An Interview with the Artist
Sean Hartman: Hi Shepard, thank you for taking the time out to speak with me.
Shepard Fairey: No problem.
I’m a big fan and it’s an honor and a privilege to be speaking with you.
Last Summer you had a show at the Jonathan Levine gallery, E Pluribus Venom, and the show consisted of a large and varying amount of pieces. What kind of work went into putting together a show of that size and scale, and was it difficult to prepare and finish everything on deadline?
Yeah, that show was extremely stressful because I hadn’t done a big show in New York in a while and I wanted to do a really, really strong show, but I also stay super busy with doing graphic design, and my clothing line, and Swindle magazine and you know hitting the streets with art and DJing and all sorts of other stuff, so that show was something where I had to pretty much put aside as much of that other stuff as possible so that I could really focus on just the show. I also had eye surgery about three months before the show and I didn’t have vision in one eye for a little while. Then during the show, I had a bleed in my other eye and had to get another surgery right after that.
But, you know it all worked out, and the way I work I’m always making posters but then when I go to make the fine art pieces I take the image I’ve made for a poster and I make stencils and I do these intricate collages and do one of a kind stencil/collage mixed me-dia pieces on canvas or paper. Those are pretty time consuming but luckily my assistant Jason Philippo was extremely helpful and I had some other guys in my office that were helping me cut stencils that where once I decided exactly what I was doing I could create a little bit of an assembly line, so I didn’t have to do every nitty-gritty aspect of cutting stencils and putting base layer of collage down on pieces and stuff like that, I was, of course, hands on in everything, but I had one full time assistant and a couple of other people that helped out, so unlike some artists that might be doing a painting with a brush and they’re the only one that can paint it. I could make some aspects a bit more expeditious by using screen printing and having other people help out with the stencil cutting and some of the other stuff. The most difficult part is just coming up with ideas and some of the work, like those money pieces, there were hundreds of hours of work in each side of the money just by itself.
I’m sure, yeah.
You know, some people were interpreting the show in a really lazy way were like, “no big deal, he just scanned some shit from money books or whatever and just put it in there.” It was all built from scratch there was nothing just scanned and placed into the file.
You could tell, I even noticed that some of those pieces incorporated the Andre the Giant mark into the ornate patterns and embellishments and some elements that you’ve used prominently in the past were intricately woven and embedded into details that were ob-viously hand made.
Right, exactly. So, yeah it was really time consuming. And when we got to New York, I took five people out there with me, and we worked 18 hours days... all 5 of us. Working in the gallery, putting stuff up in the street, just getting ready for the show. So we spent 2 weeks really working diligently on the show and so it was a collective effort. We brought all the materials out to do the installations, but once we got there, we found that there was still a lot of stuff we had to paste down, cut up, paint in.... so it was me and four other people working long days to make all that stuff happen. I couldn’t have done it all by myself. It made a really big difference to have excellent people helping me.
How do you find or select the assistants that you work with?
well, my assistant that just recently resigned, Jason, had been working with me for 4 years– he and used to cut stencils together in High School. We went way way back. He worked for me as a designer and then transitioned into more of an art assistant because he really loved the direction my work was going and said he wanted to help. Because he’s a big fan of Rauschenberg, he loves collage and stencil art - he was chosen because he understood my aesthetic and he had the desire and the drive to really learn every as-pect of it from me and work side by side with me. Other people have been interns or employees and they haven’t seemed to have a natural inclination towards the kind of things I was doing and took to it. It’s not something that everybody... you know stencil cutting is tedious and it takes people with a certain amount of precision and patience to do it. Not everybody’s cut out for it... no pun intended
And then the collaging has a certain organic, layered feel that isn’t as easy to achieve as one would think. So I just work with people that are good at it. I have two assistants now... Nick and Z who are people who were really into screen printing and collage and spray paint prior to working with me, and were fans of my work. So they sort of helped out on a couple of things, I thought they were really good and I brought them in to help.
Did you hear the news of Rauschenberg passing away?
Yeah, I’m really bummed that Rauschenberg passed away. You know he was getting old and all, but I was a big fan of his and I’m sad to see him go.
Yeah, me too. It was really sad news. You mentioned how ornate, detailed and layered your art is getting... how has that evo-lution taken place and where do you see it going?
