Street Art is a highly controversial form of art in today’s world, yet can be related to art from Roman times. More specifically, triumphal arches commemorating and depicting achievements of the Roman Emperor. In other words triumphal arches severed as a form of propaganda much like some Street Art. Both forms of art are found outside in public places so it makes sense that they can serve as an artistic form of propaganda. Street Art is more than bright colors sprayed on a wall, meaning often lies within the images; it can be very influential and a great way to express political beliefs that cannot be ignored.
Shepard Fairey is probably one of the first artists that comes to mind, when thinking about politics and Street Art. He is responsible for the red, white, and blue image of Barack Obama with ‘hope’ written across the bottom. The image was everywhere: on posters, stickers, and even T-shirts. Thousands of people went to Fairey’s website to download the Obama image and use it for their own sites.[i] President Obama even wrote to Fairey: “your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I am privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support.”[ii] How popular Fairey’s Hope became might have come as a welcomed surprise, but that Hope became popular was inevitable. Fairey funded 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters to be printed and distributed.[iii]
Fairey learned how effective well-placed stickers could be with his first image of Andre the Giants face accompanied by the slogan, “Andre the Giant has a posse.” The town paper and civic establishment gave their attention to the stickers, which only encouraged more stickers to be made, then larger stickers, and so on.[iv] Andre the Giant turned into a franchise graffiti operation as propagandists would send for a pile of stickers or print their own and put them up in their towns overnight.[v] Fairey’s Original Andre Artwork was just a starting point, which would eventually evolve into his Obey Icon Pole, a stylize close-up, cropped version of Andre the Giant’s face accompanied by the word ‘obey.’[vi] Fairey was initially inspire by John Carpenters film They Live in which a former pro wrestler acts as an unemployed construction worker who discovers a totalitarian regime controlling human lives with the help of a pair of sunglasses.[vii] Fairey designed Obey Icon Pole in 2000, right around the time President Bush was coming in to office and Rudy Guiliani’s zero-tolerance, clean-up the streets campaign. Fairey felt that under Bush’s regime people were supposed to obey without question, that his regime reduced U.S. civil liberties.[viii]
During George W. Bush’s presidency, Fairey turned to making art that expressed his opposition to war. He designed Greetings from Iraq, which says, “Enjoy a cheap holiday in other peoples misery,” 2007. Fairey’s iconic figure with a gas mask made its appearance.[ix] Fairey began pairing images of war and commercialism with an intricate star pattern. By no accident, the tiled star pattern took on an Islamic appearance.[x] Fairey put fangs on an image of President Bush as if President Bush is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and guess who the sheep would be? In Fairey’s mind, the sheep would be every U.S. citizen. Fairey, clearly unhappy with the Bush administration, said that Street Art was meant to be made in anger, as an act of rebellion.[xi] Fairey’s earlier work easily supports his statement, as well as most other Street Artist’s art dealing with politics. Hope set Fairey apart from other Street Artists because it supported Obama. However, Hope goes against the idea that Street Art is only about rebellion and must be done in anger, in a sense Fairey is still acting as a nonconformist.
Unfortunately for Fairey, Hope might be supportive in nature but it brought the authorities down on him for copyright infringement. Mannie Garcia took a photograph of Obama and George Clooney while working freelance in Darfur in 2006. Fairey used this photograph to depict a successful presidential campaign, but because Garcia was working freelance at the time he took the photograph, the rights to the photograph belonged to Garcia alone. Initially the Associated Press made the threat to sue Fairey, but could not because the rights to the photograph did not belong to them. Garcia could still press charges though. Fairey openly admitted using the photograph that was like some many other photographs of Obama: iconic and generic.[xii] It is both scary and saddening to think that someone like Fairey, who encourages people to use his images, should be punished for using a photograph and changing it to make it their own. The lawsuit against Fairey corroborates any ideas of the authoritative nature of our society. Fairey will not be backing any presidential candidate for the 2012 election, but he will be building a body of work that focuses on former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan.[xiii]
Ultimately Shepard Fairey wants to reach people, express ideas shared by many people in our nation. Street Art is just one way that Fairey uses to accomplish his goal, but it is a way that is nearly impossible to avoid. Fairey has a very commercial approach to Street Art. Other Street Artists take a less commercial approach, but reach influential levels equal to or greater than Fairey. Bansky, for instance, is the most well known Street Artist but takes a much less commercial approach to Street Art and manages to get his political beliefs across to the public just as easily.
[i] Martha Lufkin, 2011. "Fairey and Associated Press settle on Hope." Art Newspaper 20, no. 221: 5. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed September 28, 2012).
[ii] Eleanor Mathieson and Xavier A. Tapies, Street Artists: The Complete Guide (London: Graffito, 2012), 91.
[iv] Martha Lufkin.
[vi] Ivan Gaskell, 2009. "Shepard Fairey." Artus no. 26: 42-43. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed September 30, 2012).
[vii] Martha Lufkin.
[viii] Eleanor Mathieson and Xavier A. Tapies, (91).
[ix] Ibid. 90.
[x] Ibid. 91.
[xi] Martha Lufkin
[xii] Lisa Cartwright, and Stephen Mandiberg. 2009. "Obama and Shepard Fairey: The Copy and Political Iconography in the Age of the Demake." Journal Of Visual Culture 8, no. 2: 172-176. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed September 30, 2012).
[xiii] Anny Shaw. 2011. "Stick 'em up: Shepard Fairey's poster art." Art Newspaper 20, no. 226: 66. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed September 30, 2012).