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A Response to OBEY Plagiarist

December 14, 2007

It’s taken me a long time to get this together, but I wanted to throw my ideas into the discussion around the artwork/plagiarism of Shepard Fairey that has been spinning around the web. For those that might not know, Shepard Fairey is the creator of the “Andre the Giant has a Posse” sticker campaign, which became a long running series of “Obey Giant” posters. Mark Vallen, a Los Angeles-based artist (who created some of my favorite street posters from the early LA punk scene), recently published a long critique of Fairey on his blog, Art For A Change. What I’m writing here directly relates to Mark’s piece, so if you haven’t read it, give it a look here.


Mark’s write-up came out of a long discussion that has been going on between a number of politically-motivated artists and archivists about Fairey’s work. Throughout the whole process of discussion it has seemed clear that we have been coming from parallel but divergent positions, with different parts of the larger issues at hand being more or less important to each of us. Mark is clearly concerned with social and political potentials of ART, and believes Fairey’s wholesale “theft” of historical images cheapens the potential for art to make change in the world. Lincoln Cushing, an artist, archivist and author who has been involved in the discussions, is very concerned with how plagiarism hurts efforts to empower our communities with their own revolutionary art history. However, he also supports strategic use of existing copyright law, and recently got Fairey to pay retroactive royalties on a t-shirt with Cuban artwork appropriated without credit. Favianna Rodriguez, also involved, has been particularly frustrated with Fairey’s use of and profiting off of the art of people of color, and the images of the struggles of people of color, while he has had to pay none of the costs for having to live as a person of color in this society or world.
People are already rallying to Fairey’s defense, claiming his appropriations are legitimate ways to create art, or simply attacking his critics, namely Mark Vallen. I’m not really interested in attacking Fairey, I simply want to make transparent the politics and economics his work uses and depends on. I don’t know Fairey, and he might be the nicest guy in the world. But what is important to me is not his personality, the quality of his artwork, or if he saves the whales, but how his artwork actually functions in the world. It is definitely tempting to use Fairey as a punching bag for the theft of the visual history of social movements, but I’d rather use his mode of operation as a really great point of discussion that raises a whole series of extremely interesting and important issues. I thank Mark and everyone else that has taken part in this conversation for doing just that. As Fairey himself always says, “question everything.”
As I said, I am not very interested in whether Fairey’s work is “good art” or not, and I’m definitely not very focused on making sure the artists he took from get paid, or sue Fairey. To me that is a personal issue and if artists that feel their work has been stolen want to go down that road, it’s their business. To me it’s a political dead end. The legal system is never going to hold Fairey accountable, and trying to use extremely flawed copyright laws (that primarily protect huge corporations like Disney, who actually stole from other artists and writers the ideas and images of their early cartoons) seems like a lousy recourse to me. Maybe an individual artist like Rupert Garcia (see Mark’s article for the specifics) will be able get some money out of Fairey, which is fine and good, but to me it sidelines the real issues.
I believe Fairey exemplifies in many ways the operational model of capitalism. He extracts resources, largely from political struggles of Third World and working class people, and then slightly processes those resources (images), commodifies them (strips them of any history or relationship to where they came from), and sells them on the market. Like capitalism he simultaneously sells high-art versions to wealthy elites and then cheaper mass-commodity versions to the very same communities he is taking images from. This is how the making of all corporate products works. What is great about Fairey is that he makes it so easy to see the process at work, and develop ways to critique it, challenge it, and hopefully change it.
For those that don’t know, here’s the 101 on how Fairey (and many others) create their art:
1) He looks through old books of political posters, photos, etc. and finds something he likes aesthetically, usually images that appear iconic of certain political motifs and therefore seem “authentic,” i.e. fists in the air, rifles, representations of ideology like red stars, people of color, etc. (I suspect that for years he was using the book Prop Art by Gary Yanker as his primary source, as every other page contains an image he has taken, but he’s clearly moved on to other sources.)
2) He scans the image and runs it through a set of Photoshop or Illustrator filters that usually slightly soften the edges, change the colors, flatten the image if it has any depth.
3) He might remove sections of the background and introduce a new border or pattern (usually lifted from somewhere else).
4) Finally he adds the word “OBEY” and some graphic representation of Andre the Giant.
Fairey’s work simultaneously depends on both knowledge and ignorance in his audience. What I mean by this is that for the art to be successful, the viewer needs to be networked into a global culture with massive access to information, but a culture that is both entirely overwhelming in sheer volume of “data” and also one that privileges only certain narratives to string that data together. For a Fairey piece to be successful the audience needs to know that the work comes from the world of the “real” or “authentic”, i.e. political social movements like the Cuban, Russian, or Chinese revolutions (or more recently the Zapatistas), and/or cultural social movements like the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic music scene. At the same time Fairey depends on his audience to be ignorant of the SPECIFIC location of the source material, they should NOT know what poster he stole, or exactly from where.
This is EXACTLY how advertising works. Unfortunately Fairey publicly claims to be critiquing advertising in his work, calling it Phenomonology. The front page of his website states, “Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with Obey propaganda provoke thought and possible frustration.” As I wrote in Stencil Pirates, “Although he once said ‘Giant has a Posse has no meaning,’ Shepard Fairey himself couldn’t resist the temptation to give capitalist meaning to his work, and now he has an entire cottage industry selling posters, shirts, hats, and his own design skills with the images and words he once stenciled across the globe. Sure, the words ‘Andre the Gaint’ have no fixed meaning, but neither do the words The Gap, Old Navy, or Tommygear. Their meaning is given to them in the branding efforts of the company owners.” There’s no doubt what OBEY means these days, simply SHOP.
What Fairey has done is used all the modern advertising tools at his disposal to create an ad for himself. He understands (consciously or not) that in the current incarnation of capitalism not only are the products we create immediately absorbed into the world of commodities (“things” that seem outside and separate from ourselves, as if they have a life outside of us), but we ourselves have become commodities, we look at ourselves from the outside, and buy and sell not just our physical labor, but our entire identities, existences, subjectivities, etc. While individuals buy Fairey artworks, corporations with larger budgets can buy Fairey’s branding ideas, street cred, or even the man himself. Sometimes I wonder if the high end collectors of Fairey’s silkscreened works also go out and buy every variation of the Mountain Dew logos he designs?
There are a couple things that kill me about all this. First, because Fairey presents himself as challenging to corporate advertising and control, he’s regularly placed on panels and interviewed in books, TV and films in the role of critic. There must be nothing more comforting to advertising execs than to have their main public critic be someone they can go have a beer with afterwards and discuss ideas for the “street” campaign for the new Led Zepplin box set! This contradiction is one of my only beefs with Fairey himself, not the system he’s part of.
[Left: <em></div>Libertad para Angela Davis (Freedom for Angela Davis)</em>, Félix Beltrán, silkscreen, Cuba, 1971. Created by Beltrán in solidarity with Angela Davis when she was a political prisoner in the US. Right: Fairey’s plundered version as a street poster, which neither credits Beltrán nor identifies Angela Davis, instead it simply carries his trademarked ” obey.”<a href=

