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Shepard Fairey Interview

Written by Manual Bello   
Tuesday, 14 August 2007 07:49
I don't think Shepard needs an intro... If so, you've been living under a log for the last 10 years... Our East Coast correspondent Manual Bello brings us a great interview with this art legend.

Back in the mid 80's there was a skateboard subculture growing fueled by punk rock, grimy skate magazines, and the youth who participated in it. Shepard Fairey was among them. For some it was a passing phase that lasted a year or two, for Shepard it became culture. He has moved from the early underground world of skateboarding and punk rock into the lowbrow counter culture world of propaganda street art and beyond. In his mid 30's Shepard Fairey is still holding true to his core punk rock values while applying it to his own street art campains, gallery shows and various other international art causes around the world. With dark undertones of pop culture irony, and underlining hints of hope and prosperity. You can not deny the timelessness of his work and the message behind it. Shepard Fairey is more than just an artist, he is also an activist and something tells me he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Especially with this show in London at the Stolen Space Gallery he has in the works.

//Click images for larger versions.
//Click images for larger versions.
Manuel: So Shepard, first off tell me how did a kid with a father who was a football captain, and mother who was the head cheerleader grow up to be a dirty skate punk?

Shepard: (laughs) I grew up in South Carolina and around 1983 a bunch of my friends got skateboards. In Charleston, surfing was in and skateboarding was becoming more in the peripheral of that. I think people were just starting to get skateboards as toys with the trend. None of them took it too seriously. I was like "ah, I'm not going to get in on that. It's just dumb." Until a friend left his board over at my house and I just started tick tacking around and really enjoyed it. Prior to that I had really been into tennis and football and soccer and all the usual sports. I hated having to always have someone to go play these sports with, and when I started skateboarding it was just something that I could totally just go do by myself. It was totally creative, and it was like "fuck having to call people." Then for my 14th birthday February 14th, 1984 I got a skateboard. My mom would not out-rite buy me a skateboard, but she said if I paid for half she would pay for the other half. My parents thought skateboards were for hoodlums and I guess they were right. So that day I drove out to the surf shop and it was the same day they had got Skate Visions', the very first Vision Skate video. With the soundtrack by Agent Orange playing in the shop as I was picking out my board. It really made me want to skate more because of all these tricks I had never seen. Plus with the punk rock sound track. I was like oh, and I gotta get all the music too. So pretty much in that one day the rest of my life was starting to take form. Which is pretty crazy, right? If my friend had not left his skateboard at my house I probably would not be the person I am today.

Manuel: How do you think skateboarding and punk rock influenced you in the art sense?

Shepard: From that day on, skateboarding and punk rock became all I cared about, and my parents hated it. I once broke into the school to get into a friend's locker because he said he had a Thrasher Magazine in there. It was a huge influence all around. It was not some huge thing back then the way it is today, so if you managed to get your hands on Sex Pistols tape or Black Flag or whatever, you really had to work for it, and you really took a lot of pride in it. Plus skateboarding in the mid 80's was super do it yourself. That was what got me into making t-shirts and screen printing. At first I just cut stencils and spray painted shirts. Then I realized my art teacher had a real primitive screen print rig in the back room that no one was using. Then I started screen printing some shirts for myself and couple extra for friends. You could see that in a short time in 1984-1985 my whole career was beginning to form based on that stuff.

Manuel: I am a few years younger than you but I went through that whole skateboarding revolution period of 1 inch noses on boards to the big companies like Powell Peralta and Vision giving way to the new school companies like the original Blind, Plan B, & H-Street, all those, so I know that mold you are speaking of.

Shepard: Yeah, that was the time when skateboarding was really exciting. The creativity and progression was with every new magazine and video that came out. There was just all this amazing stuff happening. I do think it was a revolutionary time in that culture. I still think skateboarding is great but it's become saturated.

Manuel: I know that Vision Skateboards was among one of your first skate influences. Then in the early 90's with the street skating revolution coming into power and the vert scene losing its momentum Mark Gator Ragowski / Anthony fell off and Vision basically imploded. Then in 2003 Helen Schickler did the movie Stoked capturing that time and the events that led to the fall of Gator. What was it like for you personally to be involved with the branding of that movie and to be able to do the artwork associated with that documentary.

Shepard: I had mentioned that Vision video earlier and Gator was the star of that video. So yeah, I totally worshiped Gator in the 80's then as Vision started becoming more dorky I moved onto other stuff. But when he killed the girl, got arrested and went to jail and everything, that was a pretty crazy thing to happen in skateboarding. That whole thing was sad, but it was also something that the whole skateboard industry kinda tried to sweep under the rug because it made skateboarding look bad. What is interesting is I had actually done a graphic in 1993 of the original Gator graphic with the spiral swirl and it had Obey in Gator type and had the Andre the Giant face super imposed into the spiral. Then in early 1995 Helen did a documentary on my work and I had that stuff in my studio which she asked about. She had heard a little about the Gator story and she was really interested. She began to research it and actually worked on it for the next seven years. She really put a lot into this film and I don't think that anyone had ever really come close to scraping the surface compared to what she was able to achieve with that. So it was amazing to know that I partially catalyzed her interest in that. When I was doing the art I did in the style of that time and what I was surrounded by and super excited by in those times, it was cool, pretty surreal actually.

