Andre is Everything and Andre is Nothing - Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey has been plastering Andre the Giant’s face on every conceivable surface of the urban landscape for over ten years. He has used stickers, posters and stencils and along the way, GIANT has become the greatest non-brand ever. His campaign to spread the image reaches every corner of the planet and is as ubiquitous as chain stores and more recognizable than most ad campaigns, all without paying a cent for signage. There seems to be more Andre the Giant stickers out there than McDonald’s golden arches.

LP: I read an article recently about you in a Los Angeles-based free paper where the writer made you seem so mysterious and serious, which doesn’t really seem like you at all. There seems to be this thrill of writing about THE Shepard Fairey that leads writers to take this very serious tone.

SF: He tried to make it seem like he was all cool in the article, but when he was there, he was pissing his pants. When the cops came, he was shaking. There was a Kinko’s and he went inside and paid money to get on a computer to look like he was doing something legit. The whole block was locked down with five security officers and when we went back to retrieve the car, he stayed at Kinko’s and was like, "Well fellas, it’s getting late and I think I’ll be going." We hit some places in Silver Lake and came back to the spot where we almost got nailed and finished it at four in the morning. When those guys who called the cops came back the next night they must have been so pissed. We were up on the roof and did this whole panel thing and did some big stuff on two sides of the building. It was an abandoned building so I don’t know why they cared. I guess they just didn’t want it to get graffittied because the city makes them clean it, but the work looks so organized that there’s no way the city would ever make them clean it up.

It was an exciting night, but the following weekend I did some billboards with some press people in tow and I decided that I’m never doing that again. It’s too stressful because those people don’t know what the fuck is going on. They always pull out a camera in the middle of the whole thing and make everything so obvious and I’m like, "What are you doing?" I just decided I’m not going to do that anymore. There’s enough first hand accounts. Everyone else can experience it after it’s finished.

LP: I’ve seen your work on walls, poles and freeway overpasses near the galleries where your work is being shown. Which location works better, the street or the gallery? Or are they just different?

SF: Street. Definitely. The work was created in reaction to - and inspired by well, reaction sounds totally negative and it’s not a negative thing - but a reaction to the graphics around me, which are mostly related to advertising. Some of it is advertising for things that I’m into (like music or skateboarding) and some of it is just ads that I want to make fun of. So it being experienced on the street is much more realistic to the thing that catalyzed it, that stimulated it. A gallery is such an elitist environment. It really is so safe. You are more or less preaching to the converted in a gallery. Those people, if they went to art school, are probably pretty well educated, and they have a good idea of what’s going on around them in terms of politics or whatever. They are probably not the type of person that just comes home from work and eats a TV Dinner and goes to a blue-collar job the next day. Those people are the ones most dramatically affected when they have been sleepwalking through life absorbing all this imagery and then all of a sudden there is something out there that doesn’t make sense ’cause it’s not selling anything and it doesn’t have this overt political agenda. Those people are the ones that benefit the most from it.

I guess I’m doing this for a few reasons. I’m doing it because I like making art, because I like the adrenaline rush I get out of putting it up and fucking the system over. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. In a way it is bad because in a lot of ways, I think I’m above the law just because I’m smart enough to see that a lot of it is bullshit. And that’s not really how it works. Just because you are smart enough to see that a lot of it is bullshit, doesn’t mean that you are going to get away with it. I’ve paid the price a few times....

LP: How many times have you been hauled in?

SF: Five.

LP: In which cities?

SF: Long Beach; New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, SC; Providence, RI and I got a citation here in San Diego, but nothing really happened. I also got shut down by the City Council and all the Powers That Be in San Diego. The city public relations officer did some research, came to my office and found out who I am and warned me that things were coming to a head and said that the DA would be forming a law suit against me and my company. He was actually pretty cool. He said that people were concerned because my work lowers the property value whether it’s on public or private property. The local merchant association was really pissed at me for doing stuff downtown. They are a group that can get the street that they are on paved twice a year instead of once every five years because their businesses are pumping so much money into the economy. I don’t think that’s fair, but that’s the facts.

That’s something I had to come to terms with. As much as, principally, I think it’s bullshit, I can’t put anything up in San Diego anymore because I’m either going to be fined or incarcerated, it’s not worth it. So there are people emailing me that are all, [whining voice] "Man, don’t give up!" because they read newspaper articles about it, but what do they know? I’ve done my thing hardcore for three years, and I think, "If you’re so into it, why don’t you do something similar instead of telling me not to stop?" This one guy was like, [mock- serious voice] "If you stop, you’re just contributing to the provinciality of San Diego like everyone else does," and I’m thinking, "What have you done? You can write email, but are you putting shit up?" That sort of stuff bugs me.