Second, Fairey’s digging up of the visual elements of political history does more to hide that history than illuminate it. Fairey depends on the source of his work being perceived of as “authentic” or “real.” At the same time, he does nothing to let people know the images are taken from actual historical moments and struggles. I’m much less concerned with this tendency being labeled “theft,” than with the lack of attribution of the source material, or even acknowledgment that there is source material. Our society is pretty seriously fucked up, hundreds of millions are hungry, homeless or in prison, and those are just the most base of factors to judge the health of a community. The history of people struggling to change these things is important, and is largely removed from popular culture and public education. In order to create a better world, we need to have an understanding of the successes and failures of those that came before us. Unfortunately Fairey’s work simply skims the “cool” parts of these struggles off the top, and buries the rest back into the books he took the images from. For anyone that thinks I’m overstating my point, and believe people really do know where Fairey’s images are from, I’m sorry to say you are very wrong. I was recently in a room of University of California students (college students in one of the best university systems in the US), and not a single one of them recognized an image of Angela Davis, who teaches in the University of California system! Fairey’s work is not bringing attention to Davis, the Black Panthers, or any of the struggles in the Black community, but instead uses the image of a self-confident and militant Black woman to sell sweatshop-made OBEY winter caps at department stores.
This erasure of history cuts both ways. On the one hand Fairey’s decontextualization of the posters of the Cuban revolution does nothing to educate people about the history there. On the other, swiping images of heroic Cuban guerillas hides the actual Cuban revolution behind the surface level he presents. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara essentially become cool, with no room left to discuss with any complexity the role they played in Cuba or the rest of the world. At best they become cardboard cutouts (I guess wheatepasted cut-outs is more appropriate) to idolize. Both Fidel and Che are extremely complicated and problematic figures, and we need to be able to grapple with their actual history and beliefs, not the two-dimensial version.
One thing Mark, Lincoln, Favianna and others are deeply concerned about with Fairey’s work is the using of social movement imagery, as I understand it because he has no “right” to it. But this confuses me. I want to know who DOES have the right to it? Are some people more authentic leftists, so they have more of a right to authentic leftist graphics? For example, the Russian Revolution was real, it happened, it changed peoples lives, there is no question about that, but the public construction of the revolution, i.e. how all the posters, photos, books, etc. build up to a coherent whole in the social imagination, is that “real”? Authentic? Does any one group have the right to claim it? To claim authenticity? Does Fairey have less right to the social imaginary of revolution than the rest of us? Have we made a revolution and he hasn’t?
What I find most troubling about this is that it seems that we (for which I include those on the Left that would critique Fairey) have reached the terrible point that what is most important to us is trying to rip our identity from the jaws of Fairey (capitalism), rather than fighting capitalism itself. Fairey is simply an obvious visual example of the process that goes on around us each and every day. Is there any image we can create that isn’t going to be immediately absorbed by advertising, and thus capitalism? Capitalism is an economic system we have no choice but to exist in until we fight our way out of it. No one is exempt from it, there is no “outside” the system. Unfortunately we all need to buy and sell things to survive. What are the benefits of pretending our culture is precious and only accessible to the “holy few” that somehow have proven they are worthy of it? Can the past be opened up for use in a way that isn’t simply commercial, but also helps us try to change economic and political systems that stunt and destroy the lives of billions of people.
Left: Fairey’s poster. Right: Artist unknown, 1968 (original street poster from Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator of Czechoslovakia from the Nazi’s, then as an oppressor in 1968, when the Soviet’s brought tanks into Prague to suppress the social movements.
I understand that Fairey is not simply using social movement history and other artists work, but immensely profiting off it. One important thing to acknowledge is that Fairey is not just appropriating, but also copyrighting images that exist in our common history. Posters and graphics made in the heat of political struggles are often made by anonymous individuals or groups that want to keep the images in the public domain for use in further struggle. It is unfortunate that Fairey is attempting to personally capitalize on the generosity of others and privatize and enclose the visual commons (as seen by the prominent copyright symbols on his website and products). But once again, this is the machinations of capitalism, not simply Fairey as an individual. Can Nike profit from social movements but not Fairey? How about a supposedly “good” corporation, like one that makes windmills or solar panels? The building of new culture out of the pieces of the old is standard practice, and in the age of google image search, it’s only going to get more and more pronounced, with the distinctions between original work and “new” work getting blurrier and blurrier. What are the criteria for a “new” work versus a copy or theft?
To tie this all up, I believe artists can and should play a role in changing our world for the better. I think one way of doing this is trying to really understand the political, social and economic structures we find ourselves in, and using our art to illustrate them. Only when we understand the gears at work that are oppressing us will we all be able to throw a wrench in them. Unfortunately the work of Shepard Fairey, although exemplary of oppressive economic systems, hides these very systems rather than making them transparent. His work will only be successful (at more than making money) when he cites his source materials and tries to cut through the amnesiac haze of our society instead of adding to it. When a Fairey wheatpaste on the street becomes not an advertisement for his clothing line but a site for arguing over how we fight and struggle in this world today, I’ll be the first one to send people out to look at it and argue about it.
***All of the images here are taken from Vallen’s critique page, so you can go there to find the full citations on where the original images are from. I haven’t quite figured out how to put image captions into the blog yet!***

