Shepard Fairey's name may not ring a bell with everyone, but you'd recognize his work if you knew what you were looking for. For the past 20 years, Fairey has stickered, wheatpasted, and postered the streets of cities all over the world — and that includes his recent "bombings" in and around Cambridge and Boston. (For years, his Andre the Giant "Obey" stickers were ubiquitous.) In recent years, he's enjoyed solo shows in international galleries, and next month, on February 6, his first museum survey, "Supply and Demand," will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art. I chatted with him last Thursday afternoon while he and his crew were creating a large mural for an outside wall of the Boston Phoenix offices.
VIDEO: The Phoenix interviews Shepard Fairey
You created an image of President Obama that was featured on the cover of Time's "Person of the Year" issue.
I made the Obama poster on my own as a grassroots effort, thinking that I've been making all this work that's against Bush and against the war in Iraq but it hasn't necessarily provided the flipside, which is a constructive solution. I saw Obama as that constructive solution to the problems under Bush, at least as a starting point. So I made the image on my own. And because of the Internet and because of my history, and people assuming that if I make an image it will get out there, it took off and became this crazy phenomenon, which I hadn't predicted. But I was really happy because if it was helping Obama, that's exactly what I wanted. I think also that it generated an emotional response from people that was different than a photograph.
There's a Web-site and Facebook application that can convert a jpeg of anyone into a similar blue-and-red image. How do you react when you see people changing images of themselves to mimic something you created?
Well, in some ways, the more something is copied over time, the less potent the original becomes. What that suggests is that the image is a powerful reference point that has affected a lot of people. But it also means the next time around, I'm going to have to come up with something different. At this moment, it's pretty exciting.
Have you spoken with the President about the poster?
Yeah, I have. I've met him twice, briefly. A month after I made the original image, he sent me a letter that said something close to "I'm honored you used your art in support of my campaign. Your images, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign, have the ability to encourage Americans to change the status quo and achieve change."
Did he feel like you got his good side?
[Laughs] Well, he didn't say, "And my cheekbones look excellent."
How does your work change when it's moved inside a gallery?
It definitely changes when you're doing work for a wall on the street. You never know how long it's going to last. You have to find the best balance between quality and expedience possible, also because if you spend a lot of time there, you might get arrested.
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