Manuel: I know you grew up in South Carolina and then eventually went to art school in Rhode Island . What was it that eventually led you to southern California?

Shepard: Pretty much what we have been talking about. I was always really into what was going on in the skateboard industry and living in South Carolina and Rhode Island I was pretty far removed from what was really going on. When in Rhode Island I was working for a company called Jobless Antiwork Wear doing some t-shirt graphics . Everyone there was telling me you can't really make it in skateboarding unless you are out in California because at that time that was just where everything was happening. Then I became friends with Andy Howell, I know you know who that is. He said "Hey man if you're really that frustrated with Rhode Island then why don't you just come out here." I jumped at the opportunity to not only work with someone who was one of my idols being an artist and designer, but also to live in the heart of where that culture was. I had done a lot of bombing along the east-coast and I also thought it would be exciting to go to California and have a new area to hit up. I had spent some time in San Francisco and really like it, spent some time in San Diego and eventually ended up in LA. I love it in LA, the weather is great and there is a lot going on. But it was basically skateboarding culture that brought me out here.

Manuel: Being an activist to some degree and being very aware of consumerism and consumption do you ever feel inner conflict when taking on projects for some larger movie studios, record labels, and whatever other corporate giants may approach you about taking on a project?

Shepard: The only thing that I feel uncomfortable with is people's assumptions about it. I hear these rumors like "Oh, he did a job for Mountain Dew and made a million dollars". Which is complete bullshit. It's really funny how people exaggerate shit. One thing I will not do is take a job from someone who I have a ethical conflict with. Hummer had offered me work, Camel Cigarettes had offered me tons of other shit that I turn down because I don't agree with it. Then there is also the other stuff that I think about. The money I can get from this job or project far out ways boycotting the it, especially when there is tons of other designers lined up to take it. I am not going to be able to stop people from drinking caffeinated beverages. But if I take the money I can fund all these other projects that I want to do like: the street art campaign that costs money, the gallery that I have out here in LA that loses money, Swindle that loses money but is definitely dealing with art and politics, and other aspects of culture that I want to put the spot light on. So for me, even though I would like to get people to consume with discretion and heighten their awareness of all the manipulations of capitalism, I am not anti- capitalist, there is a big distinction there. The sad thing is that there are so many people out there making everything really black and white, like: "Oh' it's whack to do things for corporations", when in reality they are sitting there working for some company, working for the same system, and not even on their own terms. That is the difference, I do everything on my own terms so I have a lot more control. Am I going to be victimized by capitalism or am I going to use it to my advantage. These are a lot of subtleties, but there will always be the guy who is like: "Ahh man, that ain't keeping it real!" Meanwhile they are still collecting checks from their parents every month while drifting through college. The real world means that you are going to have to live with the forces of capitalism (at least in this country) so I just try to do it in the most constructive way I can. Like I said, I turned down a lot of things because I either don't support them and it would just take away from the art projects I would rather be doing. I am sure you can understand being an artist and designer yourself. Some projects are too good to pass up. The Smashing Pumpkins just asked me to do their new album cover. When I dig the band and agree what the message they're putting out there. Especially with this record which is perfectly aligned with my politics. Why wouldn't I do it? It's an awesome opportunity.

Manuel: I remember in about 1995. I bought a 7" record that contained a Andre the giant has a posse" sticker in it, which was when I first noticed your stuff. Then a couple years later I saw this Mtv add with this subway entrance out in some random spot, a park or something leading to know where almost with this dreamy like feel to the commercial. And there was this massive OBEY post on the subway sign. How did the subway Mtv ad come to be, was it just random?

Shepard: Well, on the 7" thing, I always sort of circulated my stickers in the punk underground. A lot of bands would tell me about a record they were putting out, so I would print out a couple thousand stickers to give them to put in records. Yeah, it cost me money, but I knew they were going to cool people. That has sorta been my philosophy even on the most grass roots level. Then the Mtv thing happened and I was in New York for a show and a guy that worked for Mtv said: "hey can we go and film you putting up posters and run it as a bumper on Mtv". People pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get there stuff exposed on Mtv. So this guys is offering it free to me, but the thing was I did not really want to be in it. So I was like: "Listen, here is some posters. You guys can just do what you want with them." So they did. They went and filmed a little spot by themselves and just ran it. That was a crazy at that time and a really big kudo for me to have people in Kansas saying "what the fuck is that image?" Once again, there was the backlash from the "keep it real" kids who are like "he sold out to Mtv". I didn't get a dime from Mtv and they did not get a dime from me. No money changed hands. It was just some guys who worked at Mtv that thought it was a cool image and wanted to use it and I was ok with that. I mean for me it was always about the project and getting it out to as many places as possible and for me that was really awesome exposure and I can see you have paying attention for a while.