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42 comments on “A Response to OBEY Plagiarist”

Excellent, thoughtful post!
I have to admit that I was turned off by Vallen’s overall critique, primarily because I have no respect for copyright law or individual claims to image ownership, and couldn’t care less if an artist ‘can draw well.’
That said, the juxtaposition of the “Down with the White-ness” image with Fairey’s “Power to the Posse” Andre-version makes my skin crawl. The image by itself seems benign enough, but when viewed next to its original, it looks shockingly racist. I would like to think that Fairey’s intentions are not malicious, but I can’t help wondering why someone would take a powerful image of Black struggle and white-ify it.
It’s extremely important that the context and history of the social struggles associated with Fairey’s appropriations be brought to light, and I’m glad that Vallen has attempted to do so. If Fairey were truly interested in acting in solidarity with such movements, then perhaps he would have done so himself. But in many places Vallen’s critique sounds shrill and bitter, and reeks of aesthetic purism.
Is Fairey really a selfish cynic, interested only in exploiting the imagery of social movements for his own personal pursuit of wealth and fame, or is he a misguided, but well-meaning, critic of capitalism? Vallen seems to have assumed the former, but I’m not convinced, either way.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that Fairey has recently donated a poster for the Witness Against Torture campaign (, raising their profile and financial resources in ways that were previously inconceivable for that group. So maybe there’s hope for him yet (although a cynic might point out how much this only increases the appeal of his brand for his left-leaning customers, but perhaps for all the right reasons).
I think too many good-intentioned artists fall for a kind of Warhol-ian trap, whereby they think they can critique, or aid in defeating, capitalism by embracing its exploitative nature (thereby holding up a mirror to society, as the theory goes, by embodying its contradictions).
Like you, I think we would be better served by art that provokes debate and works in solidarity with social movements, instead of mimicking the insidious methods of the system that they hope to defeat.

Thanks Josh for this great essay…
Similar questions are raised in this debate between photographer Susan Meiselas and painter Joy Garnett. Long story short, Susan took a famous photograph of a Sandinista guerrilla, which Joy then appropriated and de-contextualized as part of a series of paintings. The debate starts off being about “fair use” and the limits of copyright, until Susan turns it around to talk about the rights and respect owed to the subject of the photo… Originally printed in Harper’s, you can read the article here: (PDF format).

Regarding the Witness Against Torture poster, I find that Shepard’s design is just another branded product of obeygiant. Yes it becomes a means of fundraising for the organization that is active and working against Guantanamo, and they are pleased with his design and participation. I applaud the willingness to shed light on the campaign.
The poster contains the obey logo in the top center of the design. It becomes another Obey poster, behaving as self-promotion for Shepard’s brand and product.
What would be the difference in having a Nike swoosh in that same location? Is this the same behavior as corporate sponsorship? Where a business has much to gain by associating themselves with a movement(or subculture, class, ethnicity, lifestyle, aesthetic, etc)
Ryan mentions a good article on decontextualization of revolutionary imagery, that adds more depth to the conversation.
I had the opportunity, a few years ago, to ask shepard his thoughts about the appropriation and tokenization of armed struggle. He responded with the belief that he was engaged in “educating” people about the movements he removes the images from.
I would have to argue that his ability to remove them, and so successfully brand them as obey characters diminishes their place in history. Especially since they are taken out of all context. Similiar to Susan Meiselas protests against the use of the “molotov man”, in the article suggested above.
A manner of avoiding such misrepresentations is for artists to be involved in the movements that they are visually representing. Such relationships create accountability and imagery desired by those struggling for whatever ends…

