You will obey

Shepard Fairey, better known as the Obey Giant guy, is injecting propaganda memes into popular graphic arts

Illustration By Shepard Fairey

We walk around the public spaces of our city under a spell. We may not realize that we have been enthralled; there are no visible wizards brandishing wands and bewitching us with fairy dust. And, anyway, we have developed filters that lower the volume on most of the visual noise we encounter.

Budweiser, King of Beers.

Miller for President of Beers.

We take in hundreds or thousands of advertising images daily, and most if not all of them have an agenda behind their creation and placement.

But what happens when we encounter something truly mystifying? Say, a white rectangle containing a high-contrast Big Brother face that looks oddly familiar? Or a poster that appears to be a 1970s riff on vintage Soviet propaganda, but the image is of an unrecognizable man with an afro?

Why are pictures of the late wrestler Andre the Giant and the veteran rapper Slick Rick invading this public arena that should be reserved for paid advertisements, and do the pictures have any meaning?

The person behind the images’ creation and promotion is Shepard Fairey, a 34-year-old graphic artist who now lives in Los Angeles. Working under the name Obey Giant, Fairey has been pumping his graphic memes into the pop-culture stream for nearly 15 years.

Fairey’s images are instantly recognizable. Riffing off old Communist-bloc propaganda art, his posters typically employ high-contrast images with thick lines and solid fields that use black, red and perhaps gray or orange inks—what he called “Marlboro and McDonald’s colors”—for maximum impact.

“Yeah, I really like propaganda,” Fairey admitted over the phone from his studio in the Koreatown area between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. “To me, it’s the same thing as advertising.”

When Fairey began using Soviet-propaganda-style graphics in his work, he found that most Americans are culturally biased to fear any Soviet, Cuban or Chinese propaganda art. “The Soviet constructivist stuff is some of the most solid graphic design ever conceptualized, ever,” he said. “It’s the greatest, in terms of using a limited palette and integrating typography, powerful slogans and powerful iconographic images. Yet, American graphic design generally has shied away from it because of the ideological implications.”

Fairey admitted that the idea of using imagery to snap people out of the everyday hypnosis generated by American commercial propaganda does have a certain relish. “The idea was that the more open-ended [the image] was,” he said, “the more latitude for interpretation there was, the less likely people were to immediately reject it—even if it had the agenda of spell-breaking, if it was obvious that that was the agenda.

“I just tried to have it get under their skin and fester,” he added.

Illustration By Shepard Fairey

Though many artists prefer to show their works in art galleries, Fairey elected to skip the gallery circuit and deliver his art directly to the public. It was a street-friendly approach that grew out of the old punk-rock promotional method of plastering or pasting stickers everywhere—on skateboards, on signs, on any flat surface.

When Fairey was a teen in the 1980s, he lived in Charleston, S.C., where the word “art” meant still-life paintings—landscapes, the seashore and pictures of ducks. He was lucky to have a mother who had a copier at home as part of her business, and he began creating his own stickers.

Once out of high school, he moved north to Providence, to the Rhode Island School of Design. “I’m the kind of guy who went to art school just because I couldn’t make it as a pro skateboarder,” he admitted.

Fairey figured he had to do something to earn a living, and if skating wasn’t going to cut it, art might be a decent substitute, even though he had some minor trepidation. “I never was one of those ‘I am going to be an artiste’ types,” he explained. Part of that reservation came from what he called the elitist gallery system, which left him cold. “Street art, for me, was a way of circumventing all that,” he said. “There’s no curator that’s going to look down their nose at my slides and say, ‘You need to put a few more years into it before we’re going to consider you.’” This, understandably, can generate insecurity in any budding artist. “A lot of it seemed like you really needed to read the explanation on the wall before the art was going to make any sense to you,” he said.

Fairey’s imagination was fired by the more sensationalist pop graphics found on skateboards and album covers. “It just seemed to click, you know?” he asked, citing an infamous Dead Kennedys album cover by artist Winston Smith, which depicted Jesus crucified on a cross made from a dollar bill and bore the title In God We Trust, Inc. “That just hits you,” Fairey enthused. “I always wanted to make stuff like that.”

That, he has.

One of Fairey’s favorite ploys is to replace the figures you’d expect to see on propaganda art, like Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, with his own heroes. “Slick Rick, Chuck D, Henry Rollins—those are people that I connected with a lot,” he said. “So, I turned them into icons to make people go, ‘Ooh, what’s so important about this guy?’”

He figures he’s achieved what he calls a level of cultural currency that might motivate someone to inquire why he went to the effort to turn, say, Slick Rick into a poster icon. “I feel like I can then pass along things that are important,” Fairey explained. “I’ll tell every kid that I can, like, ‘Go pick up Black Flag’s Damaged, or Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, or any Clash album.’”

Call it the bully pulpit of graphic-arts stardom. “If I can do that and make art that’s rewarding on a purely aesthetic level, but then there’s this next tier of learning about these people, that satisfies a lot of things for me,” he said.

“It all comes down to this: Imagery is my way to find common ground with people—even if it’s off-putting at first.”

Some of Fairey’s work will be on display this weekend at Toyroom Gallery, a room above a garage on a Curtis Park alley that delights in exposing what one of the gallery two proprietors, John Soldano, calls lowbrow art. Soldano defines the post-Ed “Big Daddy” Roth movement thus: “An art form evolved around pop culture that can be crudely elaborate or politically charged and usually visually stimulating, genius, a.k.a. underground, alternative, graffiti, pop, tasteless, institutionalized, tattoo, carnival art, etc.”

The Toyroom is part of a growing group of outsider galleries in Sacramento that cater to the nontraditional art enthusiast; these include Gallery Horse Cow on Del Paso Boulevard and the new Brickhouse Gallery complex in Oak Park. Soldano and his partner, Craig Maclaine, chose to skip the Second Saturday art walk that many galleries participate in; the Toyroom’s shows are on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday that follow. Fairey’s show there, which he shares with artist Marco Almera, isn’t quite typical of the stuff Toyroom has shown in the past—local street-energy artists like Skinner and Pete Bettencourt, along with more established ones like Stephanie Skalisky and John Stuart Berger. But Toyroom has moved toward that funky, post-Roth California style found in the pages of Juxtapoz magazine, and that’s where Fairey fits in.

“Working with galleries like the Toyroom makes sense,” he said. “They get the whole populist thing—that you don’t have to have an art education to be able to be qualified to go in there and interpret what you see; you just go. Maybe it appeals to you on a pop-cultural level or something, or it’s using the kind of visual language you’re used to, whether it’s from, like, hot-rod culture or punk or anything.”

If you can’t make it to the Toyroom, you can get a pretty good idea of the reach of Fairey’s empire by navigating his Web site, Click on “products,” and you’ll find posters, stickers, album covers, T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, stickers and plenty of other merchandise for sale. Click on “articles,” and there is much to read, including an e-mail exchange between a heartbroken fan who had heard from a friend that Obey Giant merchandise was being sold at a local mall store and subsequently declared that his world was crushed. Fairey set him straight: Selling stuff isn’t necessarily selling out. There are a number of other interviews archived on the site.

Obviously, Fairey doesn’t have any problem with using images to sell things, including himself. “The thing I like about advertising,” he said, “is that it’s going to use every device possible to get you to eventually consume a product, whether it’s associated positively with the lifestyle being portrayed, or get you insecure that you’ve got bad breath and you’ve got to get this gum, or think that you’re going to be sexier or smarter or improved—that you don’t want to be the last one, you don’t want to be the odd man out. It’s so amazing just to see how creative people can be to get to you.”