Shepard Fairey is an LA-based artist who prefers his work to grace the urban outdoors, rather than sit enclosed within a stuffy gallery. You’ll no doubt recognise his distinct style from the Obama 2008 campaign’s Hope poster, which has since become iconic, the stenciled portrait version of which was acquired by the Smithsonian for its National Portrait Gallery. Shepard’s also been arrested 18 times (occasionally failing to secure permission to paint in public), though seems perfectly OK with that. “For me, public art started off as a way I could reach a lot of people and I also was insecure about submitting my work to galleries, so I took care of that [by] not asking for the innkeeper’s permission,” he says. Now in town for Vivid Sydney, Shepard has designed a meditative babe to be emblazoned on a George Street building in the city’s CBD. She’s 44 metres high and 28 metres wide, grasping a waratah and oozing enviable zen. “This mural is tapping into themes that are always present in my work. I’m pro-peace and harmony and looking at the better side of human nature,” he explains.
Privileged to have spent a half-hour in his company, we’ve condensed Shepard’s insights. Here’s the man behind the looming artworks peppered across the globe:
Why he tends not to generalise
“I don’t go with any situation assuming these outsider-artist types are gonna be exactly the kind of people I like, and these other people from government or wherever are someone to be suspicious of. You know, in fact, I’ve had the coolest indie music labels totally screw me over, and governments and corporations that were so cool and took care of me. So I don’t generalise any of it. I just try to navigate each situation as constructively as possible.”
Why he’s seeking to democratise art
“My entire thought process on coming here [to Sydney], to me the real crux, is democratising art. Instead of art only being accessible to people in galleries and museums, that they consider it more as something that should be part of their daily lives. And it is woven into every aspect of culture, whether it’s graphic design or movies, fashion. These are all visual-art manifestations. So, for me, public art started off as a way I could reach a lot of people, and I also was insecure about submitting my work to galleries, so I took care of that when I was not asking for the innkeeper’s permission.”
On painting Sydney’s largest ever mural
“This mural is tapping into themes that are always present in my work. I’m pro-peace and harmony and looking at the better side of human nature that we all can aspire to, and things we have in common rather than focusing on our differences and things to argue about. I’m always one for debate, but I think that especially now in the anonymous social media culture, the idea that you can abandon any sort of respect for human dignity and diplomacy because you’re anonymous is deeply disturbing to me. So this piece is promoting peace and harmony, but it’s also featuring a waratah. I frequently use lotuses, but I did a little bit of research about flowers from the region and what I liked about them. A waratah on the internet would allow me to totally pander. Just kidding. Sort of.”
Why his art doesn’t necessarily embrace the digital
“One of the reasons I still put work on the street, even though people say, ‘Well, if your whole idea is to be as prolific in your work as possible, disseminate as far and wide as possible, why don’t you just focus on pushing things out digitally further?’ And the reason is I think that’s something that doesn’t have the same visceral impact. I think that when people see a piece on the street, or they hold a print, the tangible side of it, the physicality of it, reminds them what it’s like when they get out into the world and molecules collide. And I think that’s where the excitement is.”
Why he repeatedly uses the word “Obey” across his work
“Originally, when I used the word ‘obey’ I was inspired by [George] Orwell, but then also this movie called They Live. Have you ever seen that movie? It’s a silly movie, but the principle is that people have been manipulated by aliens who are encouraging everyone to just fall in line and to consume and be submissive, and when you put on these special glasses, you can see what the true agenda of every communication is. So ads that say, ‘Vacation in Tahiti’ say ‘Marry and reproduce. Sleep. Consume. Obey.’
“And when I watched that, the ‘obey’ was the most powerful thing to me in that it’s something that’s implicit all the time, but people don’t want to rock the boat, they want to conform to social norms, they don’t want to get in trouble, they don’t want to make their parents upset, their friends. But then when you tell them directly to obey, it’s more provocative. It inspires a more thoughtful response in, ‘Okay, what am I supposed to obey? Do I really want to obey? Does that align with my true sensibilities?’ So the idea of consciously obeying versus subconsciously conforming has been something that’s important to me.”
On not coming from wealth
“One of the main main concepts of my entire career is empowerment; that you don’t have to come from a well-connected family, a rich background. I’ve always joked around that I’m the visual art version of a ‘three chords in a garage punk-rock band’. It’s not about virtuosity and resources. It’s about making sure that you can project your passion and then things can build from there. If you have the courage to express yourself and you work hard, I think things can happen. It sounds like a really trite cliché, but I can speak from my own experience.”
Shepard is speaking at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday as part of Vivid Ideas.
Photography by Ken Leanfore for Destination NSW.