Shepard Fairey's Hope poster for the Obama campaign made him an international phenomenon, but he was a renowned street artist long before that and his illustrations are now included in collections at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and The Smithsonian in Washington. We'll hear some of his favorite tracks when Fairey joins Jason Bentley as guest deejay on Morning Becomes Eclectic at 11:15am.
JB: We welcome artist Shepard Fairey as our Guest DJ. Good morning, Shepard.
SF: Hey Jason.
JB: How are you?
SF: I’m good.
JB: Excellent. Welcome to KCRW.
SF: Thanks for having me.
JB: Have you been here before?
SF: I have not. I have, of course, listened.
JB: Well this is it. This is where it all happens. Typically in that room is where our live performances are and the bands are mixed over there and obviously anyone listening to us can’t even imagine what I’m talking about but... pretty nice huh?
SF: It’s fantastic.
JB: So, I haven’t seen you since the Obama election night event in Century City where you deejayed and I deejayed. Which was a great time.
SF: Yeah it was. It was one of the best nights, I think, maybe of my life. I was excited we weren’t entering another Republican administration. That was good news, I think (laughter)
JB: And it was great to see how people were so ecstatic. It was really something to see as people were dancing and you deejayed, and Z Trip, and I finished it out. There was one point where pople crashed the stage and just rushed up. It was really cool.
SF: Yeah, I think the thing that was most exciting for me about the whole process -- that being the culmination of it -- is just that people who frequently feel alienated by political process of mainstream politics not only got involved but got incredibly enthusiastic. That was all very clearly demonstrated that night by what people where doing there. It was a very hip scene. I just can’t imagine what the Republican parties were looking like in comparison. It was more or less utopian, in my opinion.
JB: It was kind of like we won the World Cup or something. In the streets, people were beeping and cheering. Good times
SF: Even in that moment though I was thinking, I hope that this energy will actually continue and some of the important things that need to come out of this first step of Obama winning the election will actually, people will follow through on. Yeah, that’s a message to everybody to stay motivated.
JB: You’re right. Before we get into music, how about a little perspective about you. My own perspective…I knew your work long before I had met you, We are the same age. As I came up in the early 90s through my 20’s, I was first aware of your “Andre the Giant has a Posse” sticker campaign, which looked like a punk rock fanzine kind of style. I think my generation, we are so overwhelmed by the corporate branding that we’re often looking for the subversive and the more subtle and street art. And that was really your zone and place. Take us back to that time -- what brought you to that campaign and what were you doing at that time.
SF: Well, you nailed it when you said punk rock because my background is skateboarding and punk rock Those are the two things that shaped my sort of ‘o it yourself’ ethos. I grew up in South Carolina where there really was a no alternative scene. I’m not even sure if that phrase had been coined yet. But I always felt like the things I was actually interested in, it was necessary for you to do your own thing and be creative. The “Andre The Giant has a Posse “sticker campaign just started as an inside joke with some skateboard friends but once it got a lot of interest, people were like “what’s this thing about? Is it a band? Is it a cult? Is it a skateboard group?” It made me realize that images that are not advertising in public space can actually reawaken a sense of wonder about public space and I was fascinated by that concept and I wanted to evolve that into something that was little more serious than Andre the Giant and that’s how the Obey campaign came about
JB: I think a lot of us at that time and at that age – and this is true of anyone – we’re following our instinct and we know what we’re drawn to. that gravitational pull of music or art or creativity, but we don’t quite know how to make sense out of it and certainly don’t know if there is a career in this but later on as you emerged with Obey and more of a proper studio things took more of a shape in the sense of business opportunities.
SF: That’s right. For years I thought, well, I’m really into doing street art and doing this campaign that I think is provocative and gets people to think about the dynamics of culture and consumption and politics -- but there is no way I can make a living from that, its going to have to remain as something I’m moonlighting doing. But then, of course, ideally I liked to be focusing on things that I think are creative, positive and constructive all day along so I tried to evolve. I initially did a screen printing business so I could print – my claim to fame is that I printed Sonic Youth stickers for a few years. I would print stuff for Boss Hog and other bands. Then I'd have to do things like Karate uniforms and other things that weren't that fun just so I had the screen printing equipment so I could make my own work. Eventually, people said 'the designs you're doing, could you do something like that for me?' And I thought 'well I'd much rather be designing stuff for people rather than pulling a squeegee all day long' and eventually it all morphed into this art concept of doing work for clients and then also doing my own work and making it all work together. I've always felt it's an inside/outside strategy, is what I call it. You have to be willing to work outside the system, but if you can engage the system, infiltrate it and change it, or utilize its machinery for your own agenda then that's great as well, and that's always something I've tried to do.
JB: So there's sort of a duality to your work where you're trying to strike a balance between these commercial opportunities, which actually were very influential, it became a whole look. People were doing ‘your style,’ but also the underground art scene.
SF: Yeah exactly. Fortunately, I'm at a place now in my career - it took 20 years - but any commercial work I take on now is because I'm actually interested in the project. For years, as any starving artist could relate to, you're put in a position, well, do I take any regular job or do I do jobs for design clients that I'm not necessarily interested in what their product is or what they're doing commercially, but at least I'm continuing to hone my skills as I do work for them and make money to fund my personal projects. So, luckily, I'm in a very unique position now, I think, for a designer and artist where I really get to work on the projects that I want to work on. But I will say I think it's because I stayed the course. I was very diligent about trying to make what my ideal life would be work, and I think it eventually - you know, nothing's perfect - but it's going pretty well. I have a great studio with other talented artists, and I think they enjoy working with me, and we do all these philanthropic projects when we're not busy with commercial projects. It's a great thing.
JB: Now, in 2008, on your way to an exhibit in Boston, you're gonna have to describe this scene, but basically, you got pinched by the fuzz.
SF: Yeah, I was asked to do a 20-year survey of my work by the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, and that was even underway before the whole Obama thing happened, so it was being developed. I had become quite well known by the time the election happened, and I went to Boston and I had a lot of legal spaces sanctioned that the museum had secured for me, but I also did my normal thing and put a few stickers and posters up around town. There was an officer and a neighborhood organization who decided that I had become the symbol of everything that was wrong. Street art being elevated to museum status was a very, very dangerous message to send to Bostonians, that would mean soon every house in Boston would be graffiti-ed upon. So without actually catching me in the act of putting a single sticker up or anything, they staked out my museum show with undercovers and arrested me as I went there to DJ.
JB: How surreal that must have been.
SF: They made a big deal out of it, but I was initially facing 34 felony counts and up to 87 years in jail. Dan White got 3 years in jail for shooting Harvey Milk, just to put it in perspective. They were very serious about this, maybe disproportionately serious to the weight of the crime. Anyway, I have had to go back and forth to Boston and retain council, but I recently settle and plead guilty to a couple misdemeanors and accepted two years probation, and that was the way to just put it behind me. What they really try to do is they make it as big an inconvenience for you as possible, use you as a symbol and it can drag on forever once you're entangled in that system. That was my 15th arrest, so I don't know how familiar all the listeners are with being entangled in the system, but I'm quite familiar with it, and it's no fun and this was the worst one ever. But luckily, like I said, I'm at a point in my career where a lot of people want to offer me walls to put my work on. My work's never been about the idea of just doing illegal stuff because I don't care about private property. The idea is that the work is populist. I want to share it with people in a venue that I think is appropriate for expression, and it's really a free speech issue and an access issue, not a legal vs. illegal issue. I'm very happy to take legal walls in great public spaces, and that's where I'm at in my career now, I'm able to do that. So that's going to help. I've got to be careful now.
JB: Last year with the Obama campaign, you became entangled in the system at possibly the highest level possible. I'm not sure how much you can talk about this, but how did the Obama Hope project start?
SF: I wanted to make a poster supporting Obama because I thought he was the best candidate. I was impressed that he opposed the war in Iraq when that was a very unpopular position to take and a lot of his other policy positions I believed in. Also, I liked the way he spoke. So, I reached out to a friend of mine who had a connection in the campaign because unlike a lot of the other things I do where if I want to do it I just make it and put it out there, I didn't want to be seen as a liability to the Obama campaign because I had been arrested and had made a lot of work that was opposed to the US government - the Bush government. I just didn't want to give any fuel to the right wing to say this is the kind of company Obama keeps.
So my friend talked to some people inside the campaign and said 'oh yeah they know your work, they said it's fine to make a poster'. So on my own, not officially connected to the campaign, but just with the consent of the campaign, I looked on the internet for a reference photo, made an illustration, turned it into a poster and basically implemented it like I would with anything else I do, which is just selling posters and then using the money from selling them to print free posters and stickers which were distributed, and very quickly it caught on. A lot of that is thanks to the internet, things can spread virally very quickly.
