Street artist Shepard Fairey is at the wheel on a tour of ad hoc artworks you can judge from the avenues of L.A.
Street artist Shepard Fairey painted Echo Park skate shop Brooklyn Projects.
By Cynthia Dea
Times Staff Writer
January 18, 2007
You've probably never met Shepard Fairey, but chances are you've seen his face on the street more than once. Not his own visage, of course, but that of pro wrestler turned Hollywood actor Andre the Giant, with the word "obey" emblazoned underneath, on posters and stickers Fairey has rendered in red, black and white.
When Fairey first took his "Obey" campaign to the streets of East Coast cities in the early 1990s, he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, using the printing equipment on campus and at a Kinko's to make his mark. He gained a following among skate punks, who gladly obliged to deface public property with the image wherever they went.
More than a decade later, Fairey is the co-founder of a budding L.A.-based design studio and a magazine. Galleries and museums have shown his works. The ominous "Icon Face," as he calls his Andre the Giant piece, can still be seen throughout Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, London and Tokyo, as well as on a clothing line.
But on a sunny afternoon last week, the 36-year-old South Carolina native was taking us on a tour of street art in L.A. The goal: to find examples that are legal or, at the very least, tolerated enough by the locals so that the works won't be disappearing any time soon. Planning such an itinerary is not particularly easy, considering that lots of street art goes up illegally. The images, in the form of spray paint, stencils, posters and stickers, can either enhance or tarnish city life, depending on whom you ask.
"People channel their energy in different ways, and I think that street art is not all positive, but there definitely have been positive things that come out of it," Fairey says. "A lot of it comes down to people want something to show for their existence."
Making a statement
Graphic artist, guerrilla artist or vandal — whatever you want to call him — Fairey is probably the best-known American street artist around. On this day, he is zooming from his Wiltern Building offices in Koreatown to East Hollywood in his black Honda SUV, cutting through yellow lights, occasionally interrupting himself mid-sentence to point out a cool piece of aerosol work that catches his eye or to sarcastically scold inattentive motorists. He seems to constantly scan his surroundings.
Guerrilla art has its roots in traditional graffiti art and the hyper-aware Pop sensibility of Andy Warhol. As opposed to tagging or gang-related graffiti, the work done by Fairey and other artists like Banksy, the British artist who made headlines last year by placing a life-size effigy of a Guantanamo Bay detainee in Disneyland, attempts to comment on social issues — antiwar and anti-consumerism being two favorites — by hijacking the public space with startling visuals and pithy phrases.
"First of all I want people to be intrigued. And to question what it is and therefore question everything and hopefully excite them to have a new sensitivity to their environment," says Fairey, whose aesthetic is influenced by Soviet and Chinese propaganda. "I think even if you don't know what the specific message is, there's still a power — that's the concept where 'the medium is the message,' " he says, quoting philosopher Marshall McLuhan.
And for the message to get across, artists constantly compete for locales with dense traffic. That can lead to illegal activity; in the city of L.A., a person caught defacing public or private property can be charged with a felony if there's more than $400 in damage. By state law, one's driver's license can also be confiscated.
According to Paul Racs, from the city's Office of Community Beautification, it responds to 55,000 requests a year to remove graffiti of all kind from public and private property. "If there's graffiti art, even if they come and put up a beautiful piece, if that person didn't get permission, we will come and abate it," he says.
But that's not really what we're after this afternoon. We head to Western Avenue, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, where a building wall facing a weed-infested lot is covered with red and white Old English script that reads "Seventh Letter Crew." Though it looks as if it could be illegal, it's not. Fairey explains that its creator, the artist collective Seventh Letter Crew, was asked to do the wall. The crew has traveled to Japan, France and elsewhere on the dime of corporate sponsors. Like Fairey, it has a merchandising line. Its T-shirt designs can be seen in Us Weekly being worn by young Hollywood celebrities.
"To me, it says that style of art is resonating with people," Fairey says. "A lot of people have complained that it's going to defang graffiti, but if you look at every countercultural movement, eventually it gets co-opted in some way."
Driving along Sunset Boulevard and into Echo Park, we stop by Benton Way at a pastel illustration of bubbly chickens in a pasture by the artist Caché. Fairey notes that the mural is constantly maintained and kept clean. And there's another mural work by the same artist just up the block east of Coronado Street: the ethereal characters on bikes along the wall, with the phrase "Ride forever" on the side. "This guy always changes this wall but always has these characters," Fairey says. "It's really cool."
Some street artists keep a low profile, at least in the public eye. But that doesn't stop the works from gaining a growing following. On websites and blogs such as flickr.com, woostercollective.com and 50mmlosangeles.com, people share photos of the colorful graphics and monochrome stencils. Big businesses such as Boost Mobile, Scion and Pepsi have hired street artists for marketing campaigns in an effort to tap into the popularity of urban youth culture to sell their products.
The work is shown in galleries and museums as well, enhanced by the respect given such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who spray-painted his "SAMO" moniker on the streets of New York in the late '70s.
Fairey, who had an exhibition last fall at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in L.A., is represented by several galleries worldwide, is preparing for a show in Italy and is part of a group exhibition opening Friday in Park City, Utah, to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival.
Apart from Fairey's fine art, which sells for thousands of dollars, he juggles a variety of responsibilities: He designs a merchandise line that includes clothing and skateboard decks; makes artistic decisions as the creative director for Swindle, the lifestyle magazine he co-founded with artist Roger Gastman; and runs Studio Number One, a graphics design company, with his wife, Amanda. The firm has completed work for the music group Black Eyed Peas, the movie "Walk the Line" and Toyota.
Despite all the work that he does as a commercial graphics artist, he still gets the calling to do his work out on the streets.
"The street thing is an outlet for me," he says. "It's the freedom of it that's really exciting." And yet he adds: "I don't have this obsessive need to do street art all the time because it's already opened doors for me. I'm now able to do things that won't be cleaned in a day, that won't get me arrested."
Just up Sunset Boulevard near Alvarado Street, the skate shop Brooklyn Projects gave Fairey permission to use the wall alongside the building several months ago for a mural — a massive, almost grid-like work that integrates his personal cultural references with political messages.
"As far as Echo Park is concerned, there's always been a conscious awareness regarding music and art," says Daniel Clements, one of the co-owners of Brooklyn Projects. "There's more of an artistic vibe and awareness out here, like what you would see in a colorful community in Mexico or South America."
When we arrive, Fairey starts explaining the work from left to right, first describing the musical influences he included. There's an image of a pile of old 45s of some of the music that's influenced him — the Misfits, Stevie Wonder, the Ramones.
"That symbolizes my counterculture roots," says Fairey, who is wearing a T-shirt for the band the Clash underneath a maroon Adidas jacket and brown cords. "And then I've got the political stuff. I've got this Uncle Scam — the death of privacy, civil liberties, justice, peace, democracy, human rights." Next to the mock Uncle Sam is the Orwellian phrase "Big Brother is watching you" in bold black letters, printed in the middle of the mural.
The art flows into the gloomy faces of two Tiananmen Square soldiers bearing rifles with a flower stuck in them — a symbol of peace. Though Fairey usually never signs his work, the "Icon Face" can be seen throughout the wall in various incarnations — within a star symbol, on a flower.
"This is just to let people know this is my wall, when I've got the obvious 'Obey' iconography," he says.
"The colors are partially influenced by propaganda, but they're colors that work really well. Something about seeing red makes people think that something intense is trying to be communicated."
Street artist Shepard Fairey stands infront of one of his creations on the side of Brooklyn Projects skakeboarding shop in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Fairey is the creator of the OBEY posters featuring Andre the Giant's face and has his own design firm, "Studio Number One," based in Los Angeles.
As we trek back west on Sunset on our way to Melrose Avenue, Fairey immediately focuses on the dilapidated building of the old Sunset Pacific Motel on Sunset near Fountain Avenue — right before dissing a driver for taking too long to switch lanes. On the top of the building, L.A.-based artist Kalen Ockerman, known as Mear One, has painted a giant image of a youth in a brown hoodie with several arms spread out like Shiva, with a can of spray paint in one hand, sitting in the lotus position.
Onward to Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood, Fairey points out something that looks as if it's straight from a 1980s video arcade. The artist: Space Invader, whose works are from the namesake game. "He's from Paris, he's a good friend of mine, and I think he's awesome because his pieces stay up," Fairey says. "This wall had a bunch of graffiti on it, and he put the mosaic up, and people don't look at it as graffiti, but it is," he adds, barely containing his excitement. "He's got a lot of versions, but they're always mosaics. He had tons of them, but someone went around and stole them all, pried them off the wall."
Next, Fairey parks on the eastern section of the youth shopping mecca Melrose Avenue. Here, graffiti and commercial mural art become blurred. "Obey" stickers can be spotted on the back of almost every street sign.
Fairey gestures toward an even larger Space Invader work, perhaps the largest one in the city, but banners for the men's clothing store below obscure the view.
"There's a greater tolerance for graffiti because it's supply and demand," says Fairey. "I think there's a lot of subjectivity and subjective enforcement when it's in a place where the shop owners probably dig it."
On Melrose, we soon pass a Banksy piece, one of his signature black rats. This one's holding a paintbrush and says, "I'm out of bed and dressed — what more do you want?"
"I see graffiti as rats or roaches; it finds a place to survive. Even if no one likes it, it's going to figure out a way to exist," says Fairey, who's a friend of Banksy and has helped him find spaces to put up his work.
In September, Banksy's three-day exhibition in an L.A. warehouse is said to have drawn about 30,000 people — as well as the ire of the city's Department of Animal Services, which ordered that a painted elephant in the show be scrubbed clean of the paint.
The largest Banksy piece that Fairey shows us is just a few blocks down. Along the top of a two-story optometry office is a large black-and-white graphic of Batman's sidekick Robin, holding a can of paint and a long red paint roller. "No more heroes" is scrawled in red script on Melrose facing Stanley Avenue.
And on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea Avenue, there's yet another Banksy piece depicting an old woman wearing a scarf, with the words, "You looked better on myspace." Above her lurks a piece by artist Thierry Guetta, of a man with a camera.
Our last stop is to see an elaborate portrait of a blue woman with long, flowing black hair by aerosol artists Retna and El Mac, on La Brea near 3rd Street. It looks as if it was quite an undertaking, yet it's on a temporary plywood wall between the sidewalk and an empty lot. "Do you see how amazing this portrait is? That's a really great piece," Fairey says. "That's two different guys, but that kind of use of spray paint, that's ridiculous skills."
A pedestrian walks past a mural by street artist Elmac in the 300 block of La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles.