Skip to content

Shepard Fairey – The gentle giant

Obey! You have already seen this written on t-shirts, posters or caps. Have you ever wondered what it really means? Why would so many people around the world want a hat that says “obey”? Perhaps because the brain behind it is one of the greatest street artists of our times: aka Obey Giant, born Shepard Fairey.

Shepard Fairey comes from South Carolina, he attends the skaters’ circle as a young man, he listens to lots of punk music and attends the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. While in college, he worked at a t-shirt and goods shop for board on wheels enthusiasts. He draws the t-shirt graphics of the bands he listens to and experiments with printing techniques. It is in this small workshop that a friend asks him to teach him the stencil technique. “It’s simple”, explains Fairey, brandishing a sheet of newspaper, “take him”. A portrait of André The Giant, a well-known wrestler of the time, casually stood out in the daily newspaper. He first makes a stencil of that face, and then a sticker for his friend. It works. He starts mass-producing them, sticking them around and distributing them. There is interest. In a short time the sticker with the face of the giant is everywhere, it becomes a symbol, something sought after, secret. Nobody knows its true meaning, someone speculates to understand the message behind that omnipresent face. The reality is that there is no message. “The medium is the message” (M. Mc Luhan): the mere presence of the sticker in the public space represented an act of rebellion, a political stance.

Shepard thus realizes that his Andrè The Giant, born by chance in a t-shirt laboratory, had a much greater power than any prediction: to question everything. Shepard’s hope is that the viewer, wondering about the true meaning of the sticker, applies the same critical spirit to every visual content that is submitted to him, to stop passively accepting everything he sees without asking questions, but reacting actively. The OBEY inscription that stands out under the giant’s face is a reverse psychology trick: don’t obey, ask questions, rebel against the system. This is Shepard’s manifesto, this is Obey’s manifesto. 

Having become a phenomenon in the United States thanks to the stickers that had invaded the cities of half of America, he finally gained international attention when in 2008 he spontaneously created a poster in favor of the presidential campaign of the then candidate Obama: Hope. The poster was so iconic and popular that it went viral. Since Obama, the road to Shepard has been downhill.

His artistic production combines graphics, illustration, photography, collage and the superimposition of multiple media.