Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey is one of the most famous and influential artists of the past decade. Certainly one of the top three famous street artists ever. He doesn’t need an introduction.

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David Bowie’s ‘Sound & Vision’ was the title for your first London show in five years (2012), what is it about him that inspired you?
I think that Bowie, first of all, is a talented songwriter but he was very astute about understanding visual presentation and he collaborated with great people: Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Lou Reed etc. I admire him on a few different levels, but really the title Sound & Vision came from not just him, but my love of music in general. Not only my love of the visuals that go with music, but also the way I relate to the conceptual approach that music has. Which is to create something that draws the listener in viscerally in a very unpretentious, democratic way and then have the initial layer of lyrics that go along with the songs, the lifestyle and politics of the musician – the things that they choose to support or advocate. All of that I think is somewhat analogous to my approach to street art, which is very democratic, using my work to shed light on different things that I think are important, to critique things politically and socially. I try to make my work very accessible, not only to do things for free on the street, but also to make very affordable things like screen prints or stickers and t-shirts as well as doing more ambitious and time consuming pieces. Something for everyone is what I’m trying to do and I think that approach is more similar to music than it is to the art world, which is more about restricting supply to increase demand and is very elite and mysterious so a few gatekeepers tell the audience what’s good and what’s not good. I kinda want to bypass all of that.

You’ve said how much music influences you – at the show you had a record store space, your own records on customised decks, the 12″ LP sleeve tributes in the show. – and you do DJ, but have you thought seriously about getting into music full time? Or might that spoil it?
As much as I love music and enjoy DJing, I understand that that’s not where my real talent is. I love collaborating with musicians, and I done some DJ mixes myself, but I’ve brought in a friend who’s a very heavy hitter in the DJ world – DJ Z-Trip – to perform at the show and he made a phenomenal mix for us. There are some musicians who dabble in art and do some really nice stuff, butt, you know, Bob Dylan’s paintings, nice as they are, to me he’d be missing his true calling if he decided to switch from making music to painting [laughs]. I recognise where I should put the majority of my energy, but it’s more about a love of music. I’ve opened for Z-Trip, which is incredibly flattering, but I think we see an analogous approach in each other’s medium and respect each other’s medium so much that we love the crossover.

Does someone like 3D manage to do both?
Yeah! That’s awesome – I think that creative people, a lot of the time, have the ability to do good work in a few areas. I’m not one of those people who says, ‘So and so’s got such a big ego they think they’ll do well at everything they take a stab at.’ The way I listen to DJing, it’s almost like audio graphic design – you’re relentlessly experimenting with combinations of things to find out what really works beautifully. When I’m making a poster it’s a matter of experimenting until all the elements compliment each other and work together.
I can definitely see an ability to problem solve in both areas [music and art] if you have a sensitivity in one. I think all good art requires a lot of effort and practice. There just isn’t enough hours in the day to do everything really well for most people – some people are just genuinely ridiculously talented and I think 3D is one of them.

You’ve been getting up on the walls around London – Do you think London’s changed since 2007?
East London is really bustling and there’s more competition for space, there’s less derelict space. The flip side of that I guess, is there are more opportunities for street artists. I’ve done three pretty big murals and that was great but all the posters at street level have been cleaned or gone over – I’ve actually had that problem in London since I first came here in 1999, but there’s more competition for space and space is more precious than ever. But that’s how it is – I don’t get worried if something’s going to last two days, two weeks or two years. I just care that it’s out there and then people are gonna see it. It’s a busy city, thousands of people are going to see it if it’s only up for one day. It’s still really important to me to go out and do stuff in public. Things like the internet have made it so that something that’s only up in public for a short amount of time might still be seen by a lot of people but there’s no substitute for me for the excitement of stumbling upon something that you weren’t expecting in person. That’s something that I have always responded to when I’m walking around a city, and I presume other people respond in a similar way.

Back in 2007, could you have envisaged how much things have changed for you since then? Did you ever think you’d be interviewed by Iggy Pop for Interview Magazine for instance?
[Laughs] No, and in fact that’s one of the highlights of my life – I’m such a fan. He’s such a cool guy. We’ve actually spoken a few times, when I was working on a mural in Miami he came and hung out for a while. I’ve far surpassed any of my teenage dreams, sitting in my room looking around at my posters and records. I think that’s one of the things that’s cool is that I’m still a fan, I’m not jaded at all, I’m still genuinely a fan of all the stuff that’s inspired me and the people I’ve collaborated with and met. I’m 42 and I’ve got a lot of static for different things I do but I haven’t allowed for that to make me cynical – maybe at times a little more realistic – but not cynical. I try not to second-guess my instincts and don’t squander the opportunities that come my way. I think that Pop Culture is very fickle and you never know when your luck’s going to run out. Everyday I’m impassioned about getting to make art and do the kinds of things I get to do. In some way I think that’s helped, but I never take anything for granted.

