Spreading The Hope: Street Artist Shepard Fairey Street artist Shepard Fairey created the iconic red, white and blue Obama illustration that became the unofficial poster of the campaign. Although his campaign poster never became official, Fairey has been commissioned to design the official poster for the inauguration.

Spreading The Hope: Street Artist Shepard Fairey

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. So, the day is here that many thought would never arrive. We have an African-American president. Who knows what image will define Barack Obama's presidency, but the image that most defined his campaign was created by my guest Shepard Fairey. His red, white and blue "HOPE" poster of Obama went through a number of iterations, using spray paint, collage and screen-printing techniques before Fairey was contacted by the Obama campaign to create an official poster. Time Magazine used one of Fairey's images of Obama for their person-of-the-year cover. And Fairey was commissioned to do the official inauguration poster. Although he's now a commercially successful artist, he's also a street artist whose first image to go viral was of the wrestler Andre the Giant.

Shepard Fairey, welcome to Fresh Air. Let me start by asking you to describe your famous Obama poster. Actually, you have several famous Obama posters, but I'll ask you to describe the first one that caught on that you did for anyone who hasn't seen it.

Mr. SHEPARD FAIREY (Artist; Graphic Designer): Well, I initially made an illustration of Obama that said progress beneath it, and then quickly changed that to hope, because I got some feedback from people that hope was the message that the Obama campaign really wanted to push. And I actually agreed with that, but I created it back in early January of 2008. And it's Obama with his face, basically, half in blue and half in red, sort of looking off into the distance with, theoretically, a presidential gaze of vision and confidence and wisdom. That's what it should imply. But that image was created just as a grassroots poster to be disseminated the way I normally get my posters out there, which was just on the street and through viral means. It caught on amazingly quickly because, I think, largely because of the Internet and because so many people were motivated as - for Obama, but that became the unofficial official image of the campaign in a lot of ways, which was amazing for me.

GROSS: How did it become an official image of the Obama campaign?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, it never actually became an official image of the Obama campaign. The Obama campaign liked that image, but because it was being disseminated in some ways illegally, or bending the rules, at least, they couldn't officially get behind that poster. So, they had me do a couple of illustrations from photos that they had clearance to that they could then sell on Obama's Web site and that they could use for materials to encourage people to vote and use in, you know, their efforts with their campaigners. And they were done in the same style as the HOPE image. And then, later, I was asked by Time Magazine to do their cover, also in the style of the HOPE Obama image. So...

GROSS: This was their man-of-the-year cover?

Mr. FAIREY: That's right, their - get with the times, Terry - person-of-the-year cover.

GROSS: Person of the year, sorry, yes.

Mr. FAIREY: Yes. And you know, what's amazing to me is that a piece of art that really was created with no affiliation with the campaign, no backing of a corporation that wanted a favor back or lobbyists or anything, managed to take hold and become so pervasive, you know, very much in the spirit of what Obama says, that change comes from the bottom up. It functions that way.

GROSS: What inspired you to do the poster in the first place? You first became known for work that was almost like visual and language non sequiturs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You had to project some kind of meaning on to it, and to actually take a stand and endorse Obama through these posters was kind of different from the work you were known for.

Mr. FAIREY: Sure. A lot of the work that I created throughout my career has been, I called it, absurdist propaganda; the idea that just putting something out there in the public space that gets people to question all the images they're confronted with is helpful. I called it phenomenology. That's a Heideggerian theory of reawakening a sense of wonder about one's environment. But more and more, my work has become more overtly political, and throughout the Bush years, I have been making pieces questioning the war in Iraq, questioning our shrinking civil liberties and privacy and, you know, a lot of the issues we've been facing under Bush. So, really, to me it's a logical evolution of my politics.

I heard Obama speak at the Democratic Convention four years ago. I was really impressed by what he had to say. There was a lot of positive rhetoric, but also some very straightforward talk about things that - challenges we're facing, and I think that Obama has the right mix of being able to unite but also being a realist. He's an idealist and a realist simultaneously, and you know, it's - I think he's extraordinary. So, I wanted to make a poster in support of him, even when people thought that the Hillary juggernaut would crush him momentarily and I was wasting my time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, the Obama posters that you did have a completely different look than your typical political poster, which is usually a straightforward photograph, like a headshot of the candidate with a slogan underneath. What do you think the style of your photograph said? What do you think that communicated to people in a way that was different from what standard campaign posters do?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, I think standard campaign posters are very safe. They use photographs. They don't take many liberties other than, you know, the usual patriotic American flag motifs and maybe a soft-focus blue background or something. And I think that people were just ready for something that had a little bit more of a unique approach and said, this is an iconic, confident image that isn't just about pandering to the lowest common denominator. I didn't make my image necessarily thinking that it would achieve the mainstream embrace that it has. I created it, in a lot of ways, for my usual audience, but hopefully, with the red, white and blue color palette, to be patriotic enough to transcend my audience of, I guess you could say, you know, progressive counter-culture types, because I really do believe that being patriotic is, you know, is about questioning your government when it's not making you proud, but also supporting it when it is. And with the opportunity to put Obama in the White House, you know, I felt like I needed to get behind that in a very patriotic way, and I needed an image that reflected that, but it still had to reflect my voice.

GROSS: Now, early on, you were a little worried that if you did this poster, it might have a negative effect on the Obama campaign. This is before they contacted you and asked you to do one that they could use in a more official way. But what were you worried about early on? How did you think the poster might reflect badly on Obama?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, you know, I'm an artist that's put work up on the streets for many years, and I've been arrested as a result of that. And I've also made work that's criticized President Bush and other aspects of capitalism and United States' policies. However, I always felt that this was with the most constructive intentions, but a person who is a blindly nationalistic type could try to spin my work as being un-American or unpatriotic, and I was afraid that some right-wing groups might latch on to that aspect of my work and, you know, my poster for Obama could be perceived as the unwelcome endorsement.

GROSS: You've been arrested how many times?

Mr. FAIREY: I've been arrested 14 times. I've been arrested in New York, Long Beach, Boston, Charleston, South Carolina. I was arrested in Denver during the Democratic Convention. While every vendor on every corner was selling my Obama image, I was being arrested.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Tell me the story. What happened?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, I was out putting up a mixture of Obama and "obey" posters, and I was with a group of friends, we were in an alleyway, putting posters on a concrete wall, and we thought we were far enough outside of the very, you know, hot area of downtown Denver, to avoid, you know, these black-suited riot cops that were everywhere. But somehow they saw us, and next thing you know, we were surrounded by 20 cops, several with their guns pulled. And we were zip-tied and hauled off to what they called mini Guantanamo, which was a special facility in Denver just for the protesters. And the funny thing was that, you know, authority has no inherent wisdom, so - that's a Joe Strummer quote - these police zip-tied us and said we were anarchists. Meanwhile, they were pulling Obama posters and stickers that we were carrying out, and I guess they didn't really understand the definition of anarchists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, right - because you were believing in government.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIREY: That's right.

GROSS: You were supporting a candidate. So, did you say to them, say, I'm the guy that did these posters that you're seeing all over the place?

Mr. FAIREY: I did tell them that I was the guy, because I thought that might...

GROSS: Save you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIREY: Save me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FAIREY: Make it seem more legitimate. But they - their only response to that was, I bet you're getting rich off that. And actually, I didn't keep any money from the Obama posters. I put it all back into making more posters and to donating to the campaign. But it was funny that that was the only way that they could think about it. I guess those guys don't get paid a lot.

GROSS: So, how'd you get out?

Mr. FAIREY: They really were just trying to get people that were perceived as troublemakers off the street. So, they just kept us in there for 15 hours, and we were zip-tied with those really intense plastic zip-ties to another person, which is extremely uncomfortable, actually, because they do it right arm to right arm so you can't get comfortable. But then they just put us in front of the judge and said, if you plead guilty, then you're out, time served. And there were actually a lot of people in there that had been rounded up for, you know, being troublemakers, who weren't, who were peacefully organized. And they really had a legitimate gripe, but then they're put in the position where they - if they don't just plead guilty, then they have to come back and go to court and spend money. But if they do plead guilty, then they have no recourse. And I felt bad for those people. I just plead guilty and got out and was over with it.

GROSS: My guest is artist Shepard Fairey. He designed the iconic Obama "HOPE" poster during the campaign. He also designed the official poster for Obama's inauguration. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On this Inauguration Day, we are speaking with illustrator and designer Shepard Fairey. He designed the official poster for Barak Obama's inauguration and the iconic "HOPE" poster used during the campaign. Let me read a letter that Obama sent you back in February of 2008. It's a really nice letter.

(Reading) I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can change the status quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I'm privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support.

Now, he's acknowledging in the letter that some of your images are seen on, for instance, stop signs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Officially, that's not a legal place to put your art. So, what did it say to you that he acknowledged that you're a street artist and that you sometimes put your art in places where it's officially not supposed to be?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, for me, it was incredibly encouraging in that he realizes that people express themselves in different ways and, you know, bending the rules might be appropriate for certain things. His campaign later, once that letter was published, quickly qualified the statement with a, you know, a statement saying, well, we, of course, we endorse the implementation of these materials in a - following local ordinances, et cetera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FAIREY: But what it said to me was that Obama was both, you know, tuned in to what was happening at the street level and receptive to that and open-minded because a lot of people aren't going to be engaged politically if they feel like their culture is inappropriate in the, you know, the realm of politics.