Etrange débat derrière lequel ont sent l’amertume et l’appat du gain pour quelques royalties… La plupart des artistes de propagande dont sont issus les visuels de Fairey étaient rarement cités pendant lesdites campagnes. Le fait que certains de vos concitoyens ne soient pas capables de reconnaitre des oeuvres russes, chinoises, cubaines ni même de reconnaitre Angela Davis montre surtout de graves lacunes culturelles et historiques! Le thème de Fairey est la propagande comme matraquage publicitaire, en ce sens, son travail reste cohérent. Cette vision des choses a d’ailleurs été détournée en France il y a quelques temps : des supermarchés ont utilisé le visuel d’un fameux pochoir datant de mai 68 pour vanter leur guerre contre les prix chers…

sorry it took me so long to reply to this- been meaning to for a while- i also had the opportunity to confront mr. fairey a number of years ago, at an opening of his at C-Pop Gallery in Detroit. while less articulate, my critique had much in common with some points josh & marc have made- that shepard’s work exploits a glamorized approach to revolutionary images, while stripping any revolutionary content out of them. his reply was basically an extended “yeah, so?” i remember certain choice tidbits like “i never said i wasn’t a capitalist” – to my criticism of his use of revolutionary figures & styles to sell his products- and “so what, you like lenin?” to my questioning his use of the Bolshevik’s likeness.
i find very interesting the broader point to be made here as well, about the model of mr. fairey’s work that many have hopped on, with legions of young artists using appropriated public space to create their own brands, which they can spin off to lucrative shirt, sneaker & toy sales….
to me, it seems in many ways like an extension of warhol’s flirtation with advertising- the dangers of replicating capitalist processes of branding without any real critique of their insidious form or content….

I had to use a online translator, since I don’t know French. This is the closest I could come to what I believe RoscO to be saying:
“Strange debate behind which were sent bitterness and bait to gain some royalties … Most artists propaganda from which the visuals of Fairey were rarely mentioned during those campaigns. The fact that some of your fellow citizens will not be able to recognize works of Russian, Chinese, Cuban or even recognize Angela Davis shows serious shortcomings mainly cultural and historical! Fairey’s theme is propaganda as hype, in this sense, his work remains consistent. This view of things has been hijacked by France some time ago: supermarkets have used the video of a famous stencil dated May 68 praising their war against the dear price …”
From the perspective of propaganda as hype, and excluding all commodification of art or politic, doesn’t that render his “anti-war” work insubstantial and vapid?
If its another Obey campaign, what is the directive?

Thanks for your thoughtful take on this matter.
For a long time I’ve wondered what Fairey is actually capable of as an ‘artist.’ Contemporary graffiti artist Kaws, by contrast, is a guy who, despite the guerilla aspects of his work, can actually paint. While I’m impressed with what Fairey has accomplished from a ‘street art’ perspective, I’m intensely annoyed by the fact that he’s never displayed any true artistic skill. Maybe some design skill, but too much of his work is ‘borrowed’ to be certain even of that.
He’s a marketing genius, but by no means an artistic genius. I think that one actually have to create art to be one of those, and I’ve yet to see images that he’s actually rendered without the aid of two-dimensional source material.
I’ve long known where many of his appropriated images came from, but I still think that Mark’s exposé was a serious intellectual bitch slap that calls Fairey’s creativity fully into question — for both those who had some idea of what he’d been doing, and those who had no clue.

Mark Vallen’s opinions on what constitutes good art seem extremely self serving…he comes off bitter and jaded, not to mention misinformed (study Lichtenstein before you assume his
But he has a good heart, and alot of passion for the people he wants to defend. I’m not a big Shep fan but I’m not wanting to hate him either… So here’s my two cents-
Good art is art that gets a reaction, negative or positive, that can lead to a meaningful dialogue . Thats one cent.
Cent number two: Good art doesn’t give you all the answers, it forces you to ask alot of questions.
I’m just not feeling the argument that Fairey is being malicious by denying people specific credit or identification.What if everybody took the time to ask questions about what they were seeing? A little research and BAM they’ll find it…it’s not Fairey’s fault that people can’t recognize Angela Davis. If anything, he’s helping that cause just by using her image in the first place…couldn’t you argue that?

“It’s not Fairey’s fault that people can’t recognize Angela Davis. If anything, he’s helping that cause just by using her image in the first place…couldn’t you argue that?”
That, to me, is a major part of the argument. People don’t recognize Angela Davis, or many of the likenesses Fairey uses. So how will they be informed if there aren’t artists, and others, teaching these things.
So in the instance of Fairey’s work and this ctritique, I dont think its enough to just make a picture of them. Its irresponsible, it only conveys what Fairey wants to, which is? (Buy my stuff, or question everything…) Whatever it is it takes someone else to be able to point at the image, decontextualize it from its “Obey” form, and say, “That person on the wall is Angela Davis, she was an empowered black woman from the…period, and did….” A stepping point, yet a difficult one to begin with.

Has anyone been to the store that Fairey runs (or perhaps just designed?) at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris? It’s called “Black block” or some slight derivation of “black bloc”.

Although I’m not much of a fan of Fairey’s work, due to the extremely critical take on his work I would like to point out that in reference to the Nazi “Death Head” controversy, that symbol, much like the swastika, the Nazi party themselves appropriated.
See this Wikipedia article for reference:
Again, the only reason I felt the need to reply is not in defense of Fairey, but if you are going to use historical reference against someone, you should at least spend some time researching the references you use.

Thanks for the link Mike, but I actually think if you look at and read the Wikipedia entry a little closer, you’ll see that yes, the skull and crossbones is a long used symbol, but the specific design used by Fairey (as shown in the hat image in the Wiki entry) IS from the SS. I in no way think this makes Fairey a Nazi or anything like that, nor do I think I argued in my article above against using historical material in art. Most people absorb millions of images a day, there is no way to avoid some of those working their way out in what we call our own individual artwork. The issue is that Fairey purposefully obscures his historical references, thus obscuring history. Given the lack of any long-term memory in most aspects of our culture, I would argue this does a serious disservice to the hope of building a politics that can get us out of some of the mess we are in. Clearly hip wealthy art buyers want actual history stripped from their investment purchases, it’s in their interest in more ways than one. But I hold out the hope that art can play a role in struggling for a better world, not just making more money for rich people.

Thanks Josh for giving a link to my website. Honestly, I took most of my references for my article from here and from mark vallen’s article too. It’s very hard to find articles about it in french. Sorry for my bad english but I’d like to go further.
What disturbed me the most in fairey’s work is that I fell like he’s making a real cynical work by reducing his references to a formal expression and evacuating the meaning in a laugh. Reducing Angela Davis to just another beautiful anonymous black woman, when part of her struggle was precisely to escape that, that could be interpretated as a spit. It should be, because you can’t take social and political struggles, reduce them to meaninglesses signs and jokes and say “Hey, no offense, I’m just an artist”. That’s the kind of justification an advertiser would give to an unsatisfied consummer. The polemic about the nazi skull is not very surprising, so. This is pure Pop art. Just as Jasper Johns saying about Pop Art that “a flag was just a flag”, Fairey give us his “a shirt is just a shirt.” Sorry, I don’t buy it.
I fell also like Fairey is a product of our time and an agent of what Baudrillard called “le recyclage culturel” (cultural recycling”). I see is production as a mode phenomenon gimmick, not more, not less. Maybe that’s why there is Obey giant, maybe that’s why someone else can sell products called Obey the Baby, Obey the Pug, etc. I guess, if I search deep, that I’ll eventually find an ‘obey your desire” put on some underwears… Fairey exist because there are people to buy his stuff, people eagers to report his artshows as they would report the issue of the last next hype sneakers. I can’t help myself to see Fairey posters in the street as real smart street marketing.
Here is an extract of Baudrillard’s book “la société de consommation” (“the consummering society “): “Ce à quoi ont droit tous les acculturés (et à la limite, pas même les “cultivés” n’y échappent, ou n’y échapperont) ce n’est pas à la culture, c’est au recyclage culturel. C’est à “être dans le coup”, c’est à “savoir ce qui se fait”, c’est à remettre à jour, tous les mois ou tous les ans, sa panoplie culturelle. C’est à subir cette contrainte de brève amplitude, perpétuellement mouvante comme la mode, et qui est l’inverse absolu de la culture conçue comme :
1. Patrimoine héréditaire d’oeuvres, de pensées, de traditions;
2. Dimension continue d’une réflexion théorique et critique -transcendance critique et fonction symbolique.”
Obey Giant ? Don’t think, just buy it…

this is a great, thought-provoking post that brings all the difficult issues to the fore, and then some. For me the following is the “money quote” if you’ll excuse the expression:
One thing Mark, Lincoln, Favianna and others are deeply concerned about with Fairey’s work is the using of social movement imagery, as I understand it because he has no “right” to it. But this confuses me. I want to know who DOES have the right to it? Are some people more authentic leftists, so they have more of a right to authentic leftist graphics? For example, the Russian Revolution was real, it happened, it changed peoples lives, there is no question about that, but the public construction of the revolution, i.e. how all the posters, photos, books, etc. build up to a coherent whole in the social imagination, is that “real”? Authentic? Does any one group have the right to claim it? To claim authenticity? Does Fairey have less right to the social imaginary of revolution than the rest of us? Have we made a revolution and he hasn’t?
This, imho, is more at the crux of this issue than some of the concerns voiced here about the “loss of history”. If you think it through again, you may find yourself to be on the wrong side of a Free Speech issue (ironically), just as Meiselas did re: the molotov cerfuffle, which was why it behooved her to quickly articulate a rationale to her own otherwise censorious actions — a rationale that would speak to her posse on the Left. I believe that while Fairey obviously has his own interests in mind, there are many subtle and important uses for decontextualization in art. Also: there is a difference between agitprop and other kinds of visual discourse; it’s absurd to assume that these various forms of expression can’t co-exist, that one would — should — cancel the other out.

Fairey is representing the confusing cultural landscape kids from the 80’s suburbs found themselves in. Here’s a suggestion for his critics:
Meet with him and offer to teach him about “real peoples struggles”. Take him to the library to read about the history. Take him to a welfare office. Take him to the fields where migrant workers toil. Take him to an East LA public school. Help him see what’s really going on. Then maybe he can become your ally instead of your enemy.
Criticism is good, but I think it must be matched with the opportunity for growth and education.

He is aware of the history of these struggles, it is clear from interviews that he is very intelligent and conscious of “struggles”.
I don’t consider him an enemy, yet feel like the above piece points out where Fairey and imitators fall short of conveying something more useful than “consume” (or not, or obey, or whatever).
It is about growth and education, it will be more valuable when connections are drawn so people can learn.

