Shepard Fairey: The oxymoron of a commercially successful street artist?

On a depressingly soggy Sunday afternoon, I dragged myself to The Brooklyn Museum to see a talk with one of my favorite artists, Shepard Fairey, who was being asked questions about his life and work by the museum’s Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Sharon Matt Atkins.

I first discovered Shepard, or Obey as I only knew him back then, about 10 or so years ago, stumbling across paste ups and stickers of his iconic character Obey Giant on holiday in California. It was about the same time that I was getting excited about the relatively small and inconspicuous stenciled rats I was increasingly spotting on corners of East London streets, signed by the curious moniker Banksy. I can still remember Googling Banksy and searching for him on ebay to find out more, and disappointingly only getting a list of returns about the legendary goalkeeper Gordon Banks (no offense Gordon). Seems unimaginable now.

My early interest in the two individuals who are now amongst the foremost artists in the street art scene, long before they had achieved mainstream success, is not some kind of brag, or badge of honor. Rather, it’s the beginning of some musings about what happens when purveyors of subversion go and get all famous on us.

Shepard briefly addressed the perils of ‘getting famous’ on Sunday, touching on the issue of losing some credibility in certain circles after his Obama Hope poster catapulted him to international notoriety- It should probably be noted that the same poster might well financially ruin him as he has an Associate Press lawsuit hanging over him for copyright infringement.

He rightly pointed out that there is a tipping point for all street artists, and when their popularity crosses this threshold it will undeniably change the way some people view these supposed renegades. Some dislike the fact that Shepard criticizes the pervasive nature of advertising, yet accepts commissions from Saks Fifth Avenue and some get upset that Banksy’s art is on the one hand a social critique on the accepted establishment, yet he arguably joins forces with them in selling his art to the wealthy elite. Analogously, countless 70s Punk bands who stuck it to the man, were seen to have sold out when they signed to major record labels. Some purists will always feel let down by these individuals.

As my Dad explained to me:

There was a time in the early 1960s when outside of a very small group of folkies, Bob Dylan was our secret, our hero, our religion, and our recognition of the new. He bound us together, made us friends, and gave his followers a special status. When everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, it just wasn’t the same…..

The slightly conflicted emotions I now feel towards artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey are definitely not caused by any notion of hypocrisy. If anything, I would staunchly defend them from these barbs. And I don’t think the idea of a commercially successful street artist is necessarily an oxymoron. I think the discord I feel, if I’m totally honest, is one borne out of deeply harbored selfishness and elitism.

Part of my love of street art and graffiti was always that while thousands would walk past a D*Face piece or a Space Invador mosaic every day without barely a glance, my eyes would spot and appreciate what to others was simply invisible.

Yet now I think I selfishly lament the fact that this art is accessible to the masses. Walls with a Banksy piece are considered tourist attractions, street artist’s books adorn countless coffee tables, and graffiti is now the topic of many uninformed conversations. Is it wrong that I covet these artists being known and appreciated only by a select few?

I think this selfishness is the same reason that when my favorite Indie band makes it big, and start playing at festivals and arenas rather than local pubs, I feel pangs of disappointment and twinges of regret, rather than being predominantly happy that their talent has been deservedly recognized.

So, while I don’t pretend to completely understand how I can reconcile the conflict I feel at the success enjoyed by some of my favorite artist’s, I feel better for this confession. I’m not sure that these are uncommon emotions so if someone out there can better articulate what I’m feeling, I would be much obliged…

Meanwhile, Shepard Fairey’s new show, May Day, opens on Saturday at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street…and you know that I’ll still be one of the first in line to check it out…


3 responses to “Shepard Fairey: The oxymoron of a commercially successful street artist?

  1. After reading that you might find this article by David Mitchell in yesterday’s Observer interesting

  2. Thanks. A great read. Well written as always, and oh so true. The minnow has become the shark. Love it.

  3. Hi friend.
    I couldn´t find your email so y will write here
    Great blog
    Very interesting material
    Best regards

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