From a marketing standpoint, Shepard Fairey is a genius. Anybody can nick, say, Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, silkscreen it and sell it to nascent hippies at an outdoor music fest. It takes true visionary balls to steal wholesale, and continually, the more obscure socio-realist work of artists who used their draftsmanship to topple fascism, and re-purpose it to sell handbags at Saks Fifth Avenue, after of course helping to elect the next Leader of the Free World.
If you lived in a US blue (liberal) state circa 2008, you couldn’t head to the shops without seeing at least one hybrid automobile with Barack gazing skyward on a bumper sticker that said ‘Hope’. &e ubiquitous four-colour screen prints hanging from record stores and coffee houses promised deliverance from eight years of anti-science, anti-gay, war mongering Republican rule.
Early in the presidential primaries, Obama was cast as the underdog against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. While older liberals worried that America wasn’t ready for a black president, Hillary being the safe choice to beat the Republicans, ‘hipsters’ thought differently. &e old school trusted only white establishment figures. The new school cheered Will Smith in Independence Day as he punched space aliens in the face. Hillary was a product of the old school. She ran ads using Republican-style scare tactics. She wore pant suits.
Shepard Fairy, an LA-based street artist/ guerrilla marketing maven with multiple arrests – who spins vinyl under the name DJ Diabetes – asked the Obama campaign for permission(!) to work up an image, and before long, five thousand posters were printed and a new rock star was born. Fairy, however, did not ask permission from freelance photographer Mannie Garcia, whose Associated Press photo was the source of the image. A lawsuit followed and the parties settled out of court. It would not be his last infringement suit.
“That’s always been my style”, Fairey says. “I don’t get permission. I just do it.” (&at quote is from another article that I’m using without permission or attribution).
Mocked by Republicans (‘Nope’, ‘Dope’) who cited the image as evidence that Obama himself was the fascist idol to fear, ‘Hope’ drew in the young voters and that November, Obama beat war vet John McCain and his screechy sidekick Sarah Palin in a landslide.
Transmogrifying Obama’s face into a logo was a slick tactic, creating a hard, colourful shell like a Dunkin’ Donuts sign. Clean, simple, no hanging letters or burned out neon. So when the right-wingers re-emerged with the birth certificate controversy, a borderline racist attempt to cast the president as an illegitimate foreign usurper, the White House responded by selling birth certificate coffee mugs on their website.
As MC Hammer would say (to a borrowed Rick James lick): “You can’t touch this”.
Four years later, those (non-removable) stickers have faded, Guantanamo Bay is still the bustling extrajudicial detainment camp it always was; aerial drones whoosh over the Mid-East desert and Shepard Fairy is busy stacking paper while his assistants digitally scan classic pro-union, anti-fascism, and black power posters, incorporating the ‘Obey’ logo and readying them for subsequent purchase in malls across America.
With the exception of Ron Paul’s apparent anti-war and drug prohibition stance, none of the current Presidential contenders have a handle on the counter-cultural zeitgeist. But Paul’s commemorative gold coins serve the wrong marketing demographic, plus with the exposure of the Ron Paul Political Report, his race-baiting fanzine from the ’80s/’90s, it’s unlikely that Will.i.am will write a song for him.
Gregg Lopez is a writer and musician based in LA. His new album Murdered Man, Nightmare Ave. is out now. www.murderedman.com
The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music, Issue 17, Spring 2012