Fairey’s theft of other peoples work, and more notably, trying to make obscene amounts of money off other peoples hard won political struggles is not “Decontextualization” or, to use a better word, “Detournement”. Fairey isn’t Guy Debord, and no matter how many jackasses wheatpaste Andre the Giant posters, this isn’t the streets of Paris in May of 68. Where as the issue of the use of the “Molotov Man” revolved around its use, mostly, in non-commercial, overtly political work, where I think its fair game, Fairey is just using it to sell t-shirts. And not especially good t-shirts either (he almost always manages to ruin whatever piece he “appropriates”).
I don’t necessarily agree with all of Vallen’s positions, pointed out on his blog, and I’m a bigger fan of post-modern art than he. But it boils my blood to see idiots lauding some millionaire white-boy for his “daring” works, while legitimate, minority voices are passed over.

it’s all relative.. i can hear both sides of the story. as a Dj, i’m loving dissecting old source and regurgitating my own collages from them. i’m not picasso. I dont want to be.
shepard’s work is both inspiring and inspired by others. it’s just another form of creativity.
it’s really not that different from this article.
it’s inspired by mark vallen who was obviously an inspiration to the author (albeit from what i gather, a pretty bitter artist who would never draw on any resources to do his art.) it’s well written, well thought out and surely required research – no doubt the public pool of information known as google helped out in writing it. it’s creativity, it’s a collage.
good for the people that are putting their stuff out there, recycling past images. past stories. good.
one more thing.. i just finished watching zwiggof’s amazing movie on robert crumb.. there’s some line in there where robert says something like.. ” you think i make this stuff up!? come on.. i’m gonna draw a telephone pole from memory ? these are all taken from photos and images i’ve collected..”
(forgive me for the far-from-direct quote, it’s another form of recycling something from the past)

you seem to be missing the point, its not that we aren’t influenced and inspired by what we like, what surrounds us. This is a critique exploring, politically and thru “power”, that Fairey is capable of “stealing” images, and using them in decontextualized ways.
It’s raising questions of ethics about how is it appropriate to use someone else’s work, and doesn’t say “never use someone else’s work” nor claims that kind of purity within the authors own work.

what if it was faireys idea all along? like him making fun of the masses by stealing public artwork and reforming it into his ‘brand’, critiquing our dumbed down and pacified nation?
its easy to see him as a sell out and a theft… but what if that was his point all along? would that make him succesful? would that still keep him considered as ‘bad’ instead of ‘good’?
i liked faireys work… before i saw this. this does make me cringe a bit. i liked his work because of its aesthetical value. i would of liked it more if he gave credit where credit is due and used his remakes of the work to further the ideas of his sources.

Hi there – I’m wondering if josh macphee can get in touch with me as i appear to have been copied my mr fairey in some way and we can also talk old scottish history, distant clan relations and how the macphees
are the most feared clan in scotland : )

Im listening to Mark Holster’s, from Negativeland, talk about “Fair Use” and transformative reuse, from October 2006 at The New School.
The mp3’s can be found on the WFMU blog
Its a different perspective on reuse and appropriation than Fairey and many artists have. Its very blunt and up front.
It seems that visual artists, like Shepard, care to present themselves as authentic and creative.
Start at Part 5: The U2 Lawsuit, for the appropriation & fair use topics

For all those who equate being and artist with being able to “draw good”, I suggest you start your education by Googling the word acheropoietoi.

