Boston In a thank-you note written by Barack Obama to street artist Shepard Fairey for the pictorial provocateur’s singular contribution to branding his campaign for the presidency, the then senator wrote: “The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe that they can help change the status-quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign.”1
High praise indeed from such a highly regarded public figure. But what it ultimately says—that there is a cultural equivalence between fine art shown in established venues and artistic expressions put up illegally on private or government property—represents a tacit sanction of street art from the leader of the free world that is a dramatic shift in the perceived role of art as a radical tool of social intervention.
Emblazoned in our collective mind’s eye as a defining icon of optimism and change, Fairey’s Obama Hope poster, certainly one of his most endearing and personable images, is such a signature work that the original collage was recently acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and related images graced the covers of Time and Esquire. It is, however, not a fleeting pop-culture sensation but simply the latest crossover hit in a long line of underground classics.
Fairey has made such an indelible mark on our visual landscape that it is difficult to avoid the platitudes we might otherwise eschew in the discourse of contemporary art. As he comes under greater scrutiny from the art establishment with a major retrospective of his work, now on view at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, it is worth noting that his renown has grown organically from the streets and a global youth culture that the mainstream art world has only a vague grasp of.
Fairey’s first foray into the deviant art of public interventions began in 1989, while he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a sloppy Xerox appropriation of a pro wrestler’s visage bearing the slogan “Andre the Giant has a Posse.” Intended as a homemade study of the semiotics of youth-branding and skate culture that was being co-opted by corporations, the project worked as a sticker campaign that in the end advertised nothing. Hooking the viewer with a come-on but never delivering a product, it became a phenomenally widespread inside joke that traveled around the world like some viral meme.
It may be tempting to describe Fairey’s Obama icon as the product of a very capable designer who has done exceptionally well with some standout commercial work, including the movie poster for the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, a bold graphic rebranding of Led Zeppelin when the band was becoming the last of the classic rock pantheon to submit to digitization, and the current spring marketing campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue involving Soviet-style graphics on shopping bags and promotional material. Ironically, Fairey’s designs, which are often esthetic flirtations with the propaganda graphics and exhortations of communist Russia, China and Cuba, are in much demand in the corporate world, where he is given high-profile authorship rarely accorded commercial artists. But his recent status as a hot commodity in the commercial world and as a media darling (including his Jan. 15 appearance on the suitably irreverent “Colbert Report”) is incidental to his creative agenda. The success of his Hope personification is not just about design savvy; it is rooted in the artist’s uncanny ability to create visually dominating images—a capacity he gained with Andre but fully manifested with his epic and ongoing Obey street project, one of the best known and most beloved uncommissioned public art spectacles.