“Covert to Overt”- Shepard Fairey in Conversation with Moby

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Shepard Fairey (@obeygiant) is how I became an art collector, which in turn is why this blog exists today.  I bring this up because I finally got to meet the artist and attend his talk last night at the New Roads School in Santa Monica with Moby interviewing him to coincide with the book release, Covert to Overt: The Under/Overground Art of Shepard Fairey.  The talk spanned a wide range of topics, from his childhood and punk rock to some controversial thoughts on street art and politics.  My highlight from the talk was when he showed off his Jersey (read: Joisey) accent impersonation for a large part of the Q&A session.

Read on for a rapid fire of the most interesting bits from the talk.

Childhood:  Mom was a cheerleader and dad was a football jock from South Carolina, which is where he grew up

First punk rock concert: A Circle Jerks concert in 1987

On being a guest character on The Simpsons: From 1994 to the late 90s while he was a struggling artist, albeit a very prolific one, watching the Simpsons on TV was a Sunday night ritual.  Regardless of what may have been happening, watching the Simpsons every Sunday night somehow made it better.  So to be asked to be a guest on the show years later in 2012 was a powerful validation of his career.  When the script was sent to him, the writers asked for his notes, to which Shepard added this exchange between his character and Bart:

Shepard: Bart, we would love to set up a gallery show for your street art.
Bart: Well, if it’s in a gallery, how is it street art?

Exit through the Kwik-e-mart

On showing street art in a gallery: If it’s in a gallery, it’s not street art.  It is its own thing.  To be a street artist does not mean you can only be a street artist.  Shepard is a perfect example of that.  He’s a gallery artist, a street artist, social activist, and an entrepreneur.  Gallery work and street art can complement, and do not have to contradict, each other.

On the book Covert to Overt:  The title is in reference to a range, rather than a change.  Shepard utilizes an “inside out” or “by any means necessary” strategy in his art and social activism.  Whatever tool is available and most effective will determine whether he will use a “covert” strategy inside the system, such as the legal system, or an “overt” strategy, such as using his art to rally a grassroots campaign, e.g. Obama “Hope” image.

"Covert to Overt" by Shepard Fairey

Favorite memory of street art:  When he lived in New York City, around 1999, he’d always wanted to get up on a wall on Houston and Broadway, above a prominent DKNY ad.  One day, aided by an unwitting security guard who had opened the doors to the building, he and his friends finally conquered the wall and were celebrating with some beers just across the street when two men in plain clothes approached him and flashed their badges.  They were undercover graffiti task force officers.  Funnily enough, they hadn’t caught him defacing the wall with his wheatpastes, but while he was celebrating he had put up one of his stickers on a nearby lamppost.  Long story short, they find out he’s the “Andre the Giant guy”, put him in jail for 2 days, and did not provide him with insulin for the entire duration (SF is a known diabetic), which made him very sick.  Shortly after being released, he got a tattoo on his arm with the word “DIABETIC”.

On the origin of the OBEY manifesto:  The “manifesto” was actually written as a project for an architecture class at RISD.  The prompt asked to write a paper on how the experience of illustration/design affects the people and environment around it.  Later when he was sending out stickers to anyone that would send an SAE with a couple of bucks, he wanted to throw in some extra stuff, so he condensed his 6-page paper into a 1 sheet to include in the care package.

On the origin of the OBEY logo:  He copied Barbara Kruger on the design, and the phrase was inspired by the John Carpenter movie They Live.  No need for speculation anymore.

obey logo

Advice for young artists:  Do it cheap.  Don’t give up.  Be your own worst critic.

Post-Obama Hope campaign, I’ve become ambivalent with the quality of work that he’s putting out for prints and even gallery work.  However, after listening to this talk, I get the feeling that those kind of commercial pursuits are just a means to an end to fuel more meaningful works like the many large-scale public murals he has been completing over the last five to six years.  This is especially in line with his original manifesto, to “reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment.”  I’d highly recommend attending a talk if it comes to a city near you to understand that there’s more to his art than meets the eye.

Shepard Fairey’s latest show “On Our Hands” runs until Oct. 24 at the Jacob Lewis Gallery in NYC.  BDAB will be in New York before the show closes, so be sure to tune in for updates.

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