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Are you comfortable with fame? Exit Through The Gift Shop and the Obama Hope poster really thrust you into a more mainstream focus.
I guess there’s a lot of shit out there and a lot of people say what I do is shit, but I might as well be doing it and if I get attention for the right reasons then that’s great. Once you become recognised for certain things it becomes more difficult to get an honest reaction. You become kind of a reference point and that can spiral off in weird ways. I certainly don’t feel overwhelmed by fame. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by expectation – you know how every band works on their first album and then it’s hard to deliver at the same level for their sophomore album. It’s got to be turned around quicker and there’s more expectation and I sort of feel like I’ve been on my sophomore album post Exit Through The Gift Shop and Obama. I feel like it’s a little more daunting but at the same time I don’t think that visual art will have the same pop culture pressures as music. I’m 42 and feel fairly equipped to keep doing my thing and to understand the dynamics of the zeitgeist, but not be terrorised by them.

Are you bored of getting questions about Mr Brainwash?
Well, the thing about Mr Brainwash is that a lot of people think that he’s a Banksy concoction and isn’t real, and as entertaining as I find that, it makes me concerned that the cautionary nature of aspects of Exit Through The Gift Shop have not properly sunk in because people think it’s a fabrication. So I guess that what I’d put out there is however you feel about Mr Brainwash – whether you’re inspired by his gumption or irritated by his way of inserting himself the art world through sheer will – however you think about it, the best case and worst case scenario is probably true. Don’t blow it off like it’s not real.

I run a website called Pictures Of Walls, which documents the stupid things people write on walls – what’s the funniest piece of graffiti you’ve ever seen?
There was some great stuff that I saw when I was at art school – things like ‘A message to printmaking grad students’ and there would be a very detailed, almost Da Vinci-esque drawing of a figure and would have a circle around the butt and the elbow and would have arrows saying, ‘this is your ass, this is your elbow’. The high-brow/low-brow blend of art school bathroom graffiti was pretty great. There was another one where some pretentious person had written ‘Carnal, but not Carnivorous’ and underneath that someone had written ‘Carnival but not Circus. It’s just like how you can implicitly wreck a college pretentious wannabe poet with a sexual appetite. You can say so much with so little with bathroom graffiti. I also like ‘Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, because you’ll be a mile away and in his shoes’ – that’s really funny. I love how it reframes simple anecdotes.

What do you think of the state of street art today? Where will it go next?
I hope it’ll go outside on to walls. That’s where I hope it’ll go. You can never really defang or neutralise an illegal act of defiance. There may be certain aesthetic aspects that have been co-opted that’ll make people feel it has become less potent, but there’s always someone like Space Invader or Vhils or Neckface who’ll come up with an approach that just doesn’t feel like everything else and people always are going to respond to somebody doing something genuinely creative and rebellious and there are very few venues for that to come across authentically. I think that street art will continue for the same reasons that people want to co-opt it – because there are very few other ways to someone genuinely laugh or say ‘Holy shit! Look at that spot’ or wish they had the balls and the courage and the time and the lack of arrest record to do that. That’s where I am at the moment with 16 arrests and probation and everything but I think a lot of people just like the free-spiritedness of it and that’s really hard to fuck with. The one thing that’s a little bit of a problem at this point, is not everybody’s doing it because they love the art form – they see it because it’s got as a cache and a stepping stone to something else. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about selling artwork and trying to make artwork for a living. I do see something wrong with people being insincere about why you do it. I started doing street art because 1) I was mischievous and 2) I was too insecure to go talk to a gallery 3) I genuinely believed in the punk rock ethos of it. I still believe all that, and there are other platforms for art but at my age and with a family and everything I still can’t get rid of my non-conformity ethos. People wouldn’t move out of their parent’s house or think of how to do things differently from the generation before if there wasn’t some innate rebellion in them. I love seeing that, I think it’s important. There should always be an emphasis on expression.

When you go into a Kinko’s do the staff panic they haven’t got enough paper?
[Laughs] I don’t get recognised everywhere I go, but Kinko’s is a sort of sweet spot for recognition, so I send assistants. I love encouraging people and I love just talking to people when they’re enthusiastic, but sometimes I just like getting the work done. So sometimes efficiency is more important so I have to delegate and send someone else so I don’t come across as rude.

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Photos: Tom Medwell

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