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Street artist Shepard Fairey unveils his gigantic new mural in Sydney’s CBD

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

The US street artist best known for his OBEY GIANT brand and the Barack Obama HOPE campaign has unveiled his first permanent mural in Australia. It’s the artist’s largest wall piece to date, 44 metres high and 28 metres wide, and it features a green-blue painted woman with flowers in her hair, a waratah and the word ‘obey’.

“The idea of consciously obeying versus subconsciously conforming has been something that’s important to me,” says the 47 year old, who brought with him a team of artists from LA to help complete the project. “It’s designed to encourage people to question whether they agree with what they’re confronted with.”

Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW, commissioned the artwork as part of Vivid Sydney, which she says is the “largest art mural in Sydney’s history”. It’s more subtle than the artist’s political work, and Fairey says his brief was to stay apolitical and positive, though he didn’t “feel like this [was] a compromise...

“I’m now addressing what I think is a full spectrum, from angry and provocative to gentle and more diplomatic. It’s much easier to get approval for public works that are not controversial.

Shepard Fairey mural Sydney CBD

Photograph: Destination NSW

“To me, the real crux is democratising my art. Public art is a way for me to reach a lot of people… I always try to find an opportunity to do a larger scale work that maintains that aspect of my philosophy, though I’m now sometimes welcome in more elite circles.”

Fairey says he hopes ‘The Peace Waratah’ symbolises harmony and transcends language. Painted on the south side of 309 George Street, the unfinished work will continue to be developed over the next three days. The blue-black waratah is a nod to local flora, which he says is because it’s beautiful, but also “really hearty. I read that its essence helps people get through times of struggle, that it wards off evil. I thought that was appropriate for this mural.”

During his career, Fairey has been arrested 18 times for his street art. When asked if he would be doing any illegal works while in Sydney he cautiously replied, “I’ve learned that it’s best not to talk about that.” Interestingly, he did mention that he’ll be DJing while he’s here (at a sold-out Oxford Art Gallery gig tomorrow night) and, of course, he’s speaking at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday as part of the Vivid Ideas Game-Changer series. 

Though the Sydney mural is one of the more democratic artworks he’s produced, Fairey’s still motivated by global politics. He says, “When things get darker I actually get more motivated. Sometimes it takes a really tough situation for people to understand how important it is to be engaged – that’s what I am hoping for the US right now.” He followed up with, “I always feel it’s important for me to be outspoken, but especially right now.”

Get along to see more of Fairey’s artworks in two free exhibitions: Printed Matters at aMBUSH Gallery and T-world Pop-Up Gallery in Chippendale (June 17-July 9), and an outdoor exhibition of his music-themed works at Darling Quarter (until June 17).

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