FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
It's art school meets political boot camp. Images of Senator Barack Obama have been altered, remade and plastered on walls, bumper stickers and clothing. Of course, you can find them online as well. Barack Obama's image has become, for better or worse, an icon. For example, Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairey created an iconic poster of Obama's face with the word "hope" rendered in red, white and blue. In a few minutes, we're going to talk to two experts on the history of political images. But now, we turn to the artist Shepard Fairey. How are you?
Mr. SHEPARD FAIREY (Artist): I'm great.
CHIDEYA: So, how did this image get started? I mean, you're not someone who just came as a - you know, you didn't just breeze into doing graphic art; you've been doing it for years very successfully. But what about this image called to you?
Mr. FAIREY: Well, I've been making political graphics for awhile, but most of them have been negative, especially criticizing the policies of the Bush administration. And I think for once I was inspired to make a positive political graphic because I felt that Barack Obama was an unusual candidate, a special candidate, and that it was worth putting my efforts into making something positive, which is a bit of a departure for me. The image itself - I felt I should make something that portrayed Obama as having vision and the ability to lead, and that's very abstract. But I think you know it when you see it, so I looked for an image that I could illustrate from that I think portrayed those qualities. And I wanted to make this image actually very patriotic and reverent, because I wanted it to pique the interest of people that maybe weren't, you know, converted already to his cause. And I think that most of my friends, the way my art usually leans, would've already been Obama supporters, so I actually made something that I felt was maybe going to transcend the counterculture.
CHIDEYA: When was the first moment that you knew that your art had gone viral?
Mr. FAIREY: Almost immediately. After I posted the initial graphic on my Web site, letting people know that I was going to create a screen-printed poster for sale, a lot of blogs and even news outlets picked up on it, which was surprising to me. I think that maybe that happened because I have a history of when I make an image it ends up being put out there on the street and manifesting in various forms. So, maybe there was a bit of an expectation. But I actually sold my initial run of posters for less than I sell my usual posters for, figuring that maybe a partisan image would have a lower demand. And immediately, not only did the image go viral, but it was being sold on eBay for between a thousand and $5,000, when I sold the initial print run for $45 each. So, it far exceeded my expectations for, you know, just its resonance and its demand.
CHIDEYA: What you did seems, in a way, well-suited for grassroots campaigning. You know, people can take this image that you have, get a version of it that's online, print it out, take it and wave it around in the physical world or they can attach it to a website. Do you ever feel that people have crossed a line with use of your image, though, that the way in which people have decided to replicate it or alter it is something that you've got to put a stop to? And can you put a stop to it?
Mr. FAIREY: Well, my objective in creating the image was just to make people curious about Obama. They would check him out further and see his merits the way I see them, hopefully. And I've put every dime that I've made from Obama posters and art back into either making more materials or donating to the campaign, up to the legal limit. However, there are some people who are making bootlegs, and they're just pocketing the money. And I try to spend my time doing positive things, but I don't think that's right, so I've tried to at least get the worst offenders selling shirts in airports and things like that and have them divert some of their profits back to the Obama campaign, not to me. But really what I think all the, all the knockoffs, bootlegs, parodies say is how much the image has resonated and how much it's become a, you know, a reference point, a symbolic reference point. So, in that sense, I'm very happy that, you know, people care to riff off of it and really all is forgiven if Obama gets elected.
CHIDEYA: Do you see yourself, at this point, as a surrogate for the campaign, having come from the background, like you've said, of doing art that was much more antagonistic, in your face? At this point, you have been referenced probably in as many campaign articles as, you know, any staffer on the Obama campaign itself. So, do you see yourself as a kind of Obama surrogate?
Mr. FAIREY: Well, I do think that I'm fairly well-educated about where Obama's coming from, all of his policy points. But I just consider myself an artist, and I would leave it up to the viewer hopefully to just be inspired by my image to go and find out more about Obama on their own. His website lays it out pretty clearly. You know, I think my job is to create an image that has some heartfelt passion behind it, that then the viewer says, OK, this image was obviously inspired; let me see what inspired the person to create it. That's really my job, I think. You know, if people want to ask me why I support Obama, I'm glad to let them know. But I think it says more about media culture than my qualification as a surrogate that I've gotten so much attention.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Well, Shepard, thank you.
Mr. FAIREY: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was the artist Shepard Fairey. He's the founder of Studio Number One, and that's a design company based in Los Angeles.