The Art of Shepard Fairey:
Changing Institutions of Display
and the Social Lives of Images

There are a lot of illustrators and painters who do beautiful work that I either don't have the skill or the patience to do. But you don't have to be God's gift to art to be effective. My technique is not that noteworthy. Anybody can steal images and refine them with a little practice. But for me, it's all about impact, and an illustration that's well-crafted but doesn't capture somebody's attention is not serving its purpose.
- Shepard Fairey as qtd. in "He Might Be Giant," Michael Dooley (49)

Shepard Fairey is the artist responsible for one of the most iconic images in recent history, Obama Hope, but he began his art career in 1989 when, while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, he created a sticker, "Andre the Giant has a Posse," which he intended to poke fun at his skateboarding buddies "who [travelled] in cliques called posses and unthinkingly [decorated] their boards with corporate logos" (Dooley, 42). The sticker campaign transcended its original purpose by not only capturing the attention of a wider audience due to its dissemination throughout the country, but also through inexorably exerting an influence on Fairey's notions of the scope and range of his career in art. After the owners of Andre the Giant's likeness threatened to sue Fairey for violation of intellectual property rights, Fairey created the now iconic "OBEY Giant," which altered the original image by zooming in on the face, visibly enhancing it and adding the word "OBEY" in white text on a red strip running across the bottom of the image. The wide dissemination of the "OBEY Giant" image was accomplished not only by fans of the image, but also through Fairey's use of street art techniques to (illegally) post the image on the empty outside walls of buildings, street signs and all manner of other structures and surfaces, both in the United States and around the rest of the world. Sarah Valdez characterized the dissemination of "OBEY Giant" in "Thrashers and Taggers," saying, "...Fairey's giant-painting prank has mushroomed into what now constitutes an industry - an influential, oft-copied anti-brand without a product" (59). Thus, several different visual methodologies, all found in Gillian Rose's book Visual Methodologies, will be used to interpret Fairey's images in ways which acknowledge the existence of authorial intent and its potential to shape the way an image is perceived, embrace the social lives of images and integrate the concepts of informed readings and societal constructs in their interpretation of visual materials. One of the visual methodologies to be utilized in interpreting Fairey's designs will analyze a discourse of his images in terms of "their production by, and their reiteration of, particular institutions and their practices, and their production of particular human subjects" (Rose 172).

In terms of Fairey's images, discourse analysis II, the name that will be used to refer to this type of interpretation, is concerned with the ways in which an institution and its derivatives affect the production of an image and the ways in which visual materials espouse some of the aspects of the institution. Also inside discourse analysis II is the interpretation of how the institution and the image combine, or not, to produce a particular human subject. For this analysis, Fairey's OBEY sticker campaign (included within this is the "Andre the Giant has a Posse" sticker campaign, from which OBEY was derived) and Obama Hope will be analyzed by examining the street art tactics utilized by Fairey in contrast to other places where these images have been displayed, attempting to emphasize Kevin Lynch's idea, from his book What Time Is This Place?, "that the relation of environmental and social change is loosely coupled in both directions" (Lynch 222). This seems to be very important when considering Fairey's interest in displaying his works as street art, where environmental change is amplified in intensity and social change is more likely to occur, due to the image's widespread availability to people of all races, color, creed and sexual identity.

Another methodology that will be discussed is that of the anthropological approach to interpreting images. Using an anthropological approach when interpreting visual materials means to observe the social lives of visual objects where "social relations depend in large part on objects; and objects get exchanged (and made, of course) in the context of social relations" (Rose 217). In the anthropological approach, visual objects are shown to have social lives all their own, which are formed through their interaction with different contexts, which includes both people and the different spaces in which the image has travelled. The anthropological approach will also utilize the OBEY sticker campaign and the "Andre the Giant has a Posse" campaign in its interpretation. This analysis will draw upon Lily Shirvanee's term, locative media, which she uses in her work, "Locative Viscosity: Traces of Social History in Public Spaces."

Design and Text By Brady Granger
May 4, 2009

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This Webpage was produced in COM 783: Visual Communication,

a class taught by Bob Bednar in the Communication Studies Department at Southwestern University