first: i am riding on little sleep, so forgive any glaring typos & try to follow what i think is a train of thought:
there are a lot of interesting thoughts on this page i must say. and a lot ran through my head when i read all of this.
shep was 2 years behind me in school. i can’t remember when he began stenciling andre, if it was his freshman or sophmore year. he was one of the folk that helped continue the stenciling craze, he became pretty well known for the image. the point of the image is that it made no sense (tho it did take on a poignant flavor for me when andre died). and it made no sense in the same aesthetic way that dada-ism made no sense: it was pairing two totally unrelated things together and, by placing these together, causing the viewer to assume their association and try to puzzle it out.
here’s an excerpt from wikipedia on dadaism:
“Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. For example, George Grosz later recalled that his Dadaist art was intended as a protest “against this world of mutual destruction”.[3]
According to its proponents, Dada was not art, it was “anti-art.” For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend. Through their rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics the Dadaists hoped to destroy traditional culture and aesthetics.”
i think duchamp’s mona lisa is similar in a sense… it coins an iconic image who not only references her painter, davinci, held to the ideal of master painter: but also that of france through its being housed in the louvre; western ideals of beauty; feminity, in that it questions hers through the moustache, and the public aesthetic as it was created in a time when suffrage and women’s claiming of their civil rights (admitted for the most part white women) were really beginning to make headlines.
now, i’m not saying that fairey is a duchamp. i’m just pointing out that there is a tongue and cheek aspect to the original andre image. and a tie to dadaism in the way the andre idea was politicized when shep plastered a billboard-sized poster on top of a buddy cianci campaign billboard (with a cutout space for cianci) in either 90 or 91, calling attention to the irony that was buddy cianci’s 2nd mayoral campaign: he had a posse (was highly connected within the local italian mob), and in addition had committed questionable behavioral acts which included a prior conviction for pissing on his wife on their front lawn after beating up on her. for his efforts, shep spent quite a few hours doing community service for the city of providence. his use of the image and its juxtaposition with the mayoral candidate was a spot-on critique of the situation. and i believe that is still the general idea behind his work. the later addition of the word “obey” and playing with the idea of diverse propaganda imagery and styles only made things more interesting to me, personally.
coincidentally, in the same general period of time in the 90s, the hip hop trio De La Soul was called to task for musical plagarism, as their music consisted of many juxtaposed samples of famous songs that also were not credited. after which the courts ruled that credit had to be given and permission had to be sought, and the musical copyright laws were amended. perhaps this is the same crossroads within the visual art world, when artists should be called to task for not crediting & references images directly pulled from another artist/designer’s work.
which leads to the point that was made regarding the racial and cultural plagarism committed: that shep, a white man with middle class upbringing and now a millionaire from his franchising endeavours, has appropriated images from the disenfranchised, the non-white minorities and made huge profits without properly referencing original image sources – thereby devaluing the meaning and impact of the image itself, the revolutionary event it was connected to, and the struggles of the peoples connected to that event. perhaps, instead of simply writing critiques or challenging him to his face during gallery openings/events, approaching him as a group with a question about his work and a call for him to transform it, adding socio-cultural educational and philanthropic aspects to what is already there and therefore educating consumers, is more conducive to actually facilitating a change? he sort of took that step in his video endorsing obama – maybe it is better to appeal in that way, possibly calling for him to begin to create a way to give back socially to the peoples he references – could be done through creating a foundation that awards scholarships or creates opportunities for disenfranchised urban kids in california.
as for the fact that the has taken the image and converted it into clothing? well, when you are a fresh grad from art college, one of the best ways to make money is to make things and sell them – and i bet tee-shirts was one of the ways he did that. is he to blame that his aesthetic was one that captured the public’s fancy and so he was a chance to make a good living? art purists will disagree, but honestly – who wouldn’t capitalize on a good thing?
and as for his talent as an artist, RISD is known for its selectivity (a whole other thread unto itself). but have no doubts that the boy can draw his ass off. and yours too.

Ima talk about about how this piece has impacted my understanding of the issue at hand and my overall outlook on artmaking in Nacerima.
Thanks for bring a concise set of ideas and example to the table and big ups for contributing to the work of people with whom you dont agree with on every point. Its great to have an example of collabos that arent cliquish, bandwagony stereo-diatribes but instead arguments from “parallel but divergent positions”.
Sweatshops are disgusting and dehumanizing and this piece made me realize that too often we are ready to intellectualize an issue while giving short shrift to the physical suffering at issue. (I struggle with the fantasy to force Shep in to such a situation).
I also got uneasy when the issues of lawsuits and using copyright laws to the advantage of an artist. Coming to grips with the fear-based impulses to protect ones work (from parasites like Mr.Obey and other corporate vultures) is a hard thing to do.
I registered a trademark because I was afraid of being robbed. Understanding fear as a component of self-preservation is as important as understanding how fear is used as means of oppression. Part of this piece made me feel judged for being protective of my work (by which I mean my effort not my artistic product).
Josh says that getting money outta Fairey “sidelines the real issues”. When I read that it made my stomach turn a bit. His statement seemed to be dismissive of the importance of holding corporations accountable for abusing (not stealing but harming the effort of others). To me its fine to use the auspices of ownership to the end of justice for wrongdoing.
This piece made me realize that more and more I tend to think that using the law to preempt and undermine capitalist assaults is just like filling up your tank full of Exxon in order to drive around with a trunk full of spray paint.
This piece really makes me feel angry that I cannot think of a direct way to help the folks sewing Sheps gear.
Also it made me proud to be a part of collective critical thought. And proud to thumb my nose (Im doing it at home right now) at the idea that artmaking requires some kind of baseline skill-level.
But seriously how can we advocate for the peeps who make Obey clothing?
damn this is a long assed comment. good job for getting lazy fools typing Josh! Big UPS{{{

What a bunch of idiot comments about Fairey. You people are stupider than you have a right to be.This guy Fairey has made a career out of lifting images that don’t belong to him then passing them off as his own. As an artist myself this is the lowest thing you can do. He doesn’t deserve any support as an artist. You people that believe he doesn’t do this are gravely misinformed and need to do your homework before you embrace your poster boy. Now I see the Obama picture was lifted as well! Great Artist indeed. Great hack non-artist is more like it.

Well put. This man is a master at scanning and Photoshop, not an artist. His images are intrinsically meaningless and resemble advertising(I presume that the product being advertised is himself?).

Regarding the “referencing” of political struggle art, my problem is with both the copyrighting of images that were previously public domain, and, more seriously, the possibility that these images will be rendered anodyne by his repurposing. What was previously a political statement may now be recognised more as “Obey art”.

A comparison to remixes by DJs was made in an earlier post. This is not completely valid, as most such mixes are named so as to credit the original musician(eg. DJ Dan – Eisbär[Paul Oakenfold mix]).