GROSS: Now, the first Obama poster that you did - the unofficial one, the one that the Obama campaign couldn't use - they couldn't use it, I think, because you didn't have the legal rights to the photo that you'd based your image on. And I'm wondering if you'd like to give a shout-out to the photographer whose image that came from.

Mr. FAIREY: You know, I actually don't know who the photographer is. It was an Associated Press photo that I got off of Google and, actually, still don't know who took the photograph. They've never approached me. My illustration did stylize and idealize from the photo, and there were many other elements within the photo. And only one person in the entire time since I created the image a year ago has sent me the original and said, this is where you got that illustration, isn't it? So, I'm glad, you know, one, that the photographer didn't say, hey, I don't like that you're using this imagine. Maybe they're an Obama supporter. But I still don't know who it is, but I - whoever you are, thank you.

GROSS: Would you describe how you do your work? For instance, the Obama poster, started with photographs of Obama, and then what do you do with those photos to make your image?

Mr. FAIREY: I re-illustrate the photograph. I started off as a screen printer, and a lot of my art was made with the minimal color palette because the more colors you have to print, the more complicated and time consuming a screen print becomes, the less efficient it becomes. So, I really made the limitations of my medium into, hopefully, an aesthetic asset by making things very iconic and simplified to two or three colors. So, what I do is I take the imagine and I illustrate the darkest areas with, say, the dark blue in the Obama image, the medium shadows in the red, and the lighter shadows in blue, as I illustrate each as its own layer, and then I composite those over each other to yield the final image. And as I'm illustrating, I'm trying to emphasize, I think, the elements that give the image its essence and remove everything that's superfluous and create a very, you know, flattering, bold icon.

GROSS: Now, you have a new poster for the inauguration. Would you describe it?

Mr. FAIREY: My new poster is the official inauguration poster, which is still very surreal to me, and it plays off of the "HOPE" image. It has Obama in the top half of the composition with the White House and the Capitol building in the background. And then there's some red, white and blue stripes forming a sort of v-shape that come down to the bottom, and then on either side of that v-shape are a crowd of people. I think that this is about more than Obama. It's about, you know, all the people in the United States that are, you know, hopefully, going to benefit from his presidency. So, I felt that was an important component.

And then, it has the official inaugural seal right in the middle. I've made many spoofs of official government logos, satires. I did a book called "E Pluribus Venom," which played off of the motifs on money. But I've never actually gotten to use an official government logo in a piece of art. So, to me, it's exciting because it shows that you don't have to be connected to make a difference and be a meaningful participant in democracy. You know, I'm hoping that my whole story demonstrates that it's not as big a leap from, you know, an outlaw street artist to doing the inaugural poster and people will be motivated by that.

GROSS: We should say, there were a lot of steps along the way. I mean, you have a design studio, and you had already done advertising posters and album covers and a Rock the Vote poster. So, it's not like you were completely outside before the Obama poster.

Mr. FAIREY: Yeah, but it sounds better the way that I said it.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's all this success doing to your image as, like, the outsider street artist?

Mr. FAIREY: You know, I'm too corporate for the street artist, and I'm too street for the corporate people. You know, I do things the way that I think they should be done on a case-by-case basis. My brand positioning is something very petty and narcissistic to try to cling to when I have these opportunities to work both inside and outside. So, you know, I'll let the peanut gallery decide whether they think I'm keeping it real enough, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIREY: I - you know, what I believe is that I've always tried to use art as a tool of communication with all the means I had at my disposal. And whether that was putting posters up on a street, doing commercial projects, making T-shirts, making album covers, or getting involved in actual politics, these are all ways for me to share my ideas and try to make things happen the way I think they, you know, should happen and develop into the things I think they should develop into.

GROSS: So, we are recording this interview, and when we listen back, it's going to be Inauguration Day. So, actually, as everybody's hearing this, it is Inauguration Day. So, where do you think you are now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Where do you think you will be on Inauguration Day?

Mr. FAIREY: I'm in Washington, D.C., I am going to the youth ball, and I think the - some sort of inaugural ball this evening. I've been organizing an art show and music event called Manifest Hope with my friend Yosi Sergant, who was very, very instrumental in getting the Obama posters around. He had a phenomenal grassroots network of people on top of the network of people that I had, and the two of us together really got the posters out far and wide. And during the DNC, we did an event called Manifest Hope, which was an art show showing all the grassroots art that had been created in support of Obama. And now, we've evolved this, for this time, at the inauguration, where the art is about not just supporting Obama, but supporting various aspects of his platform.

GROSS: Shepard Fairey, thank you so much.

Mr. FAIREY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Shepard Fairey designed the iconic "HOPE" poster of Barak Obama and designed the official poster for the inauguration. His original image of the president was recently acquired by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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