Well, I’m always trying to find a balance between stuff that’s bold enough to read from a distance but then also making it very seductive that you notice closer up. I don’t think that my work is going to change tremendously in that I still want to use recognizable symbols and imagery and have the work be figurative. But, I like that there’s a more subtle, haphazard, organic layering to a lot of it. And, I like the beauty of ornamentation and patterns and things like that. So I think that element will probably remain, but if anything the direction where my work is going, is that not all the fine art is going to be based on a resolved sort of poster format. Because I can design posters that take into account the edges of the frame and feel like a solid poster pretty easily now. It’s some-thing that I have so much practice at that it’s not much of a challenge, but I want to try a little more experimentation with my fine art where I’m not really trying to create a to-tally pre-planned, precise plane where I’ve got my iconography that I want to use. It’s going to have a little bit more of that Warhol or Rauschenberg like place the screen on the fly and create happy accidents, and if you don’t like it, you just collage over it and start over again. Rather than “this is going to look just like a poster, but be a fine art piece at the same time.” I think I’ve pushed that just about as far as I can take it with my technical level of skill, you know? I can’t see just doing that for everything because this past year I worked really hard resolving the direction my work had been going for sev-eral years and I feel like there’s not much further that I can push that approach. So I’m just going to get a bit more experimental and allow happy accidents to happen and then maybe have that lead the way a piece goes.
We’ve discussed your fine art and you’ve mentioned there’s a distinction between your fine art and your design, what is the process when you’re working on a corporate client job and how that process differ when approaching a fine art piece?
Well, you know it depends. On the corporate jobs if I don’t want my fine art aesthetic to be associated with that client then I don’t even work in the style I’m known for as a fine artist. More recently, instead of doing stuff and not doing them in my fine art style, I’ve just been not doing it. The main thing with doing corporate work is that you’re satisfy-ing someone else’s agenda. So, it depends on what the client wants. Sometimes there’s a job that’s absolutely symbiotic where it’s’ just a fine art piece of mine that serving a commercial function, like the Johnny Cash Walk the Line poster...
Or you know, I did the Led Zeppelin album packaging recently, I’m doing Billy Idol’s Greatest Hits packaging... I mean those are people that I want to make art for in the style I do my fine art in. If the record label or the band approves just what I’d be making as a fine art piece anyway, which has happened, then there’s really no difference aes-thetically between what I’m doing for then and what I’d do for myself. In fact, I got the Johnny Cash job because I’d done a portrait of Johnny Cash as an art piece for a show and people from the film company saw it and were interested in having me do some-thing for the movie. I mean, the main difference between fine art and commercial art is that with fine art you are only satisfying your own interests, you do exactly what you want and that’s great. But, I think at this point in art history, post pop-art, there’s really not any aesthetic distinction between fine art and commercial art for the most part. It’s really more a philosophical distinction, that you’re doing fine art just for yourself.
Are you saying that at this point in your career that you wouldn’t take a commercial job, like the Mountain Dew rebrand, for instance?
Yeah, I’ve been turning jobs like that down recently because, really, I don’t need them. I used to need jobs like that just to survive, and there’d be people who’d say “Yo, my man’s paid and he had to make even more money” and it was really like, “You idiot, I’m not paid at all”. People are totally retarded, they think that notoriety equals money. No-toriety is just recognition, and potentially you might have some kind of cultural currency that could turn into money if you leverage it the right way. Nothing’s ever guaranteed, it’s not like every time eyes hit one of my posters on the street, or there’s an article about me, cha-ching I get a check in the mail, you know?
People are just dumb, but anyway, yeah I took jobs like that because I needed to do them and it’s not that I was philosophically opposed to those jobs, because I won’t do jobs that I’m philosophically opposed to. I’ve been asked to do jobs for cigarette compa-nies or Hummer and I’ve just said no. It’s like I don’t want to support what you’re do-ing, but if I have a choice and I’m making enough money, then I’d rather spend my time on my own art rather than Mountain Dew or Sprite or somebody like that.
Since you’re known for a specific, trademark style, did a lot of companies come to you asking for that style. And, if they did, do you think that hindered your creativity on that project?
