2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the career of iconic American artist Shepard Fairey. It started with a random sticker design he made as a 19-year old art student. Based on a portrait of the wrestler André the Giant, it quickly went, as we would say now, trending. Today, Fairey is considered a major figure in the urban art movement, constantly questioning and highlighting critical issues such as oppression. The comprehensive Shephard Fairey London exhibition Facing the Giant, that took place in two galleries in Shoreditch last month, celebrated these ‘three decades of dissent’. While the exhibition is officially over, you can still see a small selection of artworks at StolenSpace Gallery till 1 December 2019.
In this post I’m sharing a selection of my photos of this impressive exhibition and some of the recent Shepard Fairey street artworks in London.
From OBEY to HOPE
In the three photos below you can see how Shepard Fairey’s image of André the Giant evolved over time. You can see the first famous design in the first below. It’s actually the small white square, not the entire framed images.
These following designs were made a few years later after the first design’s overwhelming success. Shepard wanted to return to his well-received sticker campaign, but wanted to change the black and white design. The two posters on the left, Obey Andre (1989) and Psychedelic Andre (1993) reflect Fairey’s incorporation of Op art (optical art) in his works and also his fascination with the psychedelic posters from the 1960s.
In this final photo you can see Fairey’s most common depiction of André in his works today: severely cropped, placed in a star-shaped border and accompanied by the caption OBEY. Fairey adopted this phrase from the 1988 John Carpenter film They Live, which coincidentally features wrestler Roddy Piper.
Over the years, Fairey’s style is characterised by bold colours, symmetric shapes, op art elements and flower motives. His works are often politically driven, criticising world events, but also still remaining focussed on portrait of celebrities. You can see a few of these in the photo above, such as Patti Smith (bottom right) and George Harrison (top row, second from the right).
However, chances are you would’ve seen Fairey’s most famous design he’s ever made, without realising who the artist behind the work was. I’m talking about the 2008 Obama campaign poster, featuring the former president in unusual colours and adding the powerful caption ‘Hope’ underneath.
Shepard Fairey London exhibition spread across two galleries
As I mentioned earlier, the recent Shepard Fairey exhibition in London was spread across two galleries in Shoreditch, East London. One was StolenSpace Gallery, an urban art gallery I frequent on a regular basis.
The second gallery was a strange one as it was actually based in the former home and studio of two of hubby’s artist friends. You can see the building in the photo at the top of this post. Considering they moved in at a time when Shoreditch was far from today’s trendy neighbourhood and they struggled to make ends meet, it was a strange realisation, it has now become the ‘The Beats By Dr Dre Residency’.
However, the space lent itself perfectly for the Shepard Fairey exhibition and as a great special bonus visitors of the ‘Beats’ gallery received a special booklet with photos and text about the works.
From stickers to collages
Shepard Fairey’s work has changed drastically from those first crude black and white stickers. Not only does he use bold colours, predominantly red, but his works are also often intricate collages. He’ll either use strokes of patterned paper or torn out newspaper headlines, that are chosen and placed very strategically.
Look at the poster on the left underneath for example. There we see ’emerging from underneath the torn headlines that narrate the ongoing debate over immigration and the struggle to define the American Dream, accents of red help to visually accentuate [the female’s] position and emphasis her as a noble and dynamic persona that is often under-presented in mass media coverage’. (source: exhibition notes)
From the gallery to the street
Besides these two gallery shows, Shepard Fairey also left behind some street art around the area. You can find the paste-up in the photo on the left below on Bethnal Green Road, parallel to the building you see at the top of this post. The mural on the right, a colourful portrait of André the Giant with the word OBEY on his forehead, can be found on the Old Truman Brewery. There seems to be another recent Shepard Fairey mural around just slightly further East on Mare Street in Hackney.
Having made his name based on his often heavily politicised street art – Fairey’s been arrested over a dozen times for this – he’s been accused of being a ‘sell out’. On the one hand his street artworks would critique capitalism and conflicts. But on the other hand he runs a commercial design studio.
It’s a tricky one. I don’t fully know what campaigns Fairey’s company works on and if they would follow his ideals as reflected in his street artworks. I have read that he donates generous sums to charity. But in the end, I see it as a positive thing that his artworks appeals to such a broad audience, creating awareness for issues bigger than us.
Shepard Fairey isn’t alone in this approach. There’s clearly a fine line between street art and commercial work. What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx