When Shepard Fairey speaks his eyes go someplace else. They squint and look beyond you, alternating left and then right, scanning the entirety of his surroundings. It isn't posturing and he isn't searching for a more interesting person to flag down. The fact of the matter is that Fairey has the eyes of a scavenger.
An aggressive life of street art is the culprit; it will lead a man to watch for trouble, to constantly be on alert for the canary in the coal mine. Contrary to the optical shift Fairey never teeters in composure, and when asked questions he answers them meditatively and in layers, like he's peeling away stencil after stencil of thought. Today, this mural he and his crew are creating is in a safe place, and soon they'll all eat hamburgers in perfect weather. People will take pictures of his face. He will paint on legal walls. Nobody will be arrested.
Fairey's eyes won't register those things. They can't. After Sunday it's back to business as usual, and his business is to spread his art as quickly and targeted as he possibly can while holding true to his very strict, and self-scribed philosophies.
I caught up with Fairey outside of the Dallas Contemporary where he and his crew were putting up one of five massive works around town.
Mixmaster: Could you walk me through the mural you're putting up here and the step-by-step it takes to make it happen?
Sure, this mural is a pro-peace mural. There's a little bit of humor involved in it, in that this design is based on when you have a really small stain on a piece of drycleaning that the drycleaner cannot get out, they put a little sticker with an arrow that says "This has been called to your attention so that you'll know it has not been overlooked."
It's like them saying: "This was here already and it's something that cannot be removed." Here, on this scale to have a giant arrow aiming towards a peace sign saying "We have called this to your attention so that it cannot be overlooked" is funny, but also serious in that advocating for peace should be a high priority at all times for everybody but it seems like people love to quarrel, so it's not emphasized.
The way it's done is a culmination of using paper with the image printed on it and using spray adhesive to hang it up, and then cutting it directly on the wall into stencils, then peeling those away and spraying the negative space and then touching it up with a brush. The straight lines are done with masking tape and spraying it with spray paint and then big negative spaces are rolled in with rollers.
Walls like this seem really time-consuming because of the amount of detail, the size, the scale. When you're doing something on your own, that's maybe in a less -- nurturing -- environment, how do you get it up quicker?
It's paper that's already painted with the image, and it just goes up with wallpaper paste and a brush. So it's like putting up wallpaper really fast. But doing murals that are going to last longer is great, so it's worth taking the time. All of the different techniques that I use evolved out of what the necessities of the different situations where. When you're worried about the cops showing up, you've got to work really quickly. And it can look really good for what it is, but it's going to weather or people are going to rip at it, but a lot of times street art is temporary anyway, so that's less of a concern than getting up as much stuff as quickly as possible.
Is that part of the appeal for you? That it is so transitional and fleeting, or would you rather have permanence?
No, I think all artists like to think that if they make something, it might endure. Or that people will think it's important enough to reference. I'm not precious about my work because I know that would be soul-crushing as a street artist. But I do put a lot of time and energy -- and a lot of money into doing it, from a standpoint of resources, physical and mental energy; you hope that your effort will yield as much impact as possible.
When I put a lot of energy into something that was really hard to get to, like I climbed up really high on a building or a billboard or something and I come back months or even years later and it's still running? That makes me feel like I climbed to the top of Mt. Everest and nobody else has been able to do it. That's how it feels.
And are you strictly legit now? Do you only do commissioned projects?
No no no, but it's kind of rude to come to a space like this where a museum has put its rep on the line and then go out and do illegal stuff that's then going to be a grenade in the lap of the museum.
I still really enjoy going out and doing work on the street. But for me it was always about integrating it in a way that was visible to people but wasn't destructive. When I'm given walls I know that people are going to see them; I know that they'll be able to consider the art without considering whether I got permission or not. Of course there are people in the street art community who say that it's only cool if it's illegal, but that was never my philosophy. My philosophy was: "It's cool if you don't have to pay to see it."
So 20 years of doing illegal art opened the doors to me doing legal walls. I always abide by what I call the Inside/Outside Strategy: If the system shuts you out, you do your own thing outside of the system, then if you have the ability to work with the system, infiltrate the system, improve the system, you should take those opportunities.
In projects like this, you're working with people who see and translate the importance of art [gesturing towards the Dallas Contemporary's doors] to the community.
You touched a little bit about the discord between the illegal street art scene and this level that you've reached now where you have more accessibility to things like large, protected walls. There's a lot of animosity; what is that about? Areas like hip-hop, rap and graffiti are all intertwined, so why is it different when a street artist gets bigger?
So why is it cool that Jay-Z gets crazy paid and that's something to celebrate?
Yes. And nobody hates on the Beastie Boys and they've been popular for 20 years. People will pay to see a show, but if a street artist moves up it's selling out?
Right. And if any of those people really analyzed my practice they would see: 16 arrests, 20 years of illegal art and still doing illegal art -- it certainly isn't like I was some trust-fund kid who paid for walls and took a shortcut.
I think it's a really contentious scene because you almost have to be so rebellious and motivated to even be part of it that bundled with those kinds of people is maybe hostility in general?
I know that when I first started, I didn't have issue with my peers doing it I, just felt like maybe there weren't enough opportunities out there, there's too much red tape.
I decided, "Well, screw it. I'm going to do it my way and you can't stop me unless you catch me."
But I can't really relate to the mentality of being against other people doing the same thing that you're doing who have just gotten somewhere with it. And there's a lot of that. Maybe it's jealousy? I really don't know. I'm not trying to be a psychologist for other people in the scene: I just know why I do what I do.
The backlash feels contradictory to me also because most people who start off doing street art typically start with tagging -- just putting your name, or your crew's name up, getting it out there. It's always been about notoriety. So why is it such a big deal if somebody's name is out there, more?
Because if you're the only person doing it, and somebody comes along who's doing it bigger and better you don't look as awesome. And I hear all sorts of stuff: "Shepard Fairey made a million bucks doing stuff for Sprite," stuff that's just totally made-up. You'll hear the most ridiculous stories, it's AMAZING.
I just stopped looking at the Internet for the most part, because it's depressing. It's not worth my energy. I'd rather be putting my energy into things that I feel positive about than combating what I feel to be petty small-minded behavior.
It's like the comments section of any article: it's either going to stroke-off your ego or it's going to crush you. Eventually you learn it isn't worth it to look.
Exactly! Jeff Tweedy from Wilco was like, "I don't read any of the comments about our records because it basically boils down to: 'Hey, look at this cute kitten,' 'Fuck that fucking kitten!' 'Kill it!'
Everything is extremes, you know? I learned way back in art school that you've got to be an honest critic of what you're doing with yourself, and you're the only one who knows what you're trying to achieve. While it's great to have a dialog with other people, you've got to be rigorous about yourself and your own standards.
Last time you were arrested?
Last time I was arrested was 2009. It's been a couple of years.
Do you just get to leave now when you get arrested and they find out that you're Shepard Fairey, or do you get the same channels and hassles as everyone else?
No, no, not at all. I've never been in jail for less than 24 hours. It's always a long process of getting through and even though a lot of the time as I'm getting fingerprinted the guys will wanna shoot photos with me, their bosses are saying: "That guy's a symbol of everything that's wrong and disrespectful. We've got to take him down."
In Boston I had a photo with the Mayor while doing a banner on the side of City Hall on a Wednesday, but then was arrested at 8 a.m. by undercovers going into my museum show on a Friday. So you know, one hand doesn't always talk to the other.
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Do you have a favorite piece, a legacy piece? Something that you kinda hope will stick around and define you later?
I just finished a really large piece in L.A. on the West Hollywood Library Parking Garage; it's 106 feet by 70 feet. It's a painted mural. That's my most substantial piece in terms of scale; art-wise my body of work is about a cumulative effect. There's no one image that's a legacy image. Of course a lot of the OBEY imagery, the star icon, as a device that exemplifies a lot of the ideas around my work, that's an important piece. But to me it's always about sort of expanding the quilt.
Shepard Fairey DJs a celebratory dance party this Saturday night, February 4, at the Dallas Contemporary. The beautification project was commissioned by the museum and funded primarily with assistance by private donors, Naomi Aberly and Larry Lebowitz. To see pictures of his week's work up to now visit here, here, and here.