Staring out mutely from a poster on an easel in front of the DuckyWaddles art and book store in Encinitas was a surreal and familiar face. It was that of Andre the Giant, the late, great and freakishly huge, um, giant of pro wrestling. It was just his face, presented in stark, bold black and white representation, with one word below it: “OBEY.”
If that image gives San Diegans déjà vu, it's no accident. So-called “reformed guerilla artist” Shepard Fairey has both built and risked his career as an unconventional, some say nefarious, promoter of his own absurdist images of Andre. He's done it by slathering posters with his “OBEY GIANT” themes on street lamps, telephone poles and abandoned buildings all over urban landscapes, starting with San Diego about a decade ago. Eventually, and ironically, the grassroots project led to his move from Normal Heights to Los Angeles-and his current, mainstream success as a creative partner in the commercial design company Black Market, now based in Koreatown. He's recently done work for corporations such as Pepsi and Universal Pictures.
But it was Fairey's underground cache as an outlaw art icon that drew many folks to his book-signing on a Saturday afternoon. The tiny, eclectic DuckyWaddles was packed with the young and the hip, the leather- and suede-clad, the baby boomer-gallery crowd and not a small amount of local press. Standing in the middle of a line of about 30 people, holding Fairey's book, Post No Bills, was Amy Turanus.
“I actually heard about Shepard while living in Japan,” she said. “I would see his Andre everywhere and I was surprised to find out how big he is internationally. He's just amazing what he's done with this.” Turanus, a 20-something librarian at All Saints Episcopal School, said she'd welcome the chance to teach her kindergarten through eighth graders about Fairey:
“He could show them that they should believe in their art-to get out there and promote it,” she said.
Even if it's illegal?
“Sure,” said Turanus. “I mean, we have to have some rules. But maybe artists go by different rules.”
Fairey said going by his own rules practically got him banned from San Diego.
“I don't ever come down here anymore 'cause they know who I am. I'm wanted. I have a rap sheet. The cops are just waiting for me,” he told one fan as he signed his book. “There's one guy, a detective, who thinks that even stuff that isn't mine is mine down here. My mistake is that I was a little too successful down here. I was just a little bit too visible. And this guy is the one who headed up the sting operation that caught me putting up one sticker downtown. He's a public relations guy or something for the cops, too. I guess a lot of the Gaslamp businesses were whining about my stuff down there being an eyesore or something. And I guess he's beholden to them. I guess it only takes one guy to ruin it for ya.
“So I can do stuff, and if I don't get caught in the act of doing it, it's mellow. But if I get caught, he's gonna try to stack, like, every single thing in San Diego on me. It's a little sketchy. I'm just trying to prolong my career as long as possible. Stay under the radar of the wrong kind of folks. It's hard to find a balance between legal and illegal in the design world. For me, anyway.”
“They've even threatened to shut down my website down,” Fairey told a different guy, “which, of course, they could never do. But they try as much as possible to intimidate you into submission down here. The project is still succeeding in other places. But San Diego is fairly conservative and, um, vigilant.”
Fairey, dressed in a black t-shirt and shorts, compactly built and with close-cropped hair, looked a lot like the skaters and punk-rock kids who turned out to see him, though he was probably a decade older than most of them. And he had a teenager's nervous energy to him, standing most of the time at the signing, sitting only to actually sign his name in the books, talking enthusiastically and mischievously about his run-ins with the authorities. It was easy to see how cops might take one look at him and see trouble.
Talking to Fairey, however, was a different story. After the signing, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate expounded upon his preference for Russian Revolution-era motifs and his “agit-prop” themes.
“I'm into the Russian constructivists for a few reasons,” he explained. “Even before I was doing Andre, I was into the propaganda poster. Like the Russian Revolutionaries, images of Lenin and Chairman Mao, then the Red Scare uses and the anti-Vietnam movement... taking the static, two-dimensional thing as indoctrination. As trying to get a clear message and emotion across and provoke a response with this tool. And the only thing I could think of that was even close to that today was advertising.
“But the best part of the history of the propaganda posters were that they were, I think, the best integration of typography and imagery-with a limited palette, so that it can be reproduced cheaply-ever used in history. That can be either sinister or positive, depending on what the cause is. But in the West, it's been stigmatized for so long it's funny. So, me being a style chameleon, I appropriated it.
“But then, later, when I was doing my stickers, some people were reacting to it positively, they thought it was really funny or fun, but then others were getting very paranoid about it,” he laughed. “They thought it was like a cult or a gang or something. And what I noticed was that the people who were really against it tended to be these paranoid conservative types. You know, the people who are most likely to be evil authoritarian types themselves.”
People who tended to think that way in the first place?
“Exactly. They were projecting onto me what they wanted. So that just really pushed me towards this scary, pseudo-Communist direction, kind of as a joke about these paranoid conservatives who were frightened by my stuff.”
Ricky Hernandez, 25, came to the signing with his brother, Paul. “I like his art. I respect it,” Hernandez said. “I found out about it out on the street.” Hernandez sported a tattoo on his neck and an oversized Dickies jacket, while his brother looked like a younger version of dreadlocked P.O.D. singer Sonny Sandoval. “But it turns out I worked around the corner from his company in North Park. I do a different kind of art. Blown glass. Check it out,” said Hernandez, producing from his pocket a small glass skull mounted on cork.
DuckyWaddles owner Tim Waddle said he'd been eagerly awaiting Fairey's book signing; he was one of the first to exhibit and sell the artist's work in San Diego. Waddle said he featured Fairey's art for the same reason he sells anything in his store: it's cutting-edge and he likes it.
“I liked Shepard's stuff because it made people think,” said the tall and tanned, 62-year-old Waddle, who sported a fatigue-green Fairey design on his t-shirt. “It's edgy, it's in your face, a little dangerous... I think it's OK for art to make people a little uncomfortable.
“We've known about this book for over a year,” he said. “But the publisher kept pushing back the date. He was here in San Diego for about for or five years... before moving to L.A., which I think is probably better for him, but it's San Diego's loss.”