commitment or fearlessness, especially with skateboarding. Riding rails or ledges, or ollying down stairs: it’s a committed lifestyle, not just a fashion. So, I can see why it would become irritating to some people for it to become trendy to have a Thrasher or Supreme shirt. But there’s always a chance that, with some of those people that get into it for the wrong reason, it lures them into something that will change their life.
Is that what happened for you?
Skateboarding changed my life. Punk rock changed my life. Everything I’ve been into since then, in terms of do-it-yourself culture, has really come from that.
When I got into skateboarding in 8th grade, it wasn’t because I had the same convictions then that I have now. But I’m sure it led to me having those convictions. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere and you’ll never be able to remove the superficial from culture. It’s just impossible.
Everyone’s got to get up in the morning and decide what to wear, so it can be a very superficial medium. But it doesn’t have to be. I try to make my clothing line an entry point for discovering the substance of the rest of my work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fashion. Hopefully my clothes are a gateway to the other things I do, be it activism or street art. I don’t think that fashion and integrity are mutually exclusive.
So, does that mean you’re willing to soften your stance on Justin Bieber and Kanye being allowed to wear metal shirts now?
When Justin Bieber started wearing the Obey bar logo, we discontinued it. That was kinda one of the last straws. He wasn’t the only guy that dictated that decision. It’s about longevity. When I look at things that appeal to the lowest common denominator—people who don’t dress themselves, but have a stylist, people who don’t think for themselves—I want to course correct what I’m doing with my line at that moment, if possible.
Going back to Supreme for a second, as someone who’s not only been involved in copyright battles, but is also heavily inspired by Barbara Kruger’s work, what was your reaction to hearing that Supreme had sued her to protect their copyright?
When Justin Bieber started wearing the Obey bar logo, we discontinued it. That was kinda one of the last straws.
I did hear the response from Barbara but I don’t know the exact details of the case. It’s so ironic because [Supreme] CLEARLY copied Barbara Kruger, just like I did. When I made my Obey logo, it was 100 percent an homage to Barbara Kruger’s work and 0 percent had anything to do with Supreme. When I made the Obey bar logo with a bar beneath the icon face, Supreme had one store and no clothing line that I knew of. They didn’t figure into the decision.
I’m embarrassed for them, that they’d go after Barbara Kruger. I don’t have anything against Supreme in general. They make good stuff and choose good people to collaborate with, but I’m shocked they did this. That’s revisionist history of the Stalin/Trump order.
Do you have any moments from your own career history that didn’t pan out as anticipated that you’d do differently if you had another chance?
In the doc, I talk about the Cianci billboard being something where I don’t know if I wouldn’t have done it, but I definitely would have done more research. I went into that a little ignorantly as a prank and didn’t think about the ripples it would have in the wider community.
And with the Obama poster, after going through that brutal lawsuit, realizing how relatively inexpensively I could’ve just licensed the photo. I would do that now.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the principle of fair use for other artists. What’s inexpensive for me is potentially out of reach, financially, for a lot of other artists. Just like Puffy shouldn’t be the only guy who can afford a sample for a hip-hop song, and that’s hurt the art form, I feel the same way about visual art. I want to advocate for other artists, not just myself.
As someone whose work is about distilling bigger ideas down to single words or images, how do you feel about the current state of political discourse where nuance seems unwelcomed and propaganda is more overt than ever? Do you feel at all complicit in us getting to this point?
I have a conflicted relationship with oversimplified propaganda. On the one hand, it’s what works in a world where there’s so much white noise and people have short attention spans. On the other hand, with my new show, The Damage Show, I’m printing my own newspaper and all the art pieces have a lot of layers of communication in them and I’m trying to make the conversation more sophisticated rather than less when it comes to the sort of subjects I’m tackling.
I have to qualify that by saying that I’m also very aware that in order to get people to look at something at all, it has to have enough visual punch to reel them in. So, balancing that concise power with a more nuanced message can be challenging. But what I do with my website is present the images, then talk about the images, and then have links that give even more depth about the things I’m dealing with. Propaganda wants to simplify things down to “Make America Great Again,” and that’s that. But I like my art to function as a gateway to a deeper conversation.
The problem is, you can’t control the audience. Not everyone in the audience is going to be inspired to look deeper. And when I look at some of the comments on my social media stuff, they clearly haven’t read the three sentences below the visual. But I’m definitely trying to improve communication rather than deteriorate it.
How do you then deal with instances where the audience goes the extra step beyond not looking deeper and actually co-opts your art to use it for evil? Take for example, Matt Furie having Pepe the frog co-opted by Nazis or racist parodies of your “HOPE” poster.
It’s pretty unavoidable. What I hope—pun intended—is that people look at the intention behind the original. With the poster or Obey icon, those have been parodied a lot. Every one of those parodies—whether it’s a sentiment I agree with or it’s silly or downright mean spirited—refers back to something I did that anyone that feels like looking can understand what my intentions were.
So, I don’t feel like because I made something with good intentions, and then someone used it with different intentions, that it somehow corrupts what I did in the first place. In fact, I think had they come up with something original on their own, an original piece of viral anger, that might actually be scarier than something that’s a twist on something that had more altruistic aims.
In times like these, where things can feel hopeless on a daily basis, what has been giving you hope?
Young people seem to be educating themselves about issues and participating in activism. The challenge, though, is that social media activism is not what brings about change. It can be a component but you have to actually vote. You have to do things that actually sway politicians: call, petition, march in the street.
I think the Trump campaign and presidency is waking up a lot of people who before felt like they didn’t need to participate. But I think the participation need to extend to voting or we’re going to see a lot of similar problems in the future.