I’m not trying to be a role model. It’s cool when people are inspired by me, but I’m doing this for my own reasons. I don’t feel like I owe anything to anyone or they owe anything to me. I’m just doing this because I want to do it. One of the things I really hate is when people get self-righteous and didactic about stuff and I really don’t want to be that. I think I can’t help but sound that way sometimes when I say companies are stupid and the government is stupid and a lot of the rhetoric that’s kind of true, but really, the way I feel is that I am doing this for my own reasons and any sort of good or bad is all on me.

The original sticker says "Andre the Giant has a posse" and people take that really literally and think that there is some sort of membership or whatever and I, actually, don’t even like membership. It’s cool when people help to put the stuff up, but then it gets into [mock condescending voice] "I’m officially putting the stickers up so I am better than you are...."

LP: I’m part of the posse...

SF: Yeah, "I’m part of the posse because I sent Shepard an email." It’s funny when you analyze it and that’s part of what I enjoy, but it’s weird when something you are doing takes on a life of its own that’s sometimes not what you want it to be. I think it’s unavoidable. There has never been some sort of a thing where you send your name and ten bucks for membership.

For the most part, the people who send me an email or write me are cool and they understand. There are a few dumbasses now and then. There was this one guy that sent me something that said, "Why don’t you make a sticker of..." and then he named the cop’s name that Mumia supposedly killed. I don’t really know where the truth is in that case, but my feeling is that the cops abused their power more. Everything about Mumia’s character that I have read suggests that he’s probably guilty of manslaughter at best and that the cops are fucking with him. Anyway, this guy was telling me to make an anti-Mumia sticker with this cop having a posse and I’m thinking, "I can’t believe this guy is into my stuff and he thinks that."

LP: Your original stickers were the posse ones, when did you introduce the OBEY concept?

SF: I started doing the OBEY stickers in 1995. I’ll tell you how the OBEY and the communist stuff came in. The stickers I did from 89-94 were just derivations of the original sticker with the same head but with flames or leopard skin. I made stuff like Andre as Jimi Hendrix, Andre as Gene Simmons and Andre’s face in Neal Armstrong’s helmet in that first moonwalk picture. I did a Peter Max-style 70s poster where Andre is in the middle with two chicks with microphones on either side singing with this rainbow and psychedelic patterns and 3D 70s type in the sky in the back. It’s got Andre with sunglasses on, really goofy sunglasses with a psychedelic pattern forming the reflections. Super-funny stuff like that. It was all about appropriating different sort of pop culture genres and icons and re-doing them. It’s a Taoist thing. Andre is everything and Andre is nothing.

That was my strategy. Logo rip-off and popular icon hijacking was the technique to provide resonance. All the stuff, I thought, was humorous. It was all humor, but I guess just by the nature of the proliferation of the stickers being mysterious and cult-like, especially to the conservative person who fears that sort of thing, I realized that there was a lot of negative reaction, even to the original Andre the Giant has a Posse stickers. When I first started putting them up, there would be a sign full of stickers and I’d go by and everything would be great and the next day only the Giant sticker would have a key raked through it so that it was ripped to oblivion. You could barely even see what it was and all the other stickers would be fine. It wasn’t as though someone thought that stickers are bad and tried to get rid of them. Specifically, they hated my sticker.

One time I was putting up a poster with wallpaper paste in Providence and this guy confronted me about it and he was like, "Dude, what is that?" I asked him what he thought it was and he says, "You’re the one putting it up, you must know." I told him that someone gave me the posters to put up and I asked what he thought it meant and he’s like, "You know! You’re lying! Tell me what it is!" and he was with these two girls and you could tell that he was feeling like a cornered animal, being forced to interpret it in front of the girls. He didn’t like that. So I asked him what he thought about advertising, TV, MTV, etc. and if he thought people ever get manipulated or brainwashed by that stuff. He got all upset and goes, "DUDE!" and puts his finger on my chest and says, "You’re the one that’s fucking brainwashed! You’re a fucking brainwashed asshole!" He was going off on me, and I realized that when people don’t know what something is, they feel threatened by it.

I never really predicted this direction, but I thought it called for me to push it and I figured the more extreme the reaction to it, positive or negative, the more of a dialogue would ensue. Creating something from nothing, the biggest coup possible, was always my goal. Emotion is very important and I wanted to do something inflammatory. Have you seen the movie They Live?

LP: No...