Manuel: I remember a few things from way back, what I just mentioned and then there was this particular time driving maybe mid 90's thru Arizona and spotting another huge poster that was at least 50 miles from the closest town, not knowing of you, just knowing that image, which leads to my next question. During that time were you sending out posters and other Obey campaign propaganda stuff to get the message out and the shit up?

Shepard: I have always tried to be good about getting stuff out there. Anybody that wrote and wanted stickers and stuff I would send them stuff. Part of what I was always doing was making t-shirt and selling posters just so I could fund all the shit I was giving away for free. Whether I was putting it up or a friend or people that I did not even know. I am an optimist, so if someone is liking what I am doing then I will send them stuff. That end of it is actually cool and in many cases they put it up. They might even learn something from it and put their own ideas to play with some of the ideas that I have learned over the years and maybe accelerate someone's learning curve. I am really excited about that. My spirit is still total punk rock, do it yourself and will be no matter how big this may get.

Manuel: I know pop culture is a huge influence in your work but in the past I have heard you reference some well-known graffiti artists like ESPO, and Futura. my question is how much has graffiti influenced you over the years?

Shepard: Well, graffiti really influenced me a lot in the beginning just by being out there and seeing the lengths some people would go to get their art out there. And just seeing a guy like Revs (for example) who could do so much in a city like New York. Then you start to say to yourself "it's possible". Seeing the level that they bring it to with graffiti is just amazing and to get your work out there and get it seen without having to wait for a phone call from a gallery to show your stuff. On the streets, there is no bureaucracy, I could just do what I wanted to do and get my work out there.

Manuel: You have been compared to the late Andy Warhol, what are your thoughts on this and how much of an influence would you say Warhol has had on your work.

Shepard: Ya know, I like Warhol a lot and I am always flattered when I am compared to him and there is really only one Warhol. What he did, he did at a specific time and it shook up the art world because of when it was done. And now, doing pop art items is not really that revolutionary because Warhol already did it. If anything, I would just want to be build on what Warhol was doing. Taking it just a step further and rather than just letting the art community see the art, let everyone see it, everyone can now have an opinion on art by seeing it on the streets. I think a lot of people are intimidated by art but street canvases if you will, are much less intimidating. So what I would hope in some way is that I am just expanding on what he did.

Manuel: Johnny Cash once said he wears black because the world is black. How much blacker do you feel our world has become in the last seven years or so?

Shepard: Well, I wear a lot of black too, but it's because my hands are dirty and it hides the dirt. I love Johnny Cash, I did the poster for Walk the Line. But the world has always had problems. We collectively as human beings make the same mistakes over and over. I think that even though people do make the same mistakes again and again, there is always that possibility for change. Create good and counter act some of the bad. That is what I am trying to do. I really feel like I have no choice and as an artist I am trying to communicate and might as well speak my mind through my art.

Manuel: Right now there are a lot of splashed pastes around the NYC area, and there has been a particular one on spring street that I have seen for a couple years pretty regularly. Then a couple months back it was splashed along with many others. What are your thought on the splasher?

Shepard: Apparently there is someone going around splashing all the street art they don't like and leaving a little manifesto "Art is excrement of action with its evil blab blah blah, bullshit..." I don't have it in front of me. I am paraphrasing, but to me it is just somebody who is maybe a failed artist that knows enough art jargon experience to go out and do something that dis.'s people that have made a real genuine effort to get their work out there. To me it is just purely destructive. There is nothing positive about it at all. At the same time that is how graffiti has always been. Usually with someone who had some other beef with you for some other reason either real or manufactured. Making street art, you are dealing with the worst side of all the elements. Building owners who don't want the stuff on there. City worker that want to clean it. Cops that want to arrest you. Other artists want to deface it (because they are jealous). Everything points to it as being a bad thing to take up. However, I stick with it. I do it anyway because I still do see a lot of possative sides to it. If the splasher is doing shit or not I am going to keep doing it. It took them months to splash everything I did in a few nights and they still have not got to many of the pieces. I am clearly more motivated than they are. (laughs)

Manuel: How much public space are claiming these days?

Shepard: I am still bombing, but have not been bombing that much in LA lately getting ready and working overtime preparing for gallery shows. I was out in San Francisco a couple months ago, through some stuff up there, and New York. I am still really active but I don't have as much free-time as I used to. I am still getting out there and I think with as much shit I am doing in other area I am still up a lot more than some of these kids who should really be crushing it. I just try to make the most of my time with everything. Making time for the street, the magazine, clothing and everything else that comes along. Just trying to rock it all. You only live once.

Manuel: Well Shepard this is the end of the line, do you have any famous last words?

Shepard: Measure twice, cut once.

Thanks to: Shepard Fairey, Dan Flores, Debra Anderson, & the Jonathan Levine Gallery
Photos: Manuel Bello, Dan Flores, and Kyle Oldoerp.

Interview conducted by our NYC correspondent, Manuel Bello. {moscomment}

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