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Shepard Fairey: Obey Obama

By Published on . 4

As the party primaries heat up and clear front runners begin to emerge, so too do the gaggles of enthusiastic endorsements for the remaining candidates. This week, Democratic hopeful Barack Obama received a significant nod of approval from a popular cultural figure. Oh, and Teddy Kennedy said he liked him, too.

Shepard Fairey, he of Obey fame, has planted his foot firmly in the Obama camp with the release of a limited edition print of the Senator from Illinois, in an effort to fund a larger street poster campaign. We spoke with Fairey about why he got involved and what the plans are for his latest foray into political artwork.

What made you want to get involved and actively endorse Barack Obama?
A lot of things, really. I've been paying attention to politics since the mid-90s. I think I took the Clinton years for granted and these last 10 years of Bush have been really rough and that's given me more motivation to be involved. I've got a daughter and am about to have another and I'm worried about the future of this country and I'm worried about the wrong people being in charge and what kind of a life that's going to create for people.

In 2000, I did an anti-Bush poster saying, "It's Your future" but I wasn't really that impressed with Gore at the time. I'm more impressed with him now. Then in 2005, I wasn't that impressed with Kerry but I did a pretty aggressive anti-Bush poster campaign. But all that really did was alert the highly motivated, reactionary Republicans to the fact that they might be met with some resistance, which made them that much more intent on getting their boy re-elected. So I think that idea was a divisive tactic rather than a way to unite people behind something really positive, which is how I look at Barack.

I first became interested in him in 2004, after his speech at the Democratic convention and have been impressed with him ever since. I think I'm a pretty good judge of character and my feeling about Barack is he stuck his neck out by being against the war, he always seems to speak his mind whether it's the popular position or not and he just seems like he follows what he believes in, which impresses me. So I decided I'd support him and put up my own money to do so. Some people asked me why I don't wait until he's got the Democratic nomination, but if you want a candidate to win, why not try your best to ensure he actually gets the nomination?

I just thought now was the time for me to stick my neck out and root for someone who I think has the potential to be awesome. Hopefully he won't disappoint me, but when I look at the rest of the field, in my eyes he stands way above any one else. That said, while I'd like people to get behind Barack, I also made a poster in the same color scheme that just says "Vote!" Even the way I worded the announcement on my site, I just pointed out why I support him and then encouraged people to check him out for themselves. I don't want to tell people to vote for Barack because I say so. Even if you like my art and think it's a cool poster, don't vote for Barack unless you think he's the right guy.

How did the idea get started?
I put the word out to a few Obama supporters who had some inroads to his campaign that I'd like to get involved but I didn't want to do something and then have them say an illegal street poster campaign is bad, "we don't want that association." But finally last Thursday I heard back from some people and Thursday night I did the illustration, posted it online on Friday and the posters come in today. I worked quickly to get it done.

What's the response to the print been?
The response has been insane! The prints sold out in about 15 minutes. That's just the print to raise revenue for the broader campaign. I screen-printed 350 posters to sell, 350 for the street and then did an off-set print run of 3000 more posters for the street that say "Hope" instead of "Progress" because that's what his campaign wants to push. I actually like "Progress" because it's more about the action, it's a verb, the realization of that hope.

Any differences between the original print and the street posters?
The original screen print has my little Obey logo on his button but the one for the street is not Obey branded. I've got a list of 300 people who want to help with the postering and I'm shipping the posters out to them today. The effort is mostly focused on California but also those places that haven't had a primary or caucas yet.

Have you had any contact with the Obama campaign?
Well, there was such a strong response to the image that his campaign was getting feedback. So they let me do that image under the radar, not associated with them but they now want another image for a poster they'd like to sell, to email blast out and use for more sanctioned purposes. So I'm going to do that. I feel really strongly about this and I actually wish his campaign would've reached out to me sooner. I was chomping at the bit to do something but I didn't want to do anything that they might think would be wrong for their strategy. But so far, a lot of people have picked up on it online, which is exciting, but I'm not doing it to get cool magazines and websites to say it's cool.

Your work has had political overtones before—depictions of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Bush and others -- how important is it for artists to comment on politics with their work?
I don't think the artist has a job to comment on politics but my favorite art has something provocative about it and communication that has a point of view. I think it's important for art to have a point of view. Every artist has a different agenda. For me, I like to make things that look nice but I also like to get across my point of view on other topics. All I'm achieving with my art is the satisfaction of various aspects of my personality that need to be satisfied for me to be happy. With street art, there is this "medium is the message" principal, that it's an act of defiance and rebellious in nature and that politicizes it. But that doesn't mean a street artist should just assume that whatever they're doing is groundbreaking and political because it's on the street. I think there's a lot of people doing street art that is pretty meaningless and just about fame. And I've been accused of that, "Oh he's just a good self-promoter" and that's always an aspect of street art. My favorite artist is Banksy, and you can see a similarity in our approaches. I like work that looks nice but has a point of view and a sense of humor.

I think what makes something art is that there's something that makes it enjoyable to look at regardless of the political content of it. I don't believe in the political content of the posters done under Mao or the early Soviet constructivists stuff but it's still really great to look at. It's got to be engaging aesthetically and if it has a point of view, that's even better. Some in the art world have said that artists should be first-rate artists not second-rate social commentators. And I don't think the two should be mutually exclusive.


There's a parallel there with music, in terms of political content and art.
Yeah, well I've always liked bands like The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and even Bob Dylan. You can have great music that says something. Not that it's a must for music or art to say something politically for me to like it but if it's got both, that's the ideal.
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