Since 1989, when the then-Rhode Island School of Design student created his first sticker -- a depiction of wrestler Andre the Giant's head over the phrase "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" -- Fairey's been skulking in the dark all over the world. He reclaims public space by illegally pasting up evolving, propaganda-style Giant images that mock paid advertising by their very presence. Like a modern-day Zorro, he's become an underground hero willing to risk arrest to get his stuff out there. And where Fairey doesn't tread -- mostly, he says, because of time and financial constraints -- a legion of fans download images and do the pasting, stickering and stenciling for him. The in-your-face irony is that when he's not sneaking around on rooftops at night with walkie-talkie-wielding helpers to warn him if the cops are closing in, Fairey has a legitimate career as a graphic designer creating visual campaigns for the very conglomerates he makes fun of after sundown.
"I like the idea of how funny that is," Fairey says. "I don't share the philosophy of these guys, but it's a real coup to be able to do work for them. I take the money I make and put it back into my own projects."
So Fairey the businessman is never at odds with Fairey the artist; all's fair in a capitalist society. What's important, he notes, is that his work brings a kind of street-level empowerment to the young and the disenfranchised. "I don't want a bunch of clones," he says. If Shepard Fairey can create his own grassroots movement and see it spread to every major city on the planet, so can other kids, at least the ones who really get it. He views his posse, the unsung guerrillas who involve themselves in his projects, with hope: "They catch the fever, but they don't really have their own thing going yet. But once they do mine, they find something else that's more important to them. They decide to come up with their own thing."
Somewhere in the middle ground of the Shepard Fairey infrastructure, the artist also sells his work in galleries. But true to form, he does so in an egalitarian way, mostly hawking screenprints and hand-stenciled works with his dumbly iconic signature look. Using "primitive" techniques, he says, he's "able to make images in multiples, and there's no precious original." More recent images, what he calls "homages to punk rock trailblazers" including Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, Joan Jett and Grandmaster Flash, will be offered in Denver at the Th'Ink Tank Studio and Art Gallery, where I Love Rock 'n' Roll opens Saturday. The 18-by-24-inch posters, some printed on canvas, wood or metal, range in price from $40 to $500, making them eminently affordable, whether you're a collector or a punk off the street.
Don't take it as a sign that Shepard Fairey's selling out. "It's similar to having a brand like Coke: You have to constantly keep it fresh," he says. Though his imagery might by coveted by Pepsi execs and skate-culture outlaws alike, the artist, still fresh from a particularly nasty arrest (with gratuitous police violence and unprecedented felony charges) in New York City's Chinatown this fall, isn't thinking of switching gears. As long as he has the means, he'll be out there in the night, kung fu dancing across the rooftops with a poster and a bucket of wheat paste in his hands.
"My sense of mischief is still pretty intact, just the same as it was when I was twelve," he says. "And when I go out, I still get that rush from doing guerrilla art on the spot. But it's not just for me. I feel like people are going to see it and be inspired." -- Susan Froyd