It really depends upon whether or not it’s a style I want to do for a client. Sometimes I’ve told clients straight up, “if you try to use my ‘OBEY’ style for this, it’s not going to work for your product and it’s not going to be good for anybody, it’s not going to be good for me as an artist and it’s not the right fit for you as a client, but yes I think I can do something for you that will be really valuable and achieve what you want to achieve, just not using that aesthetic.” And, that’s when the clients either trust me, or they don’t trust me. Sometimes they’ve just heard about me and they’re like, “oh yeah, that OBEY guy, the kid’s like his stuff. That’s what we should do.” and they have no ability to adapt to a different strategy once you’ve explained why they shouldn’t do that. They just go “Ok, that’s fine if he won’t do that, we’ll just get somebody in house to try to rip him off.” They don’t literally say that, but they end up doing that... For me, when I’m working on commercial work, I’m mostly thinking about what benefits the client, because I believe that art and commerce need each other and if products can be marketed in creative ways that isn’t insulting to the consumer, then everybody wins. Selling products is what fuels the economy, what keeps people employed. It keeps things in motion, I have absolutely no problem with that. I have a problem with misrepresenting a product, marketing it in the wrong way, exploiting culture that they don’t intend to deal with in an authentic way. It’s like “oh, breakdancing is hot right now, let’s put breakdancing in our ad” when it’s an ad for like... toothpaste, you know what I mean? I tell people, “there’s no connec-tion there. Do something that you’ll be able to look back at in five years and it will still hold up, and you’ll be proud of it.”
Right, I remember back in the day, before the youth market was exploited to the extent that it has been, you know, they’d try and throw a skateboarder in an ad and he’d be wearing neon shorts and have a Valterra deck, and all the kids could see though it.
Yeah yeah... oh totally... that’s really funny. How old are you?
Yeah, yeah... so we’re not too far apart. I’m 38, so I’m totally... Valterra, that’s hilarious.
Back then I feel like you could see through their agenda. People at the ad agencies had no idea what they were doing in the youth market, and they would just be like “put a skater dude in there” and no one fell for it...
But now you’ve got people our age working the same job who are picking the music and the artists for campaigns and ads, and kids who are coming up today can’t differentiate between the authentic and exploitation...
I think that with the internet and the speed that information travels, and people’s ability to pick up trends... I saw a Pontiac ad the other night where the kid is dressed like a total Brooklyn or Downtown LA hipster and it’s a kind of weak car and they have it set up like... I do a Thursday night club and the cutting edge of the cutting edge kids come there, and you could’ve just snatched up one of the kids right out of our Thursday night and dropped him in this Pontiac Ad. Ten years ago, Pontiac would’ve styled the kid in fashion that was a year behind. It’s bad in that everything cycles through more quickly, but it’s good in that I don’t like how hipsters use fashion in some kind of code of superi-ority and so it’s interesting that fashion seems to have become even more meaningless. I’ve always felt that it was fairly meaningless, which may sound hypocritical as I own a clothing company. But, having a clothing company, we’re very lighthearted with the clothing that we do with the exception of some of the political content in the graphics. That doesn’t mean that we think we’re cool, it just means that we have a conscience.
Your visual style has always been overtly political in tone, and in recent times even more-so. Do you feel that it’s important to express your stance on world issues, and does that offer you catharsis or outlet for frustrations you might have for those issues?
Yeah, right now with what’s going on in Iraq and everything, I’m frustrated. And, I’ve felt like I didn’t have a choice but to put my ideas about things across in my art and in my T-Shirts and stuff. I’m hoping that Obama gets elected so that I can be a little bit less political. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with being political, but I’ve been political almost out of necessity. The country seemed to be operating out of fear and xenophobia, post 911, and the Bush propaganda machine was in full swing. I was like “wake the fuck up people!” You know? I’d rather be a little more balance in what I’m doing, in that some of the work be topical. I mean there are always going to be issues of abuse of authority and inequity between classes, and there’s always going to be political art no matter who’s president that I’ll want to make. I also enjoy making stuff that’s just referencing music I like or stuff I think is pretty, and it’s been very heavy on the political stuff because I felt like it needed to be. So, we’ll see. I just take it one day at a time and see what’s going on in the world. I mean, the ability to put your opinion across and have people like what the image is, is a pretty amazing communication tool. So, yes, it’s very cathartic, to answer your question.
