Shepard Fairey

I wrote this for Antenna magazine during the run-up to the 08 election.

Right now, graffiti is totally verboten in the White House—but Shepard Fairey’s working on it. By wheat pasting his now-iconic Obama “Hope” posters all over the streets of America, Fairey has bridged the unbridgeable, aligning the worlds of Graffiti Art and Presidential Politics, uniting law-breakers with law-makers, and gifting the Democrats one helluva campaign contribution—street cred.

Now synonymous with the Democratic Nomination Race of ’08, the posters are classic Fairey: burnished, muted colors, and simple, populist motifs that nod to the work of Communist-era linocut artists like Dmitry Moor and Vladimir Kozlinsky. Yes, it’s ironic that Soviet Red Army propaganda stylings could turn so damn Blue—but the Cold War is long over, and there’s something almost generically American about Fairey’s posters.

Bearing the word “Hope” in a simple, sans serif Gotham font (the kind of lettering seen on liquor-store signs, old-school office buildings and car parks across the nation), the posters present us with a vision of one possible future - Barack Obama in red, white and blue, his expression calm, determined—and totally pirated. “Um, we did use an unlicensed image,” admits Fairey, speaking from Studio Number One, his graphic design studio in Echo Park, Los Angeles. (He has since been supplied with an approved head shot from the Obama camp.)

The limited edition screen-prints were available on Fairey’s Obey Giant website for about a millisecond before selling out. In fact, judging by web traffic, the Obama posters have been the most popular prints of Fairey’s career. “When the second run of posters came out there were 800,000 people on the site at one time, trying to buy 750 posters,” recalls Fairey. “It was intense.”

It started almost as an afterthought. Two weeks before Super Tuesday, Shepard thought he should put out a poster. He had seen Obama speak at the Democratic Convention in 2004 and liked what he had heard. “I thought ‘maybe in ten years, he’ll run’,” says Fairey. “I doubted he had enough insider clout to run before that, because everything in politics is about relationships and Hillary, I thought, had it sewn up.” Then when Obama won Iowa and New Hampshire, Fairey re-evaluated. “I thought wow…this is exciting.”

He talked to Yosi Sergant, a young Obama campaigner and publicist, and Sergant took the poster idea to Obama’s camp. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t seen as an unwelcome endorsement,” says Fairey. “Lets face it, I am a street artist who has been arrested a bunch of times.” Word came back that while no official endorsement was possible, it was OK to go ahead.

Fairey made 700 posters—350 on thin paper to wheat-paste up in L.A., and the rest to sell on his site. When those sold out, he used the money to make 10,000 more, and had them shipped to states where Democratic caucuses and primaries were yet to be held.

Early posters bore either the word “Progress” or “Hope” until Obama’s campaign got in touch, saying they preferred “Hope”. “So I stuck with Hope,” says Fairey, no stranger to the realm of politically-charged, mass distributed poster art (he created several anti-Bush posters in 2000 and 2003). He’s not the first pop artist to vent his political angst – in 1968 Ben Shahn created a hope-based image for Eugene McCarthy. And Andy Warhol’s “Vote McGovern.” poster, produced in 1972, was memorably ironic, bearing a sinister image of McGovern’s opponent Richard Nixon. (Bearing in mind his influence over that elusive youth demographic, does Fairey himself have any political aspirations? No, is the resolute answer. “I speak my mind, which doesn’t go over that well in politics,” he says. “If I had to go into politics, I would be a benevolent dictator.”)

When Fairey posted the image on his website, it went viral. People posted it on their MySpace and Facebook pages, and soon the all corners of the media, from the Huffington Post to New York magazine to Gawker, was discussing the “Hope” poster. The Obama campaign got in touch again, this time about the legality of the image. They asked Fairey to create an illustration from a photo of Obama they had rights to use – and that’s when the third “Change” poster was born. (It is now featured Barack, where it helped raise $350,000 for the campaign, before selling out). To date, he’s produced 80,000 posters and stickers, the vast majority of which have been glued up around the country. “I had no idea the image was going to resonate the way it did,” says Fairey.

Since then, dozens of artists have followed suit, creating responses to the poster (Michael Ian Weinfeld’s “Pope” parody, for instance), or pro-Obama images of their own (Ron English’s “Abraham Obama” poster). In Houston, local street art collective Aerosol Warfare painted a giant replica of the “Hope” poster on the side of Obama’s headquarters there. Also in Texas, art collective Upper Playground commissioned Coachella Valley-based fine art duo The Date Farmers to create an Obama “Change” poster in the spirit of Shepard’s work. “Shepard was really the touch stone,” says Sergant, who facilitated the original poster campaign. “He was the first person to jump in the pool.”

And in jumping right in, gave Barack Obama a more powerful youth endorsement than anything millions of dollars in advertising could have bought.

Senator McCain should take note.