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The Phenomenon of Shepard Fairey

Sarah J. Edwards speaks to Shepard Fairey in which he opens up about his childhood, the beginnings of skate culture, his time at Rhode Island School of Design, setting up his screen printing business and many of the things that inspire his work.

The Phenomenon of Shepard Fairey
Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art by Shepard Fairey

We all know the art scene has exploded over the past year or two and the interesting thing is the title ‘artist’ has been applied to many talents who least expected the tag, professionally - so to speak. These artists are being invested in like property.

Shepard Fairey has become quite the phenomenon. Several years ago his mysterious ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ stickers ubiquitously sprang up in hard to reach places all across the globe and caught the eye of punk rockers, hip hop heads, skaters and street art enthusiasts. His work has evolved into a more complex style and he’s now a fully-fledged artist, businessman, creative director and fashion label owner. Here’s how it all began...

“As a kid going to private school and growing up in Charlestown which is really conservative, I was not happy, but I didn’t really know any alternative. In 1984 I started skateboarding, I had no idea about the whole culture behind it, but I enjoyed the activity, it was something that I could do by myself, [with] no need for a teammate and no organised sports aspect to it. It was a just a physical outlet, it was creative and you could do it alone. Then I got into skateboarding magazines and punk rock was so embedded in that culture, that it was just a natural thing that I would get into [through that lifestyle]. And there was no internet, you know? I’m in a small town but I started to find pockets of people that were into skateboarding and punk rock. It was a small scene, I would go into the record store and I would ask them to special order the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys and Clash records – things they didn’t carry normally. Surprisingly enough, I got fairly current on everything that was going on just by trading tapes with friends. It was the first time I ever felt like I had my own thing going where I wasn’t at the mercy of the status quo and that was so empowering and exciting.

“I’d always drawn ever since I was a little kid, drawings and paintings and stuff, but it was just something to do that was a technical exercise. It didn’t really have a cultural connection to anything I was excited by and then once I got [into that scene] – the whole stickers, skateboard graphics, stencil and T-shirt making, all that stuff, – then I could apply what I was doing with art to something that I was much more excited about, as sort of a being a signifier of what I was into. That was 1984... The name of my London show is NineteenEightyFouria. It’s both a reference to the culture of people embracing the 1984 mentality, where the Government does all your thinking for you and it’s much more convenient to have fewer freedoms and it’s terribly frightening. As well as the surveillance culture that in London is so huge, you know? That’s also the year that conversely – I love contrast – that my whole world kind of changed for the better.”

So when you went to the Rhode Island School of Design did you know you were going to set up the screen-printing business?
“No, when I went there I was still was somewhat narrow in my view of art. What I was doing for fun all the stencils, stickers, T-shirts and stuff, I thought was just recreation and that you’d never be able to sub stuff like that for real art so...when I got to art school I majored in Illustration, because I could draw and paint.

“Illustration was a very open-ended major where you could take a lot of other electives and I knew that...

The feature first appeared in the printed edition of BLAG Vol.2 Nø 9 in 2008

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