What's with That Obama Poster? Underground artist Shepard Fairey has created a poster of Barack Obama that has been popping up all over the U.S. Fairey says he never expected to see it used the way it has been.
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What's with That Obama Poster?

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What's with That Obama Poster?

What's with That Obama Poster?

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We turn now to an image on the campaign trail. It's an image that's become not only an icon of a campaign, but also a bit of a hot art commodity. I'm talking about a red, white and blue image of Barack Obama. It kind of looks like those old school propaganda posters. Madeleine, have you seen these things?


I have seen those. I've seen them in my neighborhood in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, and they look kind of like linoleum cuts or woodcuts.

COHEN: Yeah, exactly. And that's what they are. And I saw them here in L.A., too, and I thought it was a local thing, until I saw them when I was reporting in Texas. And then I saw a photo of one on the front page of the New York Times. Then I found out that these posters are being sold on eBay for over 1,500 dollars.


COHEN: I can't believe it, either! Now, here's the interesting thing. You'd think something like this was generated by some high-powered DC branding firm, but it's actually from a Los Angeles street artist named Shepard Fairey.

Mr. SHEPARD FAIREY (Street Artist, Obama Campaign): The first time I remember seeing Barack Obama was at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and I thought, wow, there's actually somebody that is saying what I want to hear.

COHEN: Fairey broke out on the art scene in the late '80s with stickers featuring wrestling legend Andre the Giant. He plastered them in unexpected and often illegal places.

Mr. FAIREY: That's been my style, always. If I'm into something, I don't get permission. I just do it!

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: I recently caught up with Shepard Fairey at his studio just down the road from Dodger Stadium. Lining the walls were images he's created for movie campaigns, famous musicians, even video games. When Senator Obama announced he was running for president, Fairey says he knew he wanted to do artwork for him, too, but he wasn't sure how the campaign would feel about it.

Mr. FAIREY: I have a history of having been arrested for doing illegal street art, and so I thought maybe he - you know, he wouldn't want the Farrakhan the endorsement. He wouldn't want the Shepard Fairey endorsement.

COHEN: At first, he says he got no response from Obama's campaign.

Mr. FAIREY: And then a week and a half before Super Tuesday, I finally got a call from a friend who did some PR stuff for him, and he said, OK, they said yeah. They want you to do a poster.

COHEN: He printed up posters and plastered them in his typical guerilla-art style throughout L.A. He also offered a digital version to download for free on his website.

Mr. FAIREY: The part that I didn't expect was that, once it was posted online, what it would achieve virally.

COHEN: People started using the image in their email signatures. They printed it out and posted it in the windows of their homes. Shepard Fairey also put several hundred signed posters up for sale at his website for 45 dollars a piece. Within minutes, they all sold out. That money didn't go to the Obama campaign. Fairey says he knew there is a legal limit to what he could donate as an individual, but, he adds, there are no rules saying he couldn't use the money to make and distribute more Obama art.

Mr. FAIREY: I have made 60,000 of the posters. I made 2,000 t-shirts, 100,000 stickers, did a billboard that we put on our building, a 16 by 30 foot billboard, and I also used the revenue from the t-shirts to buy bus stop ads in Philadelphia.

COHEN: The image has become a collector's item. The Obama campaign took note of its marketing potential and eventually asked Fairey to make official posters that now retail on their website for 70 dollars. And then, says Shepard Fairey, came something he truly didn't expect.

Mr. FAIREY: Dear Shepard, I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign.

COHEN: He shows me a brief typed letter he recently received at home.

Mr. FAIREY: Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I'm privileged to be part of your art work and proud to have your support.

COHEN: The bottom is signed Barack Obama.

Mr. FAIREY: With an actual signature with a pen. Could be like Warhol and his mom does his signature or his assistant or something, but I'd like to believe Barack wrote this and signed this. Makes me feel awesome. He's got my vote.

COHEN: But Shepard Fairey is quick to note, even though he supports Senator Obama, he wants others to make informed decisions.

Mr. FAIREY: Go to his website and read about his policies and make up your own mind. Because I don't want to influence how people vote just because they think my artwork is cool. I want them to believe in the person they're voting for.

COHEN: Artist Shepard Fairey talking about his latest poster campaign. To see it, go to our website, npr.org.

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