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“YOU MUST OBEY”: Who is Shepard Fairey?

“Oh I’m about to blow Andre The Giant”-Lil’ Wayne

As a New Yorker, I’ve seen these stickers everywhere and if you haven’t seen them then head down to the Bowery or Williamsburg and find a light pole. For those who have seen them and wondered what they were, you have a friend in me.

The artist: Shepard Fairey

The Label: OBEY GIANT

Shepard Fairey got his start the same way most other street label artist do which is on the street via Rhode Island art school. But man has he come a long way…His art has been described in the NY Times as “guerrilla style”. And he is of course accredited for the infamous Obama “Hope” flyers that was literally the poster-child of the 2008 campaign propaganda.

Major, right? That’s a super massive accomplishment.

The NY Times has a well-written bio of his late work which you can check out here. So let’s focus on his artistic style and the clothing line.

So where did the “OBEY” name come from?

Fairey created the Andre The Giant stickers in the ’80’s while in art school in Rhode Island. His art is a reactionary art. This is entirely counter to the Fauvist art of Matisse and birthed from protest movements of the ’70’s. Using art as a political tool is seeing a resurgence in recent history as more grassroots-based movements are erecting. The “Hope” poster is an exemplary example of that.

Here’s an excerpt from the OBEY manifesto written by Fairey in 1990:

“The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology…The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.”

Fairey uses mainly a palette of red and beige in his works. There is also frequent use of red and beige rays and asian themes. Messages of anti-violence (including images of guns with roses and “Make Art Not War” slogan) saturate his work. My belief is that he choose red because of its association with Communism and the idea that Communism brings equality. You can even see images of Chinese soldiers within his work. And then there is the reaction at people have to the idea of Communism and to the color red itself which people usually associate with caution/danger and causes people to literally stop and react.

His art is compelling, emotional, stimulating with images of Black Panthers. But most of all it captures the human experience.

You can check out his entire catalogue here.