VOICE 1156 Q&A WITH Shepard Fairey
Interview conducted by Noah Spahn

Voice 1156: What can you tell us about your situation in 1996, (when Andy Howell really encouraged you)?

SF: I was living in Providence Rhode Island from the time I started college (from 88-92): during that time I really got into screen printing- I was making art from screen prints, making t-shirts from screen prints, and I could make money off of it. So I set up a studio so that I could do both; what I didn’t realize was that it’s really difficult to make enough money to survive with screen printing.

By 1996 I had been out of school for 4 years. I was getting really bummed out about being in Providence. I was really sick of being there, and I and didn’t really have any money to do anything else. I needed to sell shop and figure out another job or just keep doing what I was doing and continue to subsist. I became friends with Andy Howell in 1992 when he was still a pro skateboarder and he had an interview in Transworld Skateboarding where he was talking about how creative skateboarders were and how they needed to be acknowledged for their art and he wanted to publish a book on art by skateboarders. I was really into that idea because I felt the same thing – I felt like skateboarding had a really creative culture behind it and it wasn’t really getting that kind of recognition. I sent some stuff into Andy, he responded immediately and we just kept in touch. In 1996 I was sorta feeling like I needed to figure out something else to do: I called up Andy and he was really positive and said you know you’re super creative I just don’t think you’re really in the right situation to thrive and maybe if you moved to California it will be better for you.

So I bought a plane ticket with my last $300, stayed with Andy for a few weeks and really enjoyed San Diego. I liked the weather in San Diego and I was meeting a bunch of new people. Andy was super positive and he knew how to use the computer really well (I didn’t really know how to use the computer). When I linked up with him, I decided that it could be a good change: so I sold all my equipment, took all the money I had left and I moved to San Diego.

You know I had to scale back big time. I was working for Andy on his clothing company Sophisto. As his production manager I was organizing all the t-shirts being printed and he also took over the printing of the Giant t-shirts, which we now call Obey (but back then it was called Giant). The cool thing was that I got a check for him (for the work) plus I’d make a royalty off the sales. I thought that if I packed up shop in Rhode Island, I would probably bag the whole thing- which would have been the end of Giant (because I would have been so bummed out I wouldn’t have felt like doing it any more). He gave me an option, a way to keep going with it.

Andy was lucky; he had a lot of success as a young pro-skateboarder and designer. His total optimism really helped with my pessimistic (negative) attitude. It ended up that after I moved to San Diego his clothing line wasn’t doing that well (and neither was mine), so we ended up bagging the whole clothing thing all together. I still past the depression I was suffering in Rhode Island and moved onto a new path, I felt like it was just another fork in the road but I’ll figure it out, I’ll still be able to achieve what I want.

That’s when I started printing posters every single night after work on a tiny inexpensive rig that was just a table with hinges on it. I would print posters and go out and put’em up. Flights to San Francisco were only like $59 round trip on Southwest, so I’d go out there, stay with Tommy Guerrero and put posters up. Then I’d also drive to LA and put posters up. Moving to San Diego and working with Andy was a good change for me. I also started learning the computer from working with Andy, and that (in terms of my design career) made all the difference in the world; because I’d been doing all my posters by hand, which was great for my work where I didn’t have to make changes- because if I like it, I like it. When you’re working with clients you have to be able to make revisions and when you’re working by hand it’s just not practical. It was extremely helpful to learn the computer.

Voice1156: Did you start with a Macintosh?

SF: Yeah, I’ve been using a Mac for however many years since then. Yeah I had some friends in providence who were using Macs and Andy was using Mac so I just learned how to use the Macintosh from those guys and now I work on one all day everyday. When computers first came out, I was at the end of my time in college and a lot of the computer generated graphics looked really pixilated and computery. I was really into illustration and things that looked hand-done, I had this fear that the computer would homogenize the work and everybody’s stuff would look the same; that it took the personality and originality out of the work. That’s not really true, I was not looking at it for what it is, the computer is just a tool. I was looking at it as the medium dictating the syntax of the work. Once I got over that, (by seeing what Andy was able to do) it really helped me to be able to embrace the computer as a tool to improve my efficiency and also enabled me to do things that were very very difficult to do by hand. But the cool thing was that since I had been doing work by hand all the time I never felt like “oh, if there’s something I can’t do on the computer that I have to do by hand” - that was never an obstacle. Now you come across people who are just used to working within the confines of what the computer has to offer and they don’t bust out. The computer (if you don’t think about) can kind of propel people in certain directions with certain tricks that the programs offer; but I think that I was too developed as an artist at that point to let that mentality creep in. I was fortunate to get to work with both worlds.

Voice1156: Who would you consider your audience to be, and do you consider your audience when making your art?