SF: Awwww. You gotta see it. Rent it. There is this paradox. It’s really goofy, but it also touches on some serious topics metaphorically, which are.... Well, I should explain the movie. Rowdy Roddy Piper, the wrestler, is a construction worker who gets laid off. He goes to live in this tent camp while he’s looking for work. The people there are kind of weird, but benevolent and philanthropic, so they’re presented as mysterious good guys. One day he sees them working up in this building and he sees them doing something that looks like chemistry and then the next day the cops come and tear down the whole camp and run everyone off and destroy the building. Rowdy thinks this might be related to what he saw up there, so he goes to where the building was and finds this box of sunglasses in the rubble. He puts them on and everything turns black and white and, for the first time, he sees that half the people in the world are aliens and they are all the authoritarians, rich people, business people and the cops. You can only see this when you are wearing sunglasses. Then he looks at billboards and the billboards, instead of "Tahiti Vacation," say "OBEY" or "CONSUME" or "SLEEP AND WATCH TV." He looks at some guy holding money and the money says in black type on white paper, "THIS IS YOUR GOD." It’s dope.

I thought that was awesome. I like the idea of a metaphor of something underlying that no one notices that is very insidious and needs to have attention called to it. People are sleepwalking through life and don’t notice that stuff, so I decided to start using OBEY. It was a mockery of obedience, of course, but it still pissed people off.

I went through this slow growth curve until 1995 and then there was this intense period of graphic and conceptual growth. That was when I came up with OBEY and also when I came up with the streamlined face. It was also when I started using all the red, black and white and the communist imagery. One of the reasons the communist imagery (and the red, black and white) came about was that I decided that stickers and stencils weren’t really enough. I wanted to do something that was more confrontational and a littler larger in scale. I’d done some billboards in the past, but I wasn’t on the billboard kick like I am now.

The poster artist Robbie Conal inspired me. I had seen his stuff on the street in LA in 1988 and always thought it was cool and his stuff was one of the reasons I got into poster art. He seemed like the only contemporary person doing poster propaganda. Everything else seemed to only pop up during wars. I thought it was cool that this was his art and that he was satisfying his desire to make art, but he was also making a statement and using humor. I wanted to do that in my work too, but not have it be so topical or up to the moment.

I wanted to make more posters and poster them in the fashion of Robbie Conal. I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, at the time and I was within driving distance of Boston and New York as well as Philadelphia, but I had no money. My strategy was to figure out the cheapest way to do it. I used to hang out at Kinko’s back then because I did all my art there. I didn’t even know how to use a computer. The Kinko’s in Providence had some copiers that had red toner and I decided to design my posters in red and black so I could make 11"x17" posters by just running sheets through the copier twice. I either had people who would give me free copies or I could rig the machines to get free copies, so I really never paid for anything.

I liked the way the 11"x17" version came out and I decided to print 18"x24" posters. I would do 100 on thin paper for postering on the street and 100 on thick paper for selling. I was losing money on that because there was no audience to buy my posters, so I ended up sitting on all those until the last two years. But that was good, because I’ve been selling them now and recouping the money.

Of course, that Kinko’s color palette leant itself nicely to the communist imagery which is, once again, very antagonistic. That antagonistic look is how we have perpetuated the arms race for the last seventy-five years. That whole industry survives on fear of Communism. It’s pretty ingrained in people to think that look undermines freedom and the American way of life. I’m not promoting Communism; I’m just making fun of blind patriotism that’s based on symbolism rather than threat. I think it’s hilarious that people get mad at it. Also, that stuff is good art, so there is a lot of factors converging there.

LP: What about Barbara Kruger? You were telling me a few weeks back about seeing her show in LA.

SF: The first incarnation of the OBEY poster was the old school head with just a black, bold OBEY using Futura Extra Bold Oblique, which is what Barbara Kruger uses. Once I did that, I thought that I should really take this all the way and do it more Barbara Kruger style and have the same type, but have it knocked out of a red box in white, because that’s what she did. She used a lot of cropped images and so I cropped the old school face close up. When I did the streamlined face, I started using OBEY underneath that version. The reason I chose Barbara Kruger is because her work has become so synonymous with a contemporary, politically charged message, whether it’s around abortion or any women’s issue. I see her stuff, or rip-offs of her stuff, on college campus bulletin boards so much that it seems like a language that speaks seriously to people in the age group that I want to reach. I wanted my work to be like, "Oh shit, what’s this about?" I wanted to have that immediate, instantaneous response from people due to those devices that have been proven through her work. It’s not even so much about her as the devices she uses that have become so synonymous with a politically charged message.

I’ve done some Warhol knock-offs that are a funny, Pop Art statement, but my more Kruger-influenced stuff isn’t funny, it’s meant to be taken seriously, at least symbolically seriously. Then you notice it’s Giant, and it’s funny, but it’s not immediately funny. I’ve stuck with that type, that device, for a lot of the stuff because I think it’s effective.

I like Warhol a lot conceptually, taking an everyday object and making it fine art, sort of making fun of the fine art world. I’m not making fun of the fine art world, though; I’m making fun of the whole world.