I think that you’re in a pretty lucky position to possibly be able to exact change or at least incite thought and discussion about what’s going on in the world today. You have the ability to reach a large audience just through your art, and I think that’s a pretty cool position to be in.
Hell yeah. I’m super happy about what I’m able to do everyday. No doubt about that. I feel very lucky, however it has taken a lot of years of hard work to be able to reach the point where I am able to do this every day. So, yes I am fortunate, but it wasn’t like I just won the lottery... I put a lot of work in.
I’m going to ask you about your work ethic in a moment but, before we move on, I want to ask this question: Besides music, do you derive any inspiration from other artists or mediums? I think a lot of people know that I like Barry McGee’s work a lot... Twist... do you know who he is?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And, I like Banksy’s work a lot. And then there are older artists that I like a lot. Rodchenko who did a lot of Soviet Constructivist stuff. Barbara Krueger. Winston Smith who did the Dead Kennedys’ graphics. Jamie Reid who did the Sex Pistols’ graphics. There are a lot of different people who’s work I like that aren’t necessarily aesthetic in-fluences, but conceptual - and there are some that are aesthetic. I’m inspired by John VanHammersfeld who did a lot of psychedelic poster graphics and one of my earliest Obey Giant graphics was my knock of his iconic Hendrix graphic. My work is very much a melting pot of a lot of different influences.
Do you find yourself getting inspired by any specific music that you listen to?
Well, with music, it’s more the ideas than the aesthetic of what they did. Like, I love Black Flag and I love Raymond Pettibon’s work that he did for Black Flag, but my work doesn’t end up looking like his. I’ve done stuff that was referencing the Sex Pistols in-tentionally, because philosophically I have such a connection with the way they turned things upside down and the way they did things. Most of my work doesn’t have that Jaimie Reid cut and paste, ransom note vibe to it. If it does, it’s because I’m intention-ally paying homage to him. Public Enemy, I love the graphics they did. The target logo and stencil type and everything. The simplicity of that iconography is something that comes through in my work.
Music mostly affects me in that I get Ideas. I did a poster, “Greetings from Iraq”, that says “enjoy a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” which is a Sex Pistols lyric from Holidays in the Sun. I did the piece based on reinterpreting of a Yellowstone postcard that had the geyser Old Faithful, which when re-illustrated looks like an explosion. So, I made it the Iraqi desert and I felt that with the music reference the idea of postcard from Iraq is very different than the postcard from Yellowstone made the art piece that much stronger in its reference points.
What do you do when you hit the wall, in terms of creative block?
Hahaha... when I’m creatively blocked I go out and I drive around and look at what’s on the streets. I go to the wacko bookstore and I look through a zillion books, everything from old surfboard graphics and t-shirts to Mexican murals, you know just everything. There are a ton of things out there that will spark ideas that aren’t necessarily going to be obvious as the source of inspiration in what piece I come up with. Just anything that can get my brain firing. I definitely don’t just sit there and try to think of something, that rarely works. Sometimes I get an idea in the shower or while I’m lying in bed, just like anyone I guess. I get up and send myself an email or jot something down but you know a lot of times it’s stimulated visually. I’m very visual.
You’re incredibly busy between your art, running your clothing line, the Subliminal Pro-jects gallery, etc. How do you find that being so busy affects your creativity? Does it en-hance it or do you feel spread thin at times?
Well, on the one hand I do feel spread thin at times, but to go back to your previous question, one great thing is that if I’m ever getting creative block on one project I can just divert my energy into something else and usually by the time I’m done with that I’ve figured out how to deal with the other project’s creative block. So, it’s useful to be jug-gling things I think in that it just allows me to not have a break in the action just because I’m stuck on one thing. So, that works for me. Sometimes I do feel spread a bit thin, but I’m trying to maintain the best balance between quality and quantity possible and it’s definitely not always easy. I’d rather be too busy than not busy enough.
Besides DJing, does someone as busy as you are have time for any other hobbies?
