Graphic artist Shepard Fairey -- chatting on a cell phone as he readies to tell a New York advertising firm just how it's done -- is the poster boy of a new American irony, a mixture of sincerity and cynicism that leaves question marks in the eyes of many and a wad of cash in the pockets of a few.
No, really. He is the poster boy. Since 1989 he and countless followers have illegally pasted his propaganda-style artwork across much of our urban landscape: on billboards and buildings in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
This underground movement is called "Obey Giant," because of an early, sarcastic stencil of professional wrestler Andre the Giant that Fairey carved out of a newspaper. That image has evolved into something less detailed, more expressionistic, infinitely more ambiguous, or the deceased wrestler's estate would sue Fairey's butt off.
Now it is simply "the Giant." And often: OBEY.
Lewis Harper, an audience researcher at Radio Free Asia in Washington, proudly wears an Obey T-shirt and praises the posters in the city, including ones at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street, and sticking to the Tivoli theater in Columbia Heights.
"When you first look at it, you know it's cool, but you don't know why," Harper says. "I think the medium is the message. And I think that's brilliant."
Fairey has sold or given away millions of the Orwellian images and, more recently, Soviet-style depictions of real-life bad guys such as Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong. The pictures have been discovered on skyscrapers in Japan, and stuck to street signs in Europe.
Fairey, 32, describes the wildfire phenomenon with a sense of awe: "I never really had a master plan. I just went along with what stuff inspired me."
Fairey sounds like he's being ironic, though it's easy to recognize that the Obey irony is meant in earnest, a blow against the empire of phony politicians and ubiquitous corporate influence: We should not obey. We should question authority. We should beware of Big Brother.
But no. This isn't exactly the message. In the post-ironic world nothing is so straightforward as to be simply oppositional. Shepard Fairey evokes Big Brother not because He is evil, or because He is omnipresent, but because He doesn't necessarily mean anything. He might be menacing, but He is also the unwitting subject of pop art and ridicule.
But here's the real irony, or maybe it's post-irony -- in our postmodern world things have become far too sophisticated for anything defined by Alanis Morissette -- Big Brother is the guy who pays Fairey's bills.
PepsiCo, Schweppes, Earthlink, Levi Strauss, Virgin Records, Ford, DreamWorks, Motorola have all enlisted Fairey and his graphic design company, Blk/Mrkt Inc., to assist them in marketing to the young, the cool and the increasingly skeptical young consumer cohort.
A few years ago, Blk/Mrkt redesigned much of the Mountain Dew can, which was recast as an extreme drink for the adrenaline crowd. And, in working for the drink's competition, Fairey and his colleagues did the same for the Hawaiian Punch mascot, making him a little punchier still. The Internet company Earthlink, which is largely dependent on the twenty- and thirty-something demographic, hired Blk/Mrkt for a cyberpunk campaign with the slogan "Advocate anonymity."
Robert Douglas of the advertising firm Young & Rubicam is a believer. On a recent weekend, he flew Fairey and his partner at Blk/Mrkt to New York to talk to Colgate-Palmolive about how to sex up its products for the Gen X consumer.
"He came in and basically reminded them that focus groups can only provide so much information," Douglas says. "Kids respond to artwork. They respond to a more subtle message. Kids like to discover things on their own and make it theirs."
Corporations "are looking for something that is connecting with an elusive demographic," Fairey says, "the underground hipster or whatever. And then you get more bang for the buck."
Bang. Buck. Obey.
Shepard Fairey says the whole thing started as an inside joke. He was a skateboard punk from South Carolina who went to an art academy after high school. While attending the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Fairey had a friend who wanted to learn the punk craft of stencil making. They thumbed through a local newspaper and saw a wrestling ad featuring Andre the Giant.
His friend sneered. "I thought it was funny," Fairey recounts, "but the fact that he didn't even want to practice on [Andre] because he was so concerned about his uber-hip skater image was fascinating for me."
Fairey coerced him by joshing that "Andre the Giant has a posse. It's the new thing."
His buddy got in on the joke. They made stickers and they sprayed the image around town, written with their new manifesto: Andre the Giant has a posse