LP: In the new Paper Magazine, there is a spread with a fey model in OBEY GIANT boxers which seems a bit absurd. Can this get too ubiquitous?

SF: No.

LP: Where would you draw the line? If Coke wanted to pay you to put Andre on their can, would you be interested?

SF: I wouldn’t let them do it. I wouldn’t sanction that, but when we [BLKMRKT, the design firm Shepard is part owner of] did the Mountain Dew can redesign, one of the background patterns that we did was an organic, amorphous cloudy pattern and I actually snuck a cropped view of Andre’s face into the pattern. It was subtle, but if I pointed it out to you, it would be like the Joe Camel thing, you would totally see it. They didn’t end up going with that design, but it would have been an amazing coup to have done it without their permission. To have them try to appropriate it, make it corporate and official... I wouldn’t be into that. That wouldn’t be in the spirit. That would be too big a jump, but I am definitely into letting it take its natural course, even if that means popular embrace and commercial success. I’m not going to try to prohibit it from doing that because one of the things that I am trying to do is see how absurd this thing can be and how far it can go. To think that Coke would do that is so ridiculous, but I would definitely do it if the time were right.

Then all I would do is write my whole exposé on the workings, the mechanics, the history of it that makes everyone feel dumb or at least they can laugh at themselves. It’s definitely going to make some of the people that gave my image a corporate subsidy feel dumb.

LP: I was over on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and I had a GIANT sticker and these kids were asking me how they could contact you. Are you aware of how famous you are?

SF: Weird stuff does happen sometimes. I was up on a billboard in Los Angeles putting a thing up and some guy drove by in a Range Rover and yelled, "Go Shepard Fairey!!!" As long as the cops don’t know me that well.

LP: I wanted to ask you about consumption and consumerism. I can see your work literally on the corner right outside my place, but yet I bought a poster from you a few months back. Why do you think people need to buy your posters, stickers or T-shirts?

I think there is a couple of reasons. A lot of people just like the art, which is why you buy anything to hang on your wall. The other reason is that it’s cool by association or rebellious by association. A lot of people don’t really do their own thing so they live vicariously through symbols. I have certainly done that. I’m into punk rock stuff and I never had my own band, but I loved what those bands I was into symbolized, so I made bootleg Sex Pistols, Husker Du and Dead Kennedys shirts. I also made shirts of skateboard companies that I thought were cool and had the baddass team riders who were rebellious and did the gnarliest tricks... I always wanted to have the shirts or make the shirts of those companies. I skated and I got ill, but it was more than that and I couldn’t just leave it at that. I had to do it to the fullest. I had to wear the stuff.

LP: Which brands?

SF: Independent and Thunder trucks had the badass images. For a little while when Vision came out, they had a really good image and I liked their stuff, but they got cheesy as they got more corporate. I liked Dogtown’s image, too. That was the stuff that I was into.

But getting back to the consumption, I think a lot of the kids like it because they see my stuff on the street and maybe they are into putting stickers up themselves. In a way, it’s like saying I participate in this thing that is rebellious and I am not a normal conformist. Unfortunately, the more people that do it, the more conformist it seems. Anything can get watered down and, I know that’s what you meant when you asked about becoming too ubiquitous, but that is unavoidable.

We have to wear clothes every day and you might as well wear what you like, but to be too obsessed with that comes from insecurity. People that are slaves to fashion are pathetic and I feel sorry for them, but they also make me mad because they usually use that as a weapon against other people that don’t care about fashion as much because that’s a way they can feel that they are superior. And then it perpetuates and everyone’s insecurity perpetuates and you have to have this or that to be cool. There is a very fine line between being sensitive to aesthetics and being obsessed with self-image and being cool and with trying to make others feel uncool just so you can feel cool. Advertising is designed to make people feel insecure, to make them feel fat or ugly or that if they have this product they will get laid more. No one’s making you buy anything. You can’t blame the advertising. You have to blame the mentality of the people.

What I am trying to do is make something that is so ridiculous that it can’t really fit into that paradigm in a justifiable way once you examine it. Therefore it’s gonna make people feel silly for using it like that and for saying "I’m cool because I have a GIANT shirt."

LP: But you are making products for people to buy. You’re making clothes and skateboards, right?

SF: I’m into making the items because it’s more canvases. Those things give me more ways to get it out there. How I conduct myself personally and what I say in interviews may combat or undermine that mentality that takes items like, Polo or Nautica or Tommy Hilfigger, which can be used as fashion items or as a symbol and uses them as a way to be cooler. For me to be able to be as visible and vocal as I am and say that that’s not what it’s about, at least is going to get some of the kids arguing with some of the other kids about and thinking about what the stuff that you decide to wear or skate means.

I think that’s valuable.

LP: Any shows coming up?

SF: People can see more about my posters and shows, etc. at my web site