RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Artist Shepard Fairey applies large vinyl stickers to a set of windows for an installation at The Contemporary Museum.
An exhibit celebrates an artist who fuses spray paint and corporate ad campaigns
Bringing graffiti god Shepard Fairey to town as a visiting artist must be something like the ultimate irony, as Honolulu is a town nearly devoid of graffiti -- lacking also, as Fairey notes, the ubiquitous billboard advertisements that graffiti tries to shout against.
See Shepard Fairey's outdoor installations at these locations:
Makiki Skate Park: Makiki District Park, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
The Contemporary Museum: 2411 Makiki Heights Drive, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Fairey, who gained an unexpected cult following with his stickers "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" that sprang up around cities nationwide with no explanation in the 1990s -- his graffiti "tagging" amusement turned social phenomenon -- managed to parlay an alienated skateboarder's bid for attention into a franchise and a brand name. The muddy stickers were cleaned up into the Russian Constructivist "icon face" and logo that still serve as his graphic signature, and the Obey Giant project was born.
Fairey opened a graphic design firm in 1996 that earned $1 million a year consulting for major advertisers such as Pepsi, Mountain Dew, NBC, Sony, Universal Pictures and others that hoped to reach the notoriously resistant, hip young consumer by buying into his edgy image. His current "guerrilla marketing" firm, Studio Number One, includes clients Coca-Cola and Red Bull.
Some fans cried "sellout," even though Fairey keeps up his street credibility with tagging campaigns in the same cities where he might be invited into corporate boardrooms and, in this case, fine-art museums. He has been busted at least a dozen times for sneaking around town with ladder and wheat paste. At the same time, his Oprah-esque building of his franchise into a clothing line, magazine, books, CDs, Web site (www.obeygiant.com), etc., confuse some followers who admired him precisely for his anonymous attacks on commodity culture and its insipid propaganda.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Fairey's artwork and vision of a Contemporary Mueum tree adorned with lanterns, above, has come to fruition, below.
Consider Fairey, though, from an art perspective, because that's how he started out: as a student at the venerable Rhode Island School of Design. Fairey's marketing savvy, the fact that advertisers pay him for advice on aesthetics that communicate cool, and his easy navigation of all the philosophical thickets that this entails, only serve to expose the mercenary hypocrisy of art appreciation itself.
Art has always been about marketing, whether it was the testimony an Old Master painting gave to the taste, breeding and wealth of its owner, or the hipness quotient of the comics connoisseur or rare-vinyl collector. Art snobs sniff over middle-brow paintings bought because they "match the sofa," precisely because taste in art always serves to advertise one's social position -- as Fairey's guiltless crossing of categories makes painfully clear.
Indeed, what is the Contemporary Museum doing, inviting a guy like Fairey to a place that has no urban street culture to speak of, except marketing the art museum to a niche it also hopes to reach -- the crowd that flocks to Chinatown to hear DJ Shadow spin?
Wei Fang, curator of the Catalyst Artist Residency program at the museum, said she was impressed by both the visual and conceptual strength of Fairey's work, whether street art or more formal prints -- and it didn't matter that most people here had never heard of him, because he has a following worldwide.
Introducing Fairey into a museum context serves to acknowledge the important role that street art and popular music have played in the visual vocabulary of our times, Fang says. "For kids of a certain generation, this is what they see as their normal vernacular, this kind of visual language. It's a validation that this is a really strong current flowing in contemporary art today."
In keeping with that dual mission, Fairey advised the museum to market his two-week Hawaii visit to his core audience -- skate punks and ravers -- which led to such museum-sponsored gigs as his guest-deejaying at Indigo and sticker-signing at Island Snow, which only raises the humorous irony of the whole affair.
Whatever the Los Angeles artist might have telegraphed to his puzzled, multiple audiences on his visit to Honolulu, the appearance of his black-and-red stickers around town should serve as a cheerful reminder to the legions of local graffiti artists, bloggers, garage bands, alternative craftspersons and other creative types who fear they will never get out of the basement to a paying gig with their message. At age 35 the guy draws what he wants, says what he wants and still makes a buck on his art.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Shepard Fairey decorated individual window panes to create an installation that represents an actual tree adorned with lanterns, also made by Fairey, on the museum grounds.
I wonder, because I grew up seeing graffiti, and of course a lot of the same impulses drive people to tag or whatever, how did you get so famous?
Answer: I think part of it was that I started off making my stickers for my skateboard friends, but then when I realized that it was getting a reaction from people outside the intended audience, I started to think about mass communication and about trying to make images that resonated, in using aesthetics that were professional enough to be confusing as to whether it was advertising or political or a student movement -- but that wouldn't just be disregarded as "This is coming from skateboard subculture" or graffiti subculture or a punk band.
Q: That whole intention, once you started working for the companies, got turned into a sort of niche, a market category. It seems like it's gotten to the point where nothing really escapes being a niche market, that even rebellion or questioning becomes like "the questioning type" demographic.
A: Everything, once it resonates, will be commodified -- that's what capitalism is about. But to be able to pull the good out of what could be seen as a potentially compromising situation, I take the money I make from a corporation and I put it into my own posters, my own magazine, my own gallery -- materials that promote an independent spirit and provoke thought. I also, while working for these corporations, try to educate them about, rather than just slash-and-burn exploitation of a particular niche demographic, that they actually try to symbiotically coexist and have people like skateboarders respect them because they are being respected.
Q: A lot of the younger generation of Japanese artists seem like they're kind of about what you're about, because they make T-shirts and they're fully into their commercial thing, but they're also finding it a vehicle to promote their aesthetic.
A: My biggest complaint about Japanese consumer society is that people decide that punk rock fashion is cool, but then they have absolutely no idea what spawned it, and the real risk-taking and independent thinking that was its genesis gets overlooked. But on the positive side, I don't see a difference between (Yoshitomo) Nara makes paintings and Nara makes T-shirts and toys. I'm a populist -- I believe in addressing the full spectrum of consumer. But in the U.S. there's a lot of frowning on fine artists that make products. This idea of the artist as "I don't really adhere to all the ethics I'd like to, but I love it when there's an artist who I can then go, 'That guy is like this amazing martyr who would never compromise his ideals and will starve'" -- I just don't fall for that.
Q: But don't you feel on some level compelled to go out and keep putting up your posters and (street art) as part of your thing to obey? Because you are a brand, too.
A: I would never try to pretend otherwise. But the street art, I still enjoy it. I really feel like I have nothing to prove -- I've done so much street art in so many cities, I've got all the street credibility one could ever need, I think -- but I also like the idea of being able to thrive within the system and yet remain independent of it, and to demonstrate that just because you have made some headway in the mainstream, that you don't have to be a slave to it.
Q: Do you think art has to be political?
A: I think art has to be political in that it is creating its own niche, that it's a perspective or aesthetic that hasn't been seen before. Because whatever you're doing is finding your own voice in art, even if it's using techniques that have been used, or even two aesthetics that you're combining, like chocolate and peanut butter. It's finding your own voice -- and it's almost impossible for that not to be political.