YOU'VE probably never met Shepard Fairey, but chances are you've seen his face on the street more than once. Not his own visage, of course, but that of pro wrestler turned Hollywood actor Andre the Giant, with the word "obey" emblazoned underneath, on posters and stickers Fairey has rendered in red, black and white.
When Fairey first took his "Obey" campaign to the streets of East Coast cities in the early 1990s, he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, using the printing equipment on campus and at a Kinko's to make his mark. He gained a following among skate punks, who gladly obliged to deface public property with the image wherever they went.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Street art: In some editions of today's Calendar Weekend section, part of a quote was deleted in an article on Los Angeles street art. "As far as Echo Park is concerned, there's always been a conscious awareness regarding music and art," said Daniel Clements, one of the co-owners of Brooklyn Projects. "There's more of an artistic vibe and awareness out here, like what you would see in a colorful community in Mexico or South America."
More than a decade later, Fairey is the co-founder of a budding L.A.-based design studio and a magazine. Galleries and museums have shown his works. The ominous "Icon Face," as he calls his Andre the Giant piece, can still be seen throughout Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, London and Tokyo, as well as on a clothing line.
But on a sunny afternoon last week, the 36-year-old South Carolina native was taking us on a tour of street art in L.A. The goal: to find examples that are legal or, at the very least, tolerated enough by the locals so that the works won't be disappearing any time soon. Planning such an itinerary is not particularly easy, considering that lots of street art goes up illegally. The images, in the form of spray paint, stencils, posters and stickers, can either enhance or tarnish city life, depending on whom you ask.
"People channel their energy in different ways, and I think that street art is not all positive, but there definitely have been positive things that come out of it," Fairey says. "A lot of it comes down to people want something to show for their existence."
Making a statement
Graphic artist, guerrilla artist or vandal -- whatever you want to call him -- Fairey is probably the best-known American street artist around. On this day, he is zooming from his Wiltern Building offices in Koreatown to East Hollywood in his black Honda SUV, cutting through yellow lights, occasionally interrupting himself mid-sentence to point out a cool piece of aerosol work that catches his eye or to sarcastically scold inattentive motorists. He seems to constantly scan his surroundings.
Guerrilla art has its roots in traditional graffiti art and the hyper-aware Pop sensibility of Andy Warhol. As opposed to tagging or gang-related graffiti, the work done by Fairey and other artists like Banksy, the British artist who made headlines last year by placing a life-size effigy of a Guantanamo Bay detainee in Disneyland, attempts to comment on social issues -- antiwar and anti-consumerism being two favorites -- by hijacking the public space with startling visuals and pithy phrases.
"First of all I want people to be intrigued. And to question what it is and therefore question everything and hopefully excite them to have a new sensitivity to their environment," says Fairey, whose aesthetic is influenced by Soviet and Chinese propaganda. "I think even if you don't know what the specific message is, there's still a power -- that's the concept where 'the medium is the message,' " he says, quoting philosopher Marshall McLuhan.
And for the message to get across, artists constantly compete for locales with dense traffic. That can lead to illegal activity; in the city of L.A., a person caught defacing public or private property can be charged with a felony if there's more than $400 in damage. By state law, one's driver's license can also be confiscated.
According to Paul Racs, from the city's Office of Community Beautification, it responds to 55,000 requests a year to remove graffiti of all kind from public and private property. "If there's graffiti art, even if they come and put up a beautiful piece, if that person didn't get permission, we will come and abate it," he says.
But that's not really what we're after this afternoon. We head to Western Avenue, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, where a building wall facing a weed-infested lot is covered with red and white Old English script that reads "Seventh Letter Crew." Though it looks as if it could be illegal, it's not. Fairey explains that its creator, the artist collective Seventh Letter Crew, was asked to do the wall. The crew has traveled to Japan, France and elsewhere on the dime of corporate sponsors. Like Fairey, it has a merchandising line. Its T-shirt designs can be seen in Us Weekly being worn by young Hollywood celebrities.
"To me, it says that style of art is resonating with people," Fairey says. "A lot of people have complained that it's going to defang graffiti, but if you look at every countercultural movement, eventually it gets co-opted in some way."