SF:You know, I try to make my audience as broad as possible: I don’t really want there to be one specific kind of person, which is part of why I put art on the street because it’s accessible to everyone. One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is that my work seems to be embraced by people who are kind of rebellious, into graffiti, music or politics (subculture stuff), but at the same time I’ve been really surprised by the diversity. I’ve had a cop show up at my art show who was just there to see the art who didn’t care at all that I did illegal stuff. He was just a fan of the work. The president of the national reserve bank also ordered a bunch of stuff. I’ve tried to keep the work from preaching to a certain kind of person (even when there is a political message), the way that I deliver it is not typical of the hard core left-wing or liberal approach. You know, like the new poster I just did, the one that says ‘Greetings from Iraq’: I think it’s kinda funny because it doesn’t say what we’re doing in Iraq is wrong, or that ‘our government sucks’. I think that that’s the message that people get out of it, but I think that it’s open ended enough that on their first pass, someone who was for the war might not reject it instantaneously with out looking at it and trying to figure it out.

I think I try to engage people in a way that doesn’t necessarily alienate from the get-go. There’s always people who will say ‘You did that anti-Bush stuff and so now anything I see of yours I will hate because I’m pro-Bush’. Yet, for years I made the work potentially ambiguous so that it would function more like a Rorschach test: so everyone’s interpretation of it would be a function of their personality. The mystery of it was designed to drum up a dialog. I think that that element is still there even though I’ve become a little bit more overtly political with some of it. But I think that some of the new images like the Muslim woman with the flower in her gun are open to a latitude of interpretation.

Voice1156: Have you received a lot of grief from your anti bush stuff?

SF : I did, you know surprisingly enough a lot of people who were fans of my work were pro-Bush and for the war and they came down on me; but rather than saying ‘hey you’re an idiot’ I tried to explain my position and change their mind. The problem with a lot of political work is that it doesn’t change the minds of the people who disagree; it just gets a pat on the back from people who already agree. I don’t want that, I want everything I’m doing (as much as possible) to create a dialog so that there is an exchange of ideas and a debate. So I try to follow up as much as possible: with a poster you can only say so much, but on the website I have interaction with people, I try to thoroughly explain my position. Yeah, there was a lot of negative feedback. I think I lost some fans, but I also gained some fans and I definitely felt that (with the war) I couldn’t just be neutral on it. it was one of those things where I felt like the lunatics were running the asylum and I had to make a comment about it.

Voice1156: That is why your work is a perfect fit for the voice 1156 gallery


Voice1156: Where do you see your art going in the future: making more statements, or being more woven into popular culture?

SF : For me, pop culture is really important because people are being duped by the government and big corporations who are using mainstream devices like movies, television, music: associating my work with any part of entertainment culture opens the door for people to get curious about my work and know what my ideas are. That is what makes the most impact. There are (of course) going to be groups of people who consider themselves rebellious, marginalized ‘hey, don’t pander to the mainstream’. The thing is that I’m not an isolationist, I’d rather raise the bar for all of society than preach to my own friends who are already ‘in the know’ and coming from the same place I am. For me it’s not an elite little club of people who “get it” so to speak. That’s why I consider every opportunity that comes my way: whether it’s my clothing line or working with magazines.

You know I just did a movie poster for a movie about Johnnie Cash called Walk the Line, I was interviewed for the DVD yesterday, and I got to talk about my ideas with Obey on the DVD. There’s probably going to be some people that say “Oh yeah, he sold out, he’s getting paid mad bank for that”, but I didn’t get paid a dime for it. I’m just doing it cus I want people to know why I identify with Johnnie Cash, explain my larger body of work and use this Johnnie Cash DVD as a vehicle to let people know that there’s more to what I do than just movie posters. Even the on the internet, (my site gets a lot of traffic) my goal is to effect as many people as possible, and if that alienates hipsters then…

Voice1156: I have one last question, if you have time.

SF : Yea, sure...

Voice1156: I have seen your work permeate society, influencing everything from cell phone ads to Target commercials. Where do you draw your inspiration? Where will you take your work in the future?

SH:I’ve been influenced over the years by a lot of things. Propaganda posters were a big influence on me, Rock album graphics, skateboard graphics, things that were made to get people’s attention, really bold, iconic stuff. Some my work reflects Russian Constructivist style, (Icon-istic) just the general screen print style: where stuff is just a couple of colors. I’m kind of a sponge when it comes to inspiration– I have tons of books, magazines and album covers and I like the best of the best. With whatever subject matter I use to communicate with, there’s probably nothing I’ve ever done that wasn’t inspired: not by a specific piece of art but by the feel of stuff that has affected me in the past; I kind of pass on stuff to the next generation of viewers. I’m all over the place when it comes to graffiti, but for posters I’m definitely into screen printing and that kind of lends itself to just a few colors. I’ve always tried to design very bold, simple stuff and stencil art is the same way, you have to keep it simple. I’m always trying to get across in the art what I really want to emphasize and then eliminating everything else. Simplification is really important.