Home / Arts & Life / After ‘Hope,’ and Lawsuit, Shepard Fairey Tries Damage Control

After ‘Hope,’ and Lawsuit, Shepard Fairey Tries Damage Control

Flaunting the rules has been one of his favorite sports from the start. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., where his father is a family physician, he fell for the rebellious attitude of punk music and skateboarding culture while a teenager. (He took the title “Damaged” from the 1981 Black Flag album.)

In 1989, still in college, he created his first meme-worthy artwork: a sticker showing the wrestler André René Roussimoff, known as Andre the Giant. It read: “Andre the Giant has a posse.” He plastered them throughout the streets of New York, Providence, R.I., and other cities.

Compactly built, Mr. Fairey looks like he could have been a wrestler in high school, but he had no interest in the sport. He was drawn to the sheer weirdness of the Andre image, which he later developed into an abstracted face.

He began using the commands “OBEY” and “OBEY GIANT” in stickers and posters, hoping to incite “feelings of disobedience,” he said. The images caught on and helped him land him his first solo show at CBGB gallery in the ’90s. Jeffrey Deitch, who gave him a solo show in 2010 at Deitch Projects, calls the Obey campaign prescient. “What might have seemed cartoony or fun at first,” Mr. Deitch said, has grown into “something serious that feels especially relevant today — with a very important message about an encroaching authoritarianism.”


Detail from Mr. Fairey’s studio wall, made from spray-paint tops.

Jake Michaels for The New York Times

Mr. Alonzo, the curator, calls the artist’s sticker campaign “pioneering,” adding that it offered Mr. Fairey “a means to produce, disseminate and promote” his own images in the public sphere before “the viral dissemination of imagery we associate with 21st-century social media.”

As a result of his street campaigns Mr. Fairey has been arrested 18 times for vandalism or related charges. He extended his left palm to reveal a scar near his wrist. He said it was from handcuffs fastened so tight in 2003 that they dug into his flesh.

So far he has pleaded guilty to various misdemeanors, but a felony case is still pending over the defacement of multiple buildings in Detroit with Andre-type images in 2015, when Mr. Fairey had a show in the city. A Wayne County circuit judge dismissed the charges last year; that ruling is now under appeal by the city. Mr. Fairey declined to comment on the case or even confirm whether he made those artworks.

But given his history, it seemed fair to ask: Will your new exhibition spill out into the streets of Los Angeles?

He mentioned plans for a small mural on the back of the Chinatown building and a billboard inside it. But he would not say whether he is planning any unauthorized work in the streets. “Based on my experience,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “that’s a question I would be smart not to answer.”

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