With protests and politics dominating the news, the Art Wynwood fair hosted famed muralist and political-image-maker Shepard Fairey on Friday afternoon. Fairey — creator of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, as well as the more recent “We the People” images that have become emblems of protests against the Trump administration — was interviewed in front of a crowd by Artnet news associate editor Sarah Cascone, who drew Fairey out on his protest art, the artist’s role as agitator and advocate and dealing with success.
Fairey spoke admiringly of Wynwood Walls founder and developer Tony Goldman, whom he met in 2009, and of the transformation of Wynwood into a street art mecca. (The fair honored Fairey with the Art Wynwood Tony Goldman Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award on Friday night, presented with Wynwood Walls, where a giant Fairey mural is a main attraction.)
“I felt really fortunate to be part of the evolution of the greatest outdoor art gallery in the world,” Fairey said. “Let’s face it — art and commerce need each other. They can be in conflict or in harmony. It’s nice when they’re in harmony.”
Goldman didn’t introduce Fairey to the neighborhood though; Primary Projects founder Books Bischof first brought the artist to Wynwood in 2004, after Fairey created designs for a Fort Lauderdale rock club where Bischof worked.
“It was full of abandoned buildings and drugs,” Fairey said. “I knew any of my transgressions would seem mild in comparison.”
He also acknowledged the growing debate about the role artists play in paving the way for development. “I was told for years that my art was evidence of a neighborhood in decline. Now I’m being told I cause gentrification,” Fairey said. “But I believe art enriches people’s lives.”
Though the ubiquity of the “Hope” poster might have given him a clue, Fairey was surprised by how quickly and broadly people responded to “We the People.” He created the project with Aaron Huey, executive director of The Amplifier Foundation, an “art machine for social change” which creates art for progressive causes.
The two had planned to create a work around prison reform — until President Donald Trump won the election. “[Trump] was promoting division, sexism, racism, homophobia,” Fairey said. “A lot of these things became normal in a way I’d never seen before and found incredibly disturbing. These are not the American values we believed in.”
The duo came up with the idea for a series of images depicting immigrants, women, African-Americans, Muslims and “the people most disparaged by Trump.” A kickstarter campaign raised nearly $1.4 million, enabling them to buy full-page ads in major newspapers and print tens of thousands of posters depicting images that included a woman in a hijab and a young African-American girl, in the red, white and blue of the American flag. The posters filled the Women’s Marches that flooded Washington, D.C., and other American cities after the inauguration. Many more people downloaded the images and made their own posters in Mexico, London, Paris, Berlin and more, Fairey said.
“It’s proof that imagery which crystallizes a concept can be a powerful tool,” Fairey said. “I thought the ‘Hope’ poster was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. ‘We the People’ is on its way to being similar.”
If you don’t like what’s happening in the world, say what you’d like to say and don’t let fear … stop you. Art doesn’t always have to be escapist.
Artist Shepard Fairey
While Fairey said he didn’t want to tell other artists what to do, he does hope they’ll make their views known. “If you don’t like what’s happening in the world, say what you’d like to say and don’t let fear of the art world reaction stop you,” he urged. “Art doesn’t always have to be escapist. I think a lot of artists don’t realize their full potential because they fear they might not be well received.”
Fairey said he’d long idolized the just-do-it ethos and raging idealism of punk and protest music by the likes of Bob Marley, the Clash, Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy. He started painting on the street more out of insecurity than a desire to make a political statement; after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he was working as a graphic designer, broke and afraid to break into the gallery circuit.
“I thought I was competent, that I’d work for some indie rock band and do my own projects on the side,” he said. “I got into street art because I didn’t need to ask anyone if it was good enough.”
Now that he’s famous, Fairey has to deal with attacks on his credibility. “When I was anonymous, there was freedom, but I was also penniless and desperate,” he said.
“I’ve tried to be practical about the inside-versus-outside strategy. … I think you can find ways to infiltrate the system and change it from within. It’s not as simple as ‘all people on the inside are corrupt’ and ‘all the people on the outside are idealists.’ I can only adapt and try to maintain my ideals and harness the power of the machinery that other people fear.”
Fairey asserted that his success gives him the freedom to choose projects and make work based on what he wants to do, rather than the need to please a record company client (apparently his least favorite period was designing album covers for the likes of the Black Eyed Peas). “Now I do projects based on what I believe in or what will be creatively rewarding,” he said. “I feel very lucky and don’t take it for granted.”
After the talk, Fairey said he hoped that the political turmoil and protests against the new president would inspire more artists to get involved. “I hope giving a [damn] is gonna get cool again like it did in the late ’60s,” he said. “We need that. When the forces of oppression crack down, that’s when you have to work even harder. It’s so essential now.”