Right now its mostly just hanging out with my family. I really enjoy hanging out with my wife and kids. Our daughter Vivienne, who’s almost three, is a real firecracker. She’s growin’ up quick and she’s got a lot of personality. When you’re interacting with your kid one on one, you really get to see your influence on how they look at things and it’s cool but also a lot of responsibility. I enjoy that, though. My wife and I also really like going out to see movies. I enjoy some stuff that’s really just escapist entertainment, be-cause usually I’m watching CNN and working on political art all the time. It gets a little heavy sometimes.
I’m sure it does. So, how has fatherhood changed you?
It’s changed me in that I’m thinking about things a little bit more long term than I used to. I used to think, “whatever I do today I may change tomorrow” and just wing it. I think now I’m looking a little more at bigger issues like global warming and the cost of education and thinking what kind of life are my kids going to have. Every generation has to deal with the mistakes of the previous so how can I be constructive about what I’m doing for their sake. Also, kids rely completely on you and that makes me think about the interdependence of family and what my parents did for me. It’s helping me be more of a well rounded, mature, positive member of society. I’m not saying that I’m some sort of upright citizen, I still think that I do most things in an unorthodox manner but it’s been good for me. It’s really broadened my perspective in a positive way.
In your segment in “Dithers”, you said bombing is very important to you. Is it still as important to you as it used to be?
It is still very important to me. There was a time when it was the only thing I cared about, so it’s not that important anymore. I just went out last Friday and did a really huge spot out in Venice. I still put stickers up every single day. It’s still important to me. And, you know, the idea of being able to function within they system and outside it, simultaneously, is extremely important to me.
How many times have you been arrested for bombing?
So, when you go out now, as a husband and father, do you have a different perspective on that aspect of bombing?
Well, I’m really careful. I’ve only been arrested once, no twice, since Vivienne was born. But it’s a real pain in the ass for my wife to have to deal with my being arrested when we have a kid. So, I’m very careful... that’s all I can really say. Every time you go bombing there’s always the chance you’ll get arrested there’s no way around that.
But that’s kind of your identity. A big part of Shepard Fairey is that aspect, the guy who goes out and bombs...
Yes, exactly. So, there’s no gettin’ around that. That’s part of who I am.
In your opinion, is there anything left to do in the art world? Or, will things continue to cycle and trend repeatedly?
I think that there will always be ways to put work out there that needs to be done. That doesn’t mean that it’s breaking new ground. Humans communicate in ways that aren’t that complicated. Like new or original might mean superfluous and inaccessible, you know what I mean?
There’s a really great Orwell quote where he says, “It’s the duty of intelligent men”... I’d say the duty of intelligent men or women, “to re-state the obvious.” What he means by that is that people make the same mistakes over and over again. It seems that we never learn from history. So, I think that for me, even if something was done 20 years ago and one percent of the population is going to say it’s redundant to do it again now, it may ac-tually really benefit everyone besides that one percent. I think that there’s always room for people to have fresh takes on old ideas.
What advice do you give to young artists or designers that are struggling to find their voice?
People need to trust their instincts. Especially now with blog culture, you know? Everyone, whether they deserve it or not, has an opinion. People are terrified of doing the wrong thing and they don’t have faith enough in their own judgement. I’m not saying that faith in your own judgement shouldn’t be backed up with your own research and analysis of what your doing, whichever endeavors you decide to pursue. If you feel passionately, and you feel like it’s what you should be doing, and someone else come along and says that’s stupid and it’s been done before, you should do this... fuck them. You’re gonna be good at what you feel good about. You’ll resent not doing what you wanted to do if you changed your course for somebody else’s opinion. If you change your course for somebody else’s opinion, it’s probably not going to be as good as what you would have done anyway. My thing is just to tell people to stick to their passions, beliefs and gut instincts and eventually things will probably work out.
Sean Hartman is a founding partner with the Orlando based interactive firm, squareFACTOR. Sean graduated from California State University Fullerton in 1999, where he studied visual communication, graphic design, photography and advertising. Having grown up in Southern California, he was immersed in the skateboard and punk rock culture. That environment was the catalyst in his creative development. While in school, he became a freelance writer and photographer and also began playing music. Playing music opened the door to design and he found himself designing flyers, shirts and cd packaging for not only his bands, but other local bands as well. After a short lived career in music, he focused on design. He currently lives in Orlando with his wife Caroline and their two dogs, Roxy and Napoleon.