Home > Cultural Musings > penny for your thoughts: shepard fairey’s street art

penny for your thoughts: shepard fairey’s street art

hope-obama-faireyLast week I posted on Makoto Fujimura, one of my favorite artists, and asked you to offer up some of your favorite artistic creators (writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, etc.).

Jon Vega commented and turned me on to Shepard Fairey, the street artist behind the most iconic image of Barack Obama from the 2008 presidential race.

Initially, I was going to post about the copyright controversy that Fairey is embroiled in (evidently he used a Associated Press photograph as a reference image for his illustration), but I found a YouTube clip that is more interesting and thought provoking:

In the clip, Shepard Fairey talks art philosophy, artistic accessibility, graffiti, political philosophy, aesthetic philosophy, all in a rolling (postmodern) jumble of images and narration.

I post this clip because I know many readers of this blog are theologically informed and seminary trained, many of you have strong opinions about a wide range of issues and concerns, and I am curious to hear your thoughts on a subject that may be a little outside of your day to day thought patterns.

I am curious to hear how you respond to the philosophical and ethical musings of a guy who grew up on the streets of Providence, Rhode Island tagging buildings with graffiti and making a name for himself in political and social propaganda.

For what its worth, I think that Fairey is a brilliant artist with a gift for bold and attention grabbing images, and I have a lot of respect for his creative skills.

That said, how do you process Fairey’s art in light of the ethical code and artistic philosophy behind his work?


Did you happen to notice that this clip was created in conjunction with Fairey winning the USA Network’s ‘Character Approved Award’?

Penny for your thoughts. . .

Picture 2

shepard fairey's website

  1. robertandstaci
    June 17, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Thinking about Fairey’s art philosophy from the city government perspective provides two avenues of thoughts. In my work at the City of Dallas, I receive a good deal of complaints regarding graffiti. In our experience, the presence of graffiti of any type in one area only fosters continued growth of graffiti.

    It takes an average of three to four times painting over graffiti in a given location before the tagger gets the point and moves on. While the majority of our graffiti is gang related I don’t think this approach is any different to street art tagging. It simply sends the message to other taggers, gang related or not, that this area is ok for tagging.

    I think something city’s can do, and I think are doing accross the country, is to set aside walls to be used by street artists for their work. This allows them to have an outlet for their art which is often quite detailed and beautiful, but allows them to remain within the confines of the law. Now someone like Fairey may not like it because it takes away the thrill, but it can hopefully allow city’s and communities to maintain appearances and enforce codes and ordinances.

    So in short (sorry for the long comment) I don’t think street art should be completely villified as I think it’s important not to supress any positive artistic expression. That being said, it’s presence in uncontrolled spaces only spurs more gang related, less attractive, tagging and hurts the community in which it is located.


  2. June 17, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    haha. Glad you enjoyed his work sir.

    I must say that I do enjoy his art for what it is. He uses the media given to create beautiful stuff that is museum worthy (see http://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/exhibit/fairey/). That being said, I think he clearly understands the consequences at hand, and he clearly accepts that risk every time that he tags a public place.

    Now, coming from a truly artistic perspective, I tend to enjoy (most) graffiti. Seeing his work in public, his work is tasteful and adds beauty (jn a very unique way) to Providence. And most graffiti I have seen, I believe, gravitates towards that style. He doesn’t tag highly visual areas but seems to aim for quiet, discrete places. I believe his work doesn’t necessarily support graffiti for graffiti sake, but rather supports creativity through experimental and new media.

    Hopefully this doesn’t start more controversy. haha.

  3. Dwight Davis
    June 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Let’s try this again. I do really like a lot of his art, it’s visually striking while being relatively simple. It definitely stands out, I remember seeing a lot of the Andre “Obey” stickers around Providence but not knowing what they were, he’s at least having an impact that way. I like a lot of his philosophy of why he uses graffiti as his chose medium. All of us dissenters, I used to be a pretty hardcore dissenter, went to protests, I’ve since changed but we’ll get to that later, choose a medium in which to get our message across, mine was literature and music, others use visual art, and others use performance art.

    I have always been a fan of well done graffiti and I’ve seen some truly beautiful graffiti all over the States. Recently, an art gallery in downtown Nashville actually had a show of graffiti in their studio which was very neat. What I wrestle with, however, is whether or not beauty/dissent is justified if it is illegal. Obviously when the studio put on the show, the graffiti was legal, but on public property it’s definitely not. So should reform come about through illegal means? I have no idea. I stopped going to protests and being as vocal about the things I disagreed with politically when I started really wrestling with Romans 13. And since I still wrestle with Romans 13 every single day when I start thinking about the things happening that I disagree with, I have no idea what to think about the morality of graffiti.

    I think that the rebel inside of me want’s to say “Stick it to the man! Express what you believe however you choose to do so!” but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right thing to do. Is that the transformed me or the me with very disordered desires? Then again I could become a relativist and say it’s wrong for me to do graffiti since it is illegal and I am a Christian and commanded by Scripture to obey the laws of the land but it’s okay for someone who isn’t a Christian because they don’t have that obligation, but I don’t think that’s the right road to go down either.

    So this long rambling comment basically says I don’t know. Part of me says that Shepard Fairey is dead on in his political and aesthetic philosophy and yet another part of me wants to disagree and say that he should find legal means to go about getting his message and political ideology out.

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