How I Interviewed Shepard Fairey, and Other Strange Tales

“Is your flip-cam ok?” Shepard Fairey asked me on a cloudy afternoon the week before last.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine, thanks for askin!” I managed to reply.  I had dropped it off of the lift he was working on  earlier in the day when my boss sent me to seek the self-made, internationally acclaimed street artist  for an off-the-cuff interview.

Shepard and his crew were in town in conjunction with the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, which was set to descend on Asbury Park in about a week after his arrival. Over the course of said week, they worked around the clock to install several extremely large murals and one permanent piece on previously blighted walls around town.  “Benevolent enhancement” of public space, he calls it.

That phone call came in at 9 AM. I was lying in bed. (No respectable punk rocker lets her feet touch the floor before 10 AM unless it’s absolutely necessary.) “Go get Shepard and get and interview on video.”

Um, ok, yeah. I’ll just ask the founder of Obey, the man who made Andre the Giant a ubiquitous and culture-shifting image, the artist who created President Obama’s iconic red-and-blue campaign image, if he can hang for a few, no sweat. It’s not like he’s working on installing a myriad of different murals outdoors, against a clock and under foreboding weather or anything like that. Oh wait, yeah. He was.

Nonetheless I got on the phone with Shepard’s friend and co-conspirator, long time Asbury fan, gallery founder and operator, and general tastemaker, a celebrity in his own right, really, Jonathan Levine (rhymes with “divine”, as ATP Founder Barry Hogan pointed out in this year’s dedication page of the Festival guide).

Check Out The X T-Shirt

If you’ve ever flipped through a book of Mr. Fairey’s work, you would have seen Jonathan in photos or read a page or two from him describing his long-time friendship with the artist. Jonathan, like Shepard and the ATP set, was down-to-earth, very nice to work with, and extremely easy going—unlike a lot of famous folks who come to town, demanding “no eye contact” and such on their riders. (Oh, please, Bon Jovi. Sorry I made eye contact. I know playing “Livin’ on a Prayer” for the millionth time must be taxing.)

Would Shepard be willing to let me ask him a few questions while he was working? “Sure, he’s cool with that.  He’s up on the lift. Come by.”  I checked my make up for last time (he’s married ladies, just taking a general pride in my appearance!) grabbed my recorder and local filmmaker Cory Asraf and nervously made my way down a few blocks to Sunset Avenue.  Below you’ll see the result.  Right after Shep’s very last sentence, you can hear me say, “Dude, that’s awesome.” NERD!

Later on in the afternoon as we walked over to his next project, Shepard would go on to briefly tell me about his life inL.A. (“You know a band Sebadoh? Oh and the Melvins? Yeah, all our kids go to school together out there. It’s a pretty cool community”), and point out that him and I were wearing the same Black Flag pin.

That’s when he asked me if my video recorder was OK. While jumping the rail on the lift after the interview, the darn thing fell out of my pocket. Unscathed, thank goodness. (Skinny jeans might be fashionable, but don’t try to jam anything in those pockets besides a guitar pick or two.)

After a week’s worth of working, sometimes soaked to the skin in pouring rain, Fairey and his crew completed several extremely large scale murals all throughout Asbury Park.  Being as the installations were in conjunction with the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, the reigning international (and independent, I might add) music festival brand, all of the pieces were themed in honor of the music and the  punk rock and hip-hop icons that had influenced Shepard throughout his life.

The Honorable Joe Strummer, As Rendered By S.F.

Of these works, my personal favorite has to be the  mural featuring Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, Ian MacKaye, Joey Ramone, Glen Danzig and Johnny Rotten, located on the wall of the now defunct rock club The Fastlane (U2, Black Flag and plenty more played there through the ’80s), in close proximity to the alive and well Absury Lanes.

Well didn’t my little punk rock heart just swell with emotion when that one went up! Finally, people of counter-cultural significance were being honored in homage. And not in some obscure fanzine or out-of-touch slick magazine feature, but twenty feet tall in portrait right by my favorite punk rock club!

Punk Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame

Before I conclude, I want to discuss the importance of Fairey’s work. What he creates is obviously compelling for aesthetic reasons.  He is of that breed of artist whose work is both widely appealing and part of popular culture, while simultaneously indicting of that very same culture.  It’s a very fine line that he walks, and not only is Fairey well aware of that fact, he is deliberate about this juxtaposition.

The most common criticism of  Shepard from detractors is that his work is not original; that he simply repackages concepts and images under his brand.  Take Shepard’s initial culture-altering project, his plastering of the reinvented image of wrestling icon Andre the Giant on urban walls all over the world.  I can remember years and years ago getting out of my car in Brooklyn under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and seeing that poster everywhere.

A lot of us remember that image becoming, through sheer repetition, a part of our dialogue. “Have you seen that weird Andre the Giant poster everywhere?” “Yeah, some guy’s been putting them up all over, apparently.”  In nothing less that an extremely intelligent and well thought out manipulation, Fairey turned consumer culture on its’ head, along with the rules we all assumed went with it.

Essentially, he worked it out backwards. He made the icon and then the brand followed. Fairey twisted what the last fifty years of Western consumption taught us and bent it back on itself.

If there’s an icon, there must be a brand, right? And the more ubiquitous the icon, the more established the brand, the logic goes. Fairey rearranged the math, worked out a new equation. And his theorem proofed. Andy Warhol himself would have been very impressed. And the joke continues, above the brim of every Obey cap and the front of every graphic Obey T-Shirt. He’s a very clever boy, that Shepard Fairey.

From Fairey’s Exhibit, Revolutions. An Incredible Part of ATP AP 2011.

As far as post-modern art goes, his work is arguably among the most recognized in the world. Years after establishing his brand and his place as an artist in his own right, he continues to use what he creates to reinforce punk rock values like giving voice to the oppressed, questioning the mechanics of production and consumption, and creating your own reality in a world where so much of what we do, think, and feel, where so much of who we are is ready to be supplied to us by interests that are not our own.

Thanks for visiting our little city, Mr. Fairey, and leaving it more beautiful then it was when you found it.  We really dug having you come through.

XOXO

Ang

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WHJQX7FEZ7F5KYZJHGZ45P5D3Y Bob J

    Good stuff Angie…well done.

    • Asugrimic

      Thanks! 🙂

  • http://twitter.com/theclashblog Tim Merrick

    Great piece Angie, enjoyed it and will link from the blog tonight.

  • Chris Suarez

    Hey man my name is Chris and i am working for something called Road Trip Nation. Road trip nation is a group of people that help you find what path you would like to take in life. And in order for that we need to interview are major Heroes. Mine being Shepard Fairey, I was wondering if you would be able to help me contact him or give me some advice on how would be the best way on doing so. So if its not to much to ask can you pleas contact me my email is [email protected]. Thank you and i appreciate you reading thing and appreciate anytime you take to write back to me if you do.

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