Also I think people really felt strongly about Obama and didn't have the tool to express that direct connection to him as a person which a portrait provides, which is a little bit different from say his slogans or logo, so I think I created the right thing at the right moment, then just kept making more and more stuff. Then I think a lot of people know that the reference photo that I used, which I was always very forthright about my process, was an Associated Press photo and the Associated Press decided to at the end of all this to sue me, so I'm in the middle of a lawsuit with them. I think what I did constitutes fair use. It's a transformative illustration that doesn't compete with the market for the original photograph. It's based on an art tradition that half of what's in museums would be illegal if what I did is illegal. I think the AP is using this as a way to discourage bloggers and people like the Huffington Post from using any of their materials without paying for it, because their business model is in danger. My image became very famous, so I've become a useful tool in their mission. I think that pretty much sums it up.
JB: Well, the good news is your work ended up in the Smithsonian and I did see an interesting comment from an art critic saying that there hadn't been as compelling a political image since the Uncle Sam Wants You image which we all know from the past. That resonated with me, I felt that was true. It's such a compelling image and it represents our time.
SF: Well, thanks. I think that's mostly could be attributed to Obama, not me, but I'll take it. It wouldn't be the first time I tried to hi-jack cultural currency.
JB: Alright, Shepard well let's get into some music, the fun part, because I know you are a huge, huge music fan. You're our guest DJ so set it up, what have you got for us?
SF: Well, I thought it would be appropriate, based on the discussion we just had and everything going on in my life to play “Police on My Back” and the debate was do I play the original by Eddie Grant's first band the Equals, everyone knows Electric Avenue, but I found out about it because of the Clash's cover which I assumed was the original but we're going to go with the Eddie Grant version.
SONG: The Equal’s “Police on My Back”
SONG: Black Flag’s “Rise Above”
JB: Shepard Fairy is our guest DJ, so tell us, what was that?
SF: That second track was Black Flag's 'Rise Above' off the 'Damaged' album, that's when Henry Rollins - who also has a show on KCRW…
JB: That's right, Saturday evenings. He's been great.
SF: He became the vocalist and I think that's their strongest record. It's an incredible record and Black Flag is such an important band. They really were one of the first bands to create the punk tour circuit that all the other bands would follow. They lived a very Spartan existence to pursue their art. I think they're great role models.
JB: I liked Rollins's mentioning that he was living in his car at the time.
SF: Yeah, they would sleep in the trucks. They had a 5 dollar-a-day budget to spend on food. You've got to read "Get in the Van" - Rollins's book about those years. But awesome band. And the message is great - Rise Above. So after all my issues with the police, that's what I'm trying to do. Keep it positive, rise above.
JB: Next up we have a couple of - I guess we could call them mash ups, but combinations of different songs?
SF: Yeah, I DJ and I play a lot of the stuff that's been influential to me over the years and I was mentioning DJ Z-Trip, who's been on here before. He was a real inspiration to me because he blended stuff from different genres and one of the tracks I'm gonna play is Generation X 'Dancing With Myself' with The Ramones 'Blitzkreig Bop'. It's just a little transition, seamless transition beat matched that’s there. And then the next one Eric B. and Rakim "Paid in Full" mixed with "Heartbreaker" by Led Zeppelin is more of a mash-up I guess you could say, but these are my minimal forays into music production. But mostly you know I go out and I DJ and I play stuff that I like and I don’t mess with the tracks too much --I blend them and I make it fun, but these are some things I put together.
JB: I'm curious before we go into the music… the relationship in your mind, and when you started DJing, your motivation. What's the relationship between your visual art and this kind of audio collage of DJing? And just using the example of Z-Trip, who you've worked with quite a bit, I mean he's the ultimate example of someone that's taking bits and pieces of popular culture and creating something completely new.
SF: Well, I think that's very similar to my approach with art. I've said frequently that I became addicted to DJing because it has the same rewarding problem-solving aspects as design and, in fact, its even more fun because your listening to great stuff as you're figuring out how to put it together in a way that works, that’s both sharing something that people may know, but also combining it in a new way that they're not expecting, so it's that double-up punch that’s gonna really make it something fun to listen to. And yeah, Z-Trip really does an incredible job at it and I wish I could dedicate as much time as he does to just that aspect, but he was a very strong inspiration. Also, because he's using disparate styles a lot if times, and I think that when I first thought about music -- I've always loved music, but my taste runs the gamut --and I thought, well you have to be a dancehall DJ or a hip-hop DJ or a techno DJ, and he really proved that that wasn't the case.
JB: Yeah, well his session here was like a master class in 'turntable-ism' when he stopped by. It was amazing. Alright, Shepard Fairey, our guest DJ on KCRW.