We must answer the following riddle: When is a photograph no longer a photograph?
Nevertheless, our task of interpretation is reduced substantially, because the parties agree, to some extent.
The question we must answer, then, is whether subsequent modifications transformed the scanned photograph into something that was no longer a photograph.
There is no doubt, noticeable alterations to the image from original photo. Arguably these changes have transformed the image from a photograph into an illustration based on a photograph.
Viewing the problem through this lens, we conclude that the alterations made failed to destroy the essentially photographic quality of the image.
Changes in color alone do not render an image any less photographic, but here the addition of posterization has produced an effect such that at first glance it is unclear how the image was created.
The question, however, is not whether the image is readily recognizable as a photograph standing alone. To evaluate the degree of accurate, lifelike detail an image contains, we must necessarily compare it to the original.
Once we do this, all doubts disappear. The precise shapes, their positions, their spatial relationship to each other–all remain perfectly distinct and identical to the original.
Despite the differences in appearance, no one familiar with the original can fail to recognize this. The image thus remains essentially what it was the moment it was transferred to the poster: a photographic reproduction. It is now a filtered, posterized reproduction–but photographic nonetheless.
We find that the use of the photo was an unauthorized use and therefore infringes copyright. We REVERSE and REMAND for a determination of damages.

Obama HOPE poster lawsuits
Associated Press sues Fairey:
Fair Use Project defends Fairey, and counter-sues AP:
Well, now the courts get to weigh in on whether or not Fairey is a plagiarist.
Some heavyweights are involved in the case too. First of all, the AP is not a solo artist who has been wronged by Fairey. They have deep pockets and a strong interest in protecting their intellectual property. Second, Fairey is being backed by some legal heavyweights — The Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School.
This has the makings of a huge fight that will (a) clear Fairey’s name or vindicate his critics, (b) have big implications on what “fair use” means, and (c) get the public attention (everyone’s seen the Obama HOPE poster, not everyone knows about OBEY).

And what do you think about a writer writing about somebody else’s experience? Indirectly, it would count as a Fairey-esque modus operandi wouldn’t it? And what about a painter who paints a person who’s primped for two hours, who’s used make-up worth $100 bucks, whose shoes are worth $800, who’s tattered pants are worth 5 years of organic decomposition. Should that interesting looking person ask for royalties everytime the prints of her image are sold by the artist? You should study Art History first. Art that is created everyday is somewhat a derivative, meaning derived from, of existing artworks, ideas, images, you name it. Its what you do to these borrowed or stolen things that makes it into something else, something new, something yours alone. You people who are so concerned about who should be getting what are the real capitalists here actually! How dare you waste space and my time w/ this garbage!

The fact is that if Mr. Fairey didn’t get his “reference” from others, what would he create? Would his “art” still be what it is? Unlikely.
As a former aficionado–and collector–of his pieces, I’m truly saddened that so much what I had admired in his work is not his at all. Sadder still is that he sees no wrong in his actions.
Perhaps when another so-called artist starts making money by “referencing” HIS work will Mr. Fairey realize what he is doing.

Hey! What about create original art! What happened to becoming a creative thinker and executing the
work your own mind can visualize, weird. 🙂

I do not see the point in theorizing Shepard’s artwork other than its monetizing aspect. I will pay for art that is deemed creative and respectful to its references, muses, and origins. I owned many of his posters until I came across Mark’s and Josh’s post and I made a simple decision, his work is not worth the paper or cotton its printed on, sold them all and swore to no longer support any of his endeavors, charity or otherwise, as they are much better ways to help the unempowered.
Yes, he is marketing genius that fulfilled agitprop tendencies to a T and we all fell for it to a degree. History will be the judge of his merits. Thanks for the great research Mark and Josh..

It is a real shame. I went to RISD and got my degree a year before him. He seemed like a nice, open, regular guy. I liked his original work as a junior, like reverse printing on glass and smashing the image.
It is a sad comment on how worthless the BFA is, especially when granted by a sad, brown-nosing old whore of an art collection with a school attached, not to name names but: Rhode Island School of Design. These people imagine themselves to be relevant because they are overpaid egotists, all slapping themselves at their private intellectual circle jerk, if I may say so.
What I love most is the “StreetArtist” image. You got a degree at a top school. Call President Madea at RISD and explain why you are not “talking RISD”.
I have a lot of respect, and appreciated him bringing screenprinting back into the public eye for 15 min. Anyone would envy success.
It is a shame that he is such a PHONY and that these schools still lie to kids and take their parents money to lavish on themselves.
I love all the overblown analysis on this post. Money is money. If you are in you are in. Hey Shep: Why don’t you do a poster for why you need to spend money on an ART DEGREE to be a STREET ARTIST. I have a design you can scan. Don’t worry buddy, no one has seen it because I work for a living.
Such a shame.

“What are the benefits of pretending our culture is precious and only accessible to the “holy few” that somehow have proven they are worthy of it? Can the past be opened up for use in a way that isn’t simply commercial, but also helps us try to change economic and political systems that stunt and destroy the lives of billions of people.”
I think your questions imply another rubric: that using symbols and aesthetics of social struggles is legit if the resulting product is shared freely with no commercial gain in mind, or, if intended to be sold, it must be made in a way that brings more publicity to the real social movement it references than it brings money and/or publicity to the ‘artist’. The left can enforce this (or another) rubric with a particularly well-organized boycott campaign (which should also include corporations doing worse things, of course).

Thank you for explaining. I didn’t know it was that serious what he Faeiry is doing.
I’ll write a post at my blog because I have already post about what thought was his.
I don’t tolerate this kind of… well, I will not use the word I have on my mind now.
For me everything you said is very serious.

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