In 2008, much of America welcomed longtime guerrilla artist Shepard Fairey’s work into their homes and onto the bumpers of their cars. Fairey's iconic 'HOPE' poster of then-nominee Barack Obama gazing thoughtfully toward a new future in red, white and blue became symbolic for a new America -- one which signaled a much-welcomed change for many.
This election year, however, holds even more collective breath-holding. There is no controversy-free candidate, no beacon of light in the midst of the nation's ever-present problems, and from Fairey, no inspiring campaign poster motivating Americans to vote. For this election cycle, Fairey is instead focusing on issues of voting rights, childhood poverty, gun culture, workers rights and mass incarceration with his current body of work, American Civics, which includes two brand new public murals in San Francisco and an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange. The work is a collaborative project between Fairey and the estate of photographer Jim Marshall, and includes Shepard's signature serigraph interpretations of Marshall's work as well as a collection of original photographs from Marshall's estate.
“Jim liked my work and had mentioned the possibility of collaborating with me before he died,” says Fairey of the prolific photographer, who is primarily known for portraits of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Beatles and other musicians. “The idea involved doing something around social justice; I didn't realize how much work in that arena he had done. When I was able to look through the archives and we talked about issues we all cared about, I was able to find things that I thought would really visually embody those concepts.”
Among the photographs Fairey used for the project -- as well as two large murals in San Francisco, completed in mid-August -- are those of labor organizer Cesar Chavez and Fannie Lee Chaney. Marshall photographed Chaney in 1964 as the FBI informed her that her African-American son, James Chaney, and two of his friends were killed by the Ku Klux Klan for registering black voters.
“The voting rights suppression that's happening right now and also people of color being killed by the police made the Fannie Lee Chaney image very relevant to me,” says Fairey.
The decision to create a mural of Cesar Chavez in San Francisco was a natural one for Los Angeles-based Fairey, who hopes to illuminate the importance of workers who provide valuable services in the city, along with their right to live with dignity during a time of skyrocketing costs of living in the Bay Area. The Chavez mural in Hayes Valley drew United Farm Workers Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres and her colleagues to San Francisco from their headquarters in Los Angeles to attend the opening of American Civics. A percentage of the proceeds from the show's sales will be donated to the organization; ten percent of sales from other prints will benefit the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, the Caliber Foundation, #cut50, and No Kid Hungry; organizations that Fairey and the Jim Marshall estate selected together.
“It's important for me to not only put a spotlight on the issues I care about, but to support people doing activist work on the ground,” says Fairey. “There are some people who ask 'Why are these prints this expensive?' But buying art is a luxury already. If you're willing to spend X amount, spend a little more and have it do some good. That’s really important to me.”
The move from rebel street artist to celebrated public muralist hasn't been an entirely straightforward process, though, and Fairey's career continues to teeter in a gray area. Fairey does seek permission to display permanent public art; he's also racked up 18 arrests and counting (his case in Detroit is still open) for his more 'independent' work. (During Fairey's stay in San Francisco, unsanctioned stencils and wheatpastes of his images have popped up around town on billboards and walls.)
“Until there are more opportunities for artists to be a part of the conversation, I feel like artists have to create opportunities for themselves. And that’s what I did,” he says. “But I get it from both sides: I'm too corporate for the street, too street for the corporate.”
A common misconception that critics have of Fairey's public murals is that the pieces have been commissioned, and therefore paid for, by donors. This is not the case, Fairey says, particularly with his latest San Francisco work, which Fairey funded entirely on his own.
“I'm never walking away with a profit. But you know, I make decent money with my artwork and my clothing line, so I have the luxury of being able to spend money on the public art that is so important to me. For years and years and years I was just doing it without permission, and taking risks, and getting arrested, but now I think it's amazing that I get to do things that are going to stay around for a while. Street art is so ephemeral,” says Fairey. “But it's democratizing art, giving people access to art without having to go to a gallery or museum, and having it be something that they interact with in their daily lives.”
Facilitating access to public art isn't the only driving force behind Fairey's work. He and wife Amanda had their first of two daughters eleven years ago, just before Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released. Looking at the long-term implications of climate change and what impact it would have on his children and future generations was another factor that also motivated him to vigorously support Obama in 2008, “even though it deviated from my rebel brand or rebel image,” he says.
“You know, I was a bit of a 'Live Fast, Die Young' punk rocker when I was younger. Not that I was a selfish nihilist or anything, but I was just: 'OK, cool. This will work for the next five minutes',” says Fairey. “I'm thinking about a lot more than the next five minutes now.”
'More than the next five minutes' certainly includes the presidential election in November. While Fairey originally endorsed presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, he says that Hillary Clinton has his support.
“I think that anyone, even a trained chicken, would be superior to Donald Trump, so of course I support Hillary Clinton. She's, I think, been on the right side of a lot of issues. But I'm very uncomfortable with her vote for the Iraq war, because I think it was not what she really felt in her heart. I think it was politically expeditious, and I don't trust people that make decisions that way,” says Fairey. “But I think it would be devastating for the country to have Donald Trump as president.”
Fairey points to numerous issues he has with Clinton, and is fully aware that there are no 'perfect' candidates out there.
“Every election time I'm hoping there is going to be a candidate that aligns with those ideas, but what's the saying? 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,'” says Fairey. In lieu of a candidate worthy of a repeat of his 'HOPE' poster, Fairey says he'll continue working on issues, like the ones in American Civics, that he feels passionate about. “Campaign finance reform, decreasing funding for the military, decreasing the power of lobbyists, moving toward a greener economy," Fairey says, "I'm working toward all of those things.”
Much like Fairey's criticisms of the electoral system and voting rights, he himself is no stranger to criticism as he walks the line between relatively newfound commercial success and his DIY street credit.
“It's better to be driving the conversation than to be a spectator on the sidelines, even if I'm the victim of some hate,” he says. “I'm grateful to have the opportunities to do the things I do, even if it sometimes gets a negative response.”
'American Civics' is on display through September at the San Francisco Art Exchange, 458 Geary St, San Francisco. More details here.