The Hot Seat: Shepard Fairey

The notorious street artist reflects on a turbulent year.

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Illustration: Rob Dobi


It's the best of times and the worst of times for Shepard Fairey, who shot from countercultural notoriety to international fame thanks to a poster featuring a certain victorious presidential hopeful. His roll started with his Obama HOPE icon, and culminated not only with a museum survey at the hoity-toity Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, but also with his major involvement in the acclaimed Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Recently, Fairey's solo show "May Day" opened at Deitch Projects in Soho, but while the exhibition's title refers to the starting date, it might just as easily be read as a distress call, since the happily-ever-after ending for this Fairey tale has been elusive. First, he was sued by the Associated Press for using its image of Obama without permission. Then, a grand jury convened to look into whether Fairey was criminally liable for withholding information during the course of the suit. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested in Boston for creating an illegal mural. As if that weren't bad enough, a legal mural he put up on the corner of East Houston Street and Bowery has been repeatedly vandalized. TONY reached Fairey in L.A. to discuss the highs and lows of being one of the two celebrity street-artists in the world—but the only one with a face to put to the name.

RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews

So what happened up in Boston? You were arrested....
When I was in Boston, I did a lot of legal walls, but I also did some that were not as legal. I wasn't caught in the act of any of it, but one Boston detective decided that a street artist having an art show in a museum, and being put up on a pedestal—that kind of activity being validated would lead to every single house being spray-painted.

Are you planning to watch your step during your show at Deitch?
I'm on probation, but yes, with my work, I am rebellious; just because the law doesn't permit something doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. However, my work isn't just about transgression. The act of putting up a poster is an act of defiance, but for a lot of street artists, that's the only politics of it. I'm commenting on the two-party system, or what's going on with global warming. So I'm just trying to put my work in front of people and not go to jail.

Does that apply to using copyrighted material without permission, as with the AP suit?
Artists making art from photographic references has been a common practice since the invention of the photograph. So not only is it legitimate from an art-world perspective, but it's crucial for free speech and expression. I made a piece of art that's an illustration; it looks nothing like the original. And I did nothing wrong to hurt the market for the original. In fact, the AP's image was licensed far more after my poster was made.

So you were doing them a favor?
You could argue that.

What's happening with this grand-jury investigation?
In the original filing, I was wrong about which photograph I'd taken the crop from. But then I thought, If I admit I was wrong, then AP was just going to say I was lying. I had an ethical obligation to say I was wrong when I knew it, but I was so freaked out by the arrest in Boston that first I tried to cover it up before coming forward. It's been the biggest mistake of my life.

Do you feel targeted because people know who you are, unlike Banksy, who's anonymous?
I think that being open about who I am and being vocal about defending the kind of things most people are scared to defend has made me somewhat of a target. It's been difficult for my family, and I feel bad for them. I've felt bad for myself at moments, but I didn't choose to do all the things I do because they're easy.

So Banksy is getting away with murder....
I love Banksy; he's a friend. But he stays anonymous for two reasons: One, he doesn't want to deal with the hassles of not being anonymous. And two, it's a kind of marketing. Because people fantasize about what he's like, and their fantasies are always going to be superior to the disappointment of reality.

So people would be disappointed if they knew what Banksy looks like?
I think he understands that it's better to keep things Rorschach-style, so everyone can project their idea of him the way they want to.

But it also means your success attracts all the haters, especially other street artists, or street-art aficionados.
Whatever. It's lost me some fans. A lot of people say, "You're not keeping it real...." It comes down to elitism on their part; they're like, I'm in the anticlub club. But I'm not in denial of things having to evolve, and it would be silly of me not to take advantage of the opportunities that have come my way.

"May Day" is on view at Deitch Projects through May 29.

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