Shepard Fairey, one of the best-known street artists to leave a tag on a wall since the invention of the craft, and creator of the instantly recognizable “Hope” campaign poster for Barack Obama, needs no introduction. Just look at the monumental murals he’s crafted in major cities across the globe, including a few in Miami. Or the legions of devoted fans who wear his apparel, typically featuring his ultra-popular “Obey” logo. Or the museums and institutions that have collected his work as indicative of the potential of street art.
This weekend, Fairey will descend on Art Wynwood, a local fair that seeks to connect collectors and artists, to accept the Tony Goldman Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award. (Goldman was the real-estate tycoon responsible for the rise of Wynwood as a chic, luxury neighborhood.) New Times caught up with Fairey to talk gentrification, political resistance in the art world, and how to reach a mass audience while retaining one's message.
New Times: You famously began propagating your work via the skating community, which has a natural sort of antiauthoritarian bent. Do you feel that you've retained that ethos? Does the extent to which your work has become commercialized dilute the original intent, and do you think your audience mostly consumes your work with attention to its message, or apolitically?
Shepard Fairey: My driving philosophy is "Question everything.” I am a little more mature now, so I understand the need for balance between personal liberty and respect for the fabric of society we all benefit from, but I continue to be suspicious of structures and authority that are ripe for abuse — capitalism as a system included. Yes, I sell my work; capitalism is the system we’re living under. But I also donate to a lot of causes, and I think I’m able to exist in the system and critique the system without being corrupted by the system. I acknowledge that this requires a conscience and consciousness. I think my audience consumes my work for a range of reasons, but my hope is that if someone is buying a print or T-shirt for its aesthetics or as a status symbol, that there is the possibility that spending time with the art might help them to go deeper. There are many things that I hope for from my audience, but I have not yet mastered mind control, and maybe that’s better for everyone.
Wynwood has been rapidly developed over the past few years. What changes have you observed, and do you think this is tied to the mural movement that has spread throughout the area, which has featured some high-profile artists such as yourself?
Gentrification is a genuine issue. I am a big believer in social justice, and I don’t like the idea of poorer residents and families being displaced based on rapidly shifting market forces. I think the appeal the art creates for a neighborhood is something that people who are more business-driven see an opportunity to exploit. Ironically, I think art is often about the more beautiful, kinder, and gentler things, but art can prime the neighborhood for gentrification. Blaming art is the wrong tactic, though. Looking at policies around aggressive business practices is a more targeted approach to the problem.
Do you think it's important for a neighborhood like Wynwood to retain its original identity? What can artists do to try to steer gentrification in a way that is less destructive to locals?
I think the argument about the evolution of neighborhoods and gentrification is a lot more complex than the role of art. But if we’re focusing on art and artists, I do think that acknowledging the history of a place is the polite thing to do. Not all artists are polite, but even fewer entrepreneurs are polite. I think what it comes down to is a need for everyone to look at the impacts of their actions. Neighborhoods evolve; I’ve seen neighborhoods like New York's Greenwich Village, SoHo, Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn evolve and gentrify dramatically. I’ve seen the same thing in Silver Lake, Echo Park, and downtown Los Angeles. Like it or not, things don’t evolve to that perfect point that everyone likes to be nostalgic about and remain static. The important thing is to recognize that there are always creative opportunities in other areas. In Miami, maybe it’s time to do some cool things in Overtown or other neighborhoods.
Perhaps your most iconic piece thus far is the Barack Obama "Hope" campaign poster. In the age of Trump, what role do you think artists can play in the political sphere? Do you have any thoughts on how the Democratic Party handled the 2016 election and the fallout that ensued?
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Leading up to the inauguration and the Women’s Marches, I worked on a series of images called “We the People” that showcases groups who have been attacked by Trump, including Muslims, African-Americans, and Latinos. This series is about embracing humanity and resisting Trump, and it has seemed to resonate and activate many people who consider themselves Democrats or progressives. I think the Democratic Party needs to rethink its approach and to connect with people and be reinvigorated. Both parties have moved to the right over the last 20 years, and they are both too corporate, in my opinion. The traction of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the appeal of Elizabeth Warren, both give me hope that there’s a possibility for a less corporate version of the Democratic Party that puts people before corporate interests.
What advice do you have for the next generation of street artists seeking to make an impact on the political sphere? Any "best practices" or methods you've found effective? Do you think the capacity for art to spur change has expanded or declined?
In general, I don’t think there is as much political art being made as there should be. I’ve been encouraged by the increase in imagery that is political in the wake of the Trump election, but a lot of that is from people who don’t consider themselves artists but understand that art and design are great tools of communication. Unfortunately, I think in the gallery-art world, or fine-art world, political art is often frowned upon. My message to any artist out there is, if you feel it’s important to speak your mind politically, don’t let what you think is the prevailing sentiment in the art world deter you. Please have some courage, because your courage may embolden and encourage others. From a creative standpoint, I think the most important thing to do is find a synthesis between what you would like to say and what you are most talented at aesthetically. A principle that I try to remember is to use a visual language, images, and symbols that are as universal and understandable as possible but treat them in a way that is compelling and uniquely mine stylistically. I think the capacity for art to effect change has expanded because the digital tools we now have at our disposal have leveled the playing field and given us power that we never had before. Many of us choose to use those tools in other ways — shallow pursuits have their allure — but always remember that the tools are there for you to use your voice.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, February 17, through Sunday, February 19, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, February 20, at 3101 NE First Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $15 to $55. Visit artwynwood.com.