Medium as message
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
It was a warm morning at Makiki Skate Park. Shepard Fairey, dressed in a black T-shirt and cargo pants mottled with wheat paste and freeway grime, was wallpapering Hawaiian-themed variations of his art on the rink's vertical surfaces.
A knot of skateboarders and fans closed in politely. Tiny digital cameras clicking and whirring. Hands offered. Books thrust forth for autographs. Fairey remained polite, even when the work, which might have taken an hour under more covert circumstances, stretched on for four.
The L.A.-based street artist is in town as part of The Contemporary Museum's Catalyst Artist Residency program, which is putting him together with skateboarders in Makiki and youth from Kuhio Park Terrace, and at work on an installation on the museum grounds. As the museum's curator of education, Wei Fang, explains, "It's about being relevant."
For Fairey, known as much for his commercial design work as his commando street projects, the residency is a natural extension of what has become a career project.
"I feel like people fear what they don't understand, and a lot of graffiti is only addressed by the people who wish to eradicate it ... they vilify it by saying that it's all about marijuana code or gang signs or any other negative cliche they can come up with," Fairey said. "I acknowledge that there are some negative aspects of (street art), but I try to articulate both sides.
"Nothing is black and white, and I try to educate people so they don't make decisions based on fear."
In fact, while Fairey frequently executes his bold work in black and white (and a lot of red), he has left its meaning purposefully vague.
Fairey is best known for his enigmatic "Obey" posters and stickers, which have become ubiquitous in many U.S. cities.
The basic design is simple: an abstracted mug shot of the late professional wrestler Andre the Giant and the word "obey."
But, obey what? That's the point. More or less.
Fairey, 35, grew up in Charles-ton, S.C., where, he said, "the only commercially viable art is, like, painting the duck stamp."
The aspiring artist found a sense of creative purpose in skateboarding and punk rock.
"That was the first time that drawing really tied in to a culture that I was interested in," he said.
The summer after his freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey worked in a skateboard shop. One night, a friend asked Fairey to show him how to stencil. Fairey found a photo of Andre the Giant in a newspaper ad and suggested they use it. His friend was appalled.
"He said, 'No way, that's stupid,' " Fairey recalled. "Skateboarders have to be on the cutting edge of cool culture, and wrestling wasn't cool to him.
"I decided that I should get all my skater friends to embrace this silly image of Andre the Giant just by using the same sort of cultural methodology that a lot of other images are perpetuated through in the skateboarding community," he said. "And it totally worked."
The first wave of stickers bore the Andre image and the words "Andre the Giant has a posse."
For Jason Filipow, a friend and collaborator, the "Andre" stickers were an unintended experiment in conspicuous consumption.
"The more people saw it, the more they wanted to be associated with it," Filipow said. "They saw it all over and they thought, 'This is a little subversive and a little mysterious and suits my self-image, so I want one.' "
Fairey saw his "goof-off thing" garnering a wider reaction. "That made me start to think about the control of public space, how advertising influences people, the way people interpret an image as a reflection of their personality ... the Rorschach factor.
The more Fairey examined the theoretical underpinnings of his "Andre" campaign, the more resonance he found in German philosopher Edmund Husserl's theory of phenomenology ("awakening a sense of wonder about one's environment") and in Marshall McLuhan's epigram, "The medium is the message."
Taking a cue from the 1988 film "They Live," Fairey added the "Obey" tag to a stylized Andre mug, adding an Orwellian dimension to his evolving theme.
"It was inspired by the concept that people follow the path of least resistance, obey by default and then complain about their situation," he said.
But if people are told they have to obey, "they might be more resistant. It's an attempt to snap people out of this life of cruise control."
Fairey's street art also challenges assumptions about public space. He says the intent behind much urban design and landscaping is to present a neutral environment that suppresses the public's impulse to question. Yet, while stickers and graffiti are considered vandalism, many states allow businesses great latitude in their visual advertisements.
"The argument is always that what I do is aesthetically offensive, but a lot of advertising is aesthetically offensive, too," he said. "Should people be subjected to an ad just because it's paid for?"
Not everyone is thrilled by his idea. Fairey has been arrested 13 times. In September, San Diego police took him in for slapping a sticker on the back of a sign.
"At least I'm fortunate now to make enough money to bail myself out," Fairey said.
Indeed, through his old design firm BLK/MRKT and his new Studio Number One, Fairey has emerged as one of the country's most sought-after graphic designers, with clients such as Mountain Dew, Levi's and the new film "Walk the Line."
Since Fairey's street art reacts to advertising in public spaces, he had to adapt his approach for billboard-free Hawai'i. The result "comments on the type of propaganda that exists here, which is a perpetuation of all cliches Hawaiian that would lead to tourism," he said.
"All of these Hawaiian motifs are really beautiful," he said. But he added that adhering to a traditional aesthetic can also limit artists "from being able to do what they want in a real avant-garde way. There's a fine line between people acknowledging their roots ... and being constrained by them." As a solution, Fairey used flower, surf and tapa designs to "camouflage" his own design elements — including, of course, the "Obey" message.
Rosalind Young, West Honolulu district manager for the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, worked with The Contemporary Museum on the skate park project. She had initial concerns about Fairey's work.
"When I saw 'obey' on his proposal, I thought, 'obey' what?" she said. "Thenn I read his manifesto. ...
"I was impressed that the reaction he elicited from me was exactly the response he sought. When I met him, I shook his hand and said, 'You got me!' "
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.