SONG: Gen X / Ramones -- Dancing with Myself mixed with Blitzkrieg Bop
SONG: Eric B and Rakim / Led Zeppelin – Paid in Full Mixed with Heartbreaker
SONG: Z-Trip Mix -- Led Zeppelin / Public Enemy -- Immigrant Song Mixed with Bring the Noise
JB: Shepard Fairey is our guest DJ here, our selector, and featuring a number of mash-ups in that set.
SF: Yeah, that last one was Z-trip. I had to give him his due there for being such an inspiration for me and also because he used two of my favorite bands mixed together, Led Zeppelin -- who I got to do a greatest hits album cover for the "Mothership" package -- which was pretty phenomenal. I mean, how can you go through high school and not love Led Zeppelin, you know. And then Public Enemy which, for me, high school was about punk rock, and then at the end of high school and beginning of college I thought, well, punk rock has maybe run it's course, the new punk rock is Public Enemy, for sure. So N.W.A., Public Enemy, Chuck D is a huge inspiration for me, so that's a great blend there.
JB: I noticed a couple of these, you mentioned Led Zeppelin, but a few of these are artists that you've been able to work with as well, and I think you worked with Billy Idol right?
SF: Yeah, I did, I did. Billy Idol's greatest hits album package and an album that he recorded in 2005 called "Devil's Playground." When I was twelve I used to call in and request "White Wedding" to the radio station in South Carolina, and they were like, 'that song has been off the charts for six months loser.'
JB: You made a really interesting point while that music was playing, which was how art should work -- and it should work like music does.
SF: Yeah, I love music, and I've made a lot of art celebrating trailblazers in music in punk rock and hip-hop. You know, people like Bowie, and Iggy Pop because to me music is really great and it affects you viscerally and really impacts you on a gut level, and makes you feel good, and then you become interested in what the content is, and what the lyrics are, what the lifestyles of the musicians are, and people are so stressed out with just the rat race of life, that for art to not really affect people on a gut level and break through the way music does is a shame. So, the approach that I take to my art is, I really want to make it powerful and emotionally something that is impactful, and then hopefully people will care about what the content of the art and what the message, what my point of view is. That's just my approach. Other people who are maybe smarter then I am and get why the emperor has no clothes on, they might argue differently, but that's my opinion.
JB: Well, tell us what you have coming up. I know you have a book coming out, what's that about?
SF: Well, there's the Obama, the book of all of the art that was created for Obama. It was such a spectacular movement, pretty much I think had never been seen before, that that many young creatives created art for a presidential campaign -- and not just portraits of Obama, but pieces that were pushing for worker's rights, universal healthcare, green energy -- and I felt that it was very important for that to be well documented and shared. So Yosi Sergeant, who I worked with, and Jen Gross, who helped put together the Manifest Hope shows, that we did both in Denver during the DNC, and in Washington DC during the inauguration, we pulled together a lot of this work, and it'll be out soon.
JB: I see that'll be out in October, so that's "Art for Obama Manifest Hope Book."
SF: And the proceeds are going to some various progressive causes and art charities, so if you buy it you get some good art and it goes to good things. I'm not keeping the money.
JB: Also, the exhibit that is currently running in Boston will move to Pittsburgh at the Warhol museum.
SF: Yeah, which is great, because Warhol broke down a lot of barriers in the art world and was an entrepreneur in a lot of ways. It's very validating because I've followed his model to a degree to be asked to show at the museum dedicated to him. And it may be helpful in the AP case as well, considering that he did his Marilyn Monroe, and his soup can, and he's been on a stamp. He's been sort of universally accepted as not so much a villain. (Shepard laughs)
JB: That's true. Well, we are running short on time; we only have a few minutes left. I don’t know if that changes the final song selection you have. Shepard, thank you for stopping by.
SF: Thanks so much for having me. You know, love music, love the station, really glad to be here.
JB: Well, you’re always welcome, the doors always open. Now what do you want to do as your closing track?
SF: Well, I'm gonna go with a band that really made a big impact on me, The Sex Pistols. That was the band that really opened the gate to punk rock for me, which was life changing. Their song, which was very irreverent at the time, "God Save the Queen" actually hit number one in the UK but they refused to print it in the number one slot so they left the slot blank that week because it was so controversial, but it shows that if you're doing something that’s impacting people, even the system, the man, can’t hold it back. So, "God Save the Queen" from 1977, a little shout out to Steve Jones, my friend.
SONG: Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen”
Shepard Fairey as Guest DJ
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]