Filmmaker James Moll is the rare auteur who has captured both an Academy Award and a Grammy for his work – having earned the distinction for films The Last Days (which explored the lives of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust) and Back and Forth (which profiled the Foo Fighters).
His latest, Obey Giant, turns the cameras on artist, entrepreneur and activist, Shepard Fairey, who ascended from prep-filled days as an adolescent in South Carolina, to the pinnacle of the art community – amassing political clout, famous friends and a string of felony charges along the way.
While most know Fairey for his clothing line and his creation of President Barack Obama’s “Hope” imagery, the film is heavy on lessor known aspects of his life which provide valuable insight into what possesses a person to seek out temporary canvas space on the street – which subsequently has permanent repercussions – all the while attempting to keep an air of mystery about the work.
Here are our biggest takeaways from Hulu’s Obey Giant documentary.
The first “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stickers were an accident
Although street art has blossomed into a billion dollar a year phenomenon, its infancy more closely resembled the exploits of Bozo Texino – whose playful cowboy abstractions littered various train cars across the country – which sprung up for no other reason than to amuse the artist himself.
Fairey didn’t set out to to be famous or even infamous. Rather, the stickers he created – with Andre the Giant’s face prominently featured in the center – were created simply to illustrate the process of screenprinting to a friend.
The addition of the textual elements – especially the word “posse” – were derived from the lyrics and vernacular of hip-hop artists that they both admired at the time like Ice-T and the Beastie Boys.
He designed for a clothing company when it started blowing up
While he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey would make excursions to nearby cities like Boston and New York City to continue what at that time was simply a pet project. For the select few that were aware that he was the one behind what would now be best described as a “viral campaign,” they subsequently enlisted him to create graphics (for $50 dollars a pop) for a clothing company called “Jobless Anti-Work Wear.”
One of the graphics that Fairey created for the brand was of Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack, from The Shining, as he pounded through the door with an axe in the now iconic, “Here’s Johnny” scene. While the brand nor Fairey had permission from the film studio to do so, so began Fairey’s odyssey into the land of “fair-use.”
The power of art and politics
Since the Rhode Island School of Design was in Providence, that locale ultimately proved to be the experimental laboratory for Fairey; especially as it related to the sheer scale of the art that he was putting up which was still primarily small stickers at the time.
He was particularly drawn to a large billboard for Providence mayoral candidate, Buddy Cianci, who had already secured the office nearly a decade earlier and sought out another term.
Fairey ultimately opted to place Andre the Giant’s head over Cianci’s. While it was certainly the talk of the town, people were unsure if the amendment to the billboard was meant to insinuate something negative about the candidate – like he was a “brute” – or something more flattering as if to say, “Buddy Cianci is an unmovable force.”
Regardless, many believe that Fairey’s adjustment to the billboard swung the election for Ciancy. The artist learned a wise lesson; he had to be careful not to send the conversation in the wrong way. And although he wasn’t a Ciancy supporter, he understood that if he had been, and if he had hurt his chances, he would have been devastated.”
“There are consequences,” Fairey says in the film.
He was heavily influenced by Robbie Conal
Shepard Fairey points to the work of would-be masters like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger as all having a profound impact on his career.
However, it was visual artiest, Robbie Conal, who really struck a chord with him thanks to a politically charged image he did of President Ronald Reagan which featured an age-worn portrait of the Commander in Chief with the phrase, “Contra Diction.”
Conal was also one of the first guerrilla artists to employ a team of volunteers/helpers to help him spread his message – which artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have used in the past.
Over the past 24 years, Conal has made more than 80 street posters satirizing politicians, censorship, war, social injustice and environmental issues.
He had an artistic manifesto
One of the first legitimate institutions to take a shot on Shepard Fairey as a serious artist was Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery in New York City which ran between 1992-2002 and was home to exhibitions by notable artists like Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Thomas Campbell, Phil Frost, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Barry McGee and Tom Sachs.
In Fairey, Rose saw something other than simply youthful hijinks.
Whether it was to prepare himself to create a body of work for a group show – or simply justify his inclusion alongside other artists – Fairey crafted a manifesto which explained both his thought process and world view.
“The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as ‘the process of letting things manifest themselves.’ Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.
Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.
Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.”
The impact of John Carpenter’s film, ‘They Live’
As the title of the documentary suggests, the phrase “Obey Giant” has become synonymous with the work of Shepard Fairey – specifically altering his original abstractions by including the phrase, and by also creating a cropped version of Andre the Giant’s face.
His usage of the word “Obey” stems from John Carpenter’s 1988 film, They Live, which is a bizarre tale centering on how people are manipulated through the usage of subliminal messages.
In one scene, the protagonist puts on a set of sunglasses which allow him to view signage for what it really means – urging those exposed to it to “obey.”
The Obama photograph saga
A large portion of Obey Giant is dedicated to the odyssey involving the creation of the “Hope” image in support of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign – and the subsequent legal battle that ensued.
Since Fairey had unwittingly helped Buddy Cianci’s mayoral candidacy in Providence, he had enough experience to understand that his artistry could swing certain votes. However, because he was a passionate supporter of Obama, he didn’t want to hurt his chances with anything that might be deemed controversial given Fairey’s legal troubles in the past.
Thus, he sought out permission from the campaign before printing up 500,000 stickers and 300,000 posters. The only major instruction was to change “progress” to “hope” as it better aligned with Obama’s future for America.
The image that Fairey used of Obama was shot by AP photographer, Mannie Garcia, who had actually been sent to a conference on Darfur to get images of actor, George Clooney (who is in the uncropped version).
After a legal back-and-forth – with over $15 million USD in legal fees spent between the parties involved – Garcia and Fairey hashed out their differences over lunch.
- Main & Featured Image: Joel Saget / Getty Images