FEATURE///POLITIKS///SHEPARD FAIREY ON OBAMA: THE SUPERTOUCH INTERVIEW
Having provided the main image for the OBAMA campaign now recognized around the world, the influence of street & graphic artist SHEPARD FAIREY cannot be overstated. Having transcended the traditional boundaries of his chosen medium to create an image that united and inspired voters (and the presidential candidate himself) across lines of class, race, gender, and party, Fairey has achieved a truly monumental task in this election and inspired a generation of young people to become politically active in the process. A key element to the success of Obama’s visual campaign was Fairey’s mostly illegal dissemination tactics of wheatpasting posters on private and public property without permission, a sweet little twist in the side of the political machine that proved the artist’s steadfast adherence to his streetwise principals remained intact while working overground in such an unprecedented way. In doing so, he single-handedly inspired a nation of supporters to do the same and the Obama campaign has seen an outpouring of viral aesthetic support at a level never before realized by a political candidate. On the eve of tomorrow’s presidential election, we spoke with Shepard about the relevance of his work for Obama and his thoughts on the shape of political things to come. READ ON:
“Obama stopped in the middle of a Super Tuesday speech at the Avalon in LA to point out my poster and say ‘I love that graphic, and speaking of hope…’”
How is it even remotely possible that a graffiti artist with a lengthy arrest record and a history of breaking multiple laws in the name of “art” is branding the most visually successful presidential campaign of all time?
I was impressed with Obama’s speech at the 2004 DNC and I started paying attention to him. When he announced his presidential candidacy I thought it would be great to make an image in support of Obama. However, with my rap sheet and my body of work critical of U.S. policy, I was worried my endorsement of Obama might be an unwelcome affiliation. I wanted to help, not be a liability, so instead of my usual “act now, apologize later”, I asked through some friends if I could get the OK from the Obama campaign. I was finally told by Yosi Sergant in mid January, after asking at the end of Oct. 2007, that it was cool for me to make a poster on my own. I figured I should act quickly because the often-decisive Super Tuesday was Feb.5. I illustrated my Obama image the day I got the go ahead, and had the poster in production the following day. I wanted to get the posters out in my usual ways and I was not thinking the image would be much different from any of my posters except that I did intentionally make the image more reverent and patriotic with the hope that it could transcend my counter culture niche because Obama was guaranteed to have the support of the counter culture anyway. My hope was that the image would be able to pique the interest of moderates.
Did Barack like your initial image? Does he know who you are & the kind of art you do?
Obama stopped in the middle of a Super Tuesday speech at the Avalon in LA to point out my poster and say “I love that graphic, and speaking of hope…” Of course I was happy about that. My friend, and former Harvard classmate of Barack’s, Hill Harper took my book and a Hope poster to Barack, so yes, he does know I’m a street artist. He also sent me a thank you letter in which he says that “whether seen in an art gallery or on a stop sign, your art has the ability to encourage Americans to think they can change the status-quo”. I think he understands what I do. I just don’t think Obama is as narrow minded as your usual politician. Obama’s campaign has responded to a NY Post suggestion that they “hired graffiti artists” by saying that they support grass roots art, but only within the parameters of the law. I think the Republicans have not latched on because there is no official connection to Obama’s campaign.
The creative community has been involved in this presidential campaign to a degree never before seen in politics, especially since the majority of participants have been young. What is it about Barack that has brought about such an outpouring of visual expression and what do think the real impact of it has been?
I think artists respond positively to idealism and authenticity, which are qualities that differentiate Obama from most politicians. I don’t think it hurts that Obama is young and not white in terms of being a good artistic subject. I think Obama’s campaign has benefited from the harmonious convergence of a lot of variables, but I think art translates a passion to the viewer that can make them curious in a way that is different from an intellectual argument. I actually think people are much more open minded when they are satisfying their own curiosity rather than being told how to think. I think the viral nature of images has an immeasurable effect, but I do think it has been significant.
You organized the massive and unprecedented “Manifest Hope” art show during the DNC earlier this year, marking the first time an exhibition of that nature has been undertaken during the event. What do you think its real impact was on the campaign and the public and has it set a new standard for campaigns to come?
The response to the “Manifest Hope” show was amazing. I have to give a lot of credit to Yosi Sergant, Andenken Gallery, and Move On for pulling it together. When put together, all of that grass roots, donated artwork showed how passionate and diverse the artists were. I did notice in Denver that the majority, if not all of the magazine covers featuring Obama were illustrations. I think that all of the iconic illustrated art of Obama did alter the way in which he began to be presented in even more mainstream applications. I’m sure that this campaign has opened up more creative possibilities for future political campaigns, but I’m not sure if a candidate in the future will arouse the same inspiration from the art world. I at least hope that more artists have been inspired to be politically engaged.
Is Barack really the magic bullet everyone—especially the kids—thinks he is?
Obama is not our savior, we are the only masters of our own futures. That being said, Obama can change political culture, not in one swoop, but by changing the tide toward increased participation and accountability. The more people engage in politics and hold the politicians accountable to the people rather than the corporations and special interests the more the system will improve. Obama will be a step forward, but a lot is up to people.
Having watched this presidential campaign for the better part of a year now, but without knowing the outcome yet here on the eve of tomorrow’s election, what’s your opinion on the current state of the union and where we’re headed at this moment?
I have confidence that Barack will make thoughtful decisions about how to fix the mess we are in, but realistically he’s screwed. My hope is that people recognize that his ideas are the way to begin to reverse the damage Bush has done. I’m amazed, but less and less surprised by the degrees of ignorance and shortsightedness in the U.S. I’m not sure if Obama will be blamed for problems he inherits. Global warming is a problem Obama recognizes as one that’s intertwined with oil dependence. Obama will at least invest in green technology to clean up the environment and decrease our oil dependence. The government needs to mandate green technology. It can’t be left up to market forces. Have you seen the doc “Who Killed the Eclectic Car”? Corporations can’t be trusted to do the right thing. Also, obviously we need to get out of Iraq. We are wasting money and human life. Afghanistan is more complex, but we need to get out of Iraq ASAP.
If Barack wins, what real impact do you predict his rule will have on the state of race relations in this country?
I support Barack because of his ideas. I think the fact that he is half black is a symbolic bonus, but fixation on race, gender, or religion is part of the problem in the first place. I think we need the right person for the job, but I do think Barack will help race relations. If I had thought Hillary was the best person for the job I would have supported her.
“Palin sets women’s causes back and women should be insulted that she was used as a one dimensional gender wedge … Obama’s viability despite racism speaks volumes about how exceptional he is.”
What is your opinion of Sarah Palin and John McCain for having chosen her? While Democratic voters seem to decry her the loudest, most credible conservative pundits seem to agree that it’s Republicans themselves who should be most angry about her appointment. Thoughts?
Palin as VP reflects very poorly on McCain’s judgment. McCain’s argument against Obama was his lack of experience and he picks Palin? The decision was obviously politically motivated to peel away disgruntled Hillary supporters. McCain’s “straight talk express” is off the rails. He has resorted to the same foul tactics he claimed to despise. Palin sets women’s causes back and women should be insulted that she was used as a one dimensional gender wedge.
Throughout this campaign people from all angles have been insisting that race doesn’t matter, but in this country it does. What are your thoughts on the state of current race relations in the US and Barack’s impact on them, even if he doesn’t win?
Ask Chris Rock… I’m no expert. I think it will be bad for race relations if Obama loses and I have to say that a white candidate with Barack’s character would probably be WAY out front. Obama’s viability despite racism speaks volumes about how exceptional he is.
Everything about this campaign has been a study in opposites in terms of candidates. Most importantly youth—in the case of both Obama and Palin, and the ability to raise funds in incredible new ways. Do you think this has set a new precedent for presidential candidates to come?
I think if Obama wins a new generation of voters will feel that actions do make a difference. I think a great culture of political activism could be built as a result. If Obama loses, I fear the opposite. I feel that people will be demoralized an demotivated because all the grass-roots activism we’ve witnessed still could not overcome the right wing machine. That is how I felt in 2004, but Kerry is not in the same league as Obama. A return to apathy is my biggest fear, and is always the impediment to progress. Young people need to take more action instead of just shit talking.
If Obama wins, what do you think Palin’s next move is? Reality show?
She’s going on “Flavor of Love”… if she’s lucky.
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