WASHINGTON POST: LOS ANGELES — When the street artist and guerrilla marketer Shepard Fairey got word from the Obama people that they would welcome his contribution to the campaign, he knew what he wanted to create: a phenomenon. All political art is propaganda (that is the point), but most political posters are bland, forgettable, wallpaper, like Fred Thompson on an off day. Fairey wanted something more iconic — aspirational, inspirational — and cool. In other words, he wanted to make posters that the cool cats would want. The 2008 Democratic primary season equivalent of the Che poster (with all that implies). More Mao, more right now. The kind of poster that might make its way onto dorm room walls of fanboys. The kind of poster that might sell on eBay, as a signed Fairey Obama recently did, for $5,900. He wanted his posters to go viral.
“I wanted strong. I wanted wise, but not intimidating,” Fairey says of the look for his Obamas. The agitprop pop art has become a must-have accessory among a certain subset of the candidate’s supporters, who have gobbled up more than 80,000 of Fairey’s posters and 150,000 postcard-size stickers since Super Tuesday.
Who is this Shepard Fairey? He is a skate punk — with a secretary. A CEO in Puma sneakers. The rebel who did Pepsi ads. If you live in a big city, including Washington, you have probably seen his handiwork. Since 1989, during his student days at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey has been slapping stickers and pasting posters depicting the face of the Andre the Giant, the deceased French actor and professional wrestler, on every available surface, legal and not. Fairey has spent two decades shimmying up lampposts and over chain-link fences in a tenacious public art enterprise, irony performed on a landscape scale. Thousands of his Andre stickers include the word “OBEY” in bold lettering. What are we dealing with here? Obey what? Obey whom? A giant from France? Aha. You have cracked the code. It is reverse psychology. ( Pssst! Don’t obey.)
You see, in his 1990 manifesto, Fairey wrote that “the Giant 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 become muted by abstract observation.”
We’re talking German philosopher and author of “Being and Time” Martin Heidegger? The very same. “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker,” wrote Fairey. Unless that person is what Fairey describes as “the paranoid or conservative viewer,” who becomes confused and annoyed, “considering them eyesores and acts of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.”
Fairey rummages around on his desk and produces a letter from Obama himself. “Dear Shepard,” the candidate writes. “I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can help change the status quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign.” Messages. Images. Effect. Someone understands phenomenology. And the thing about stop signs? “He’s kind of endorsing graffiti,” Fairey says, “isn’t he?” MORE
RELATED: As HuffPost’s Jason Linkins reported earlier this week, the GOP’s brand new slogan, “Change You Deserve,” is also the registered advertising slogan of Effexor XR, an antidepressant drug. Seeing as the GOP has scheduled a special meeting for next week to discuss their political slide, they may also want to consider coming up with a new slogan, especially as some in the party are questioning the wisdom of the current slogan. MORE