The 2009 Creativity 50: Shepard Fairey

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Shepard Fairey
Shepard Fairey
The debate about the line between art and commerce is an old one, but has become increasingly relevant as more and more artists look for creative outlets and brands increasingly recognize the value of these associations. For many, Shepard Fairey embodies this duality more than any other contemporary artist. From a clothing line sold at small boutiques and major department chains to a solo fine art show at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art that opened in February, Fairey's work resides firmly on both sides of the line.

But, like many Americans, much of Fairey's 2008 was taken up by then President-elect Barack Obama. What started as a small poster campaign to raise awareness for the Illinois senator's primary run snowballed into a ubiquitous iconic image that would follow the candidate right to his swearing in, in the form of the official inauguration poster.

"It started off like just about everything I do, in that I did a poster because I care about something and wanted to let people know my stance," says Fairey, who donated all proceeds from the posters to the Obama campaign. "At the time I had no idea Obama would even be the nominee, much less president. I cared about it a lot but I didn't have any idea it would actually happen nor did I foresee the image becoming what it became. I'm happy about it, I always think it's important to know when it's time to step up and seize an opportunity."

The exposure from the poster, thanks in no small part to Time magazine's record-setting sales of its "Person of the Year" Obama issue and the original poster image being put in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection, has gained Fairey a following outside his underground audience. "It's been a great year because the outcome's been so positive," he says. "It's introduced my work to a lot more people, but that's really just a side benefit. My primary goal was just to bring Obama to more people's attention."

Fairey on the Obama poster's success: "(I hope) people see that you don't have to be connected or be some power broker to infiltrate and create opportunities for yourself. The transition for me from $4/hour skateshop job and doing street art to where I am now is a journey that many people wouldn't think possible. Also, it's not like I had to switch teams to get here. I'm still out doing street art but I'm also able to navigate the bureaucracy of the mainstream. It's an example of being able to do things your own way but still managing to do it on a national level, in this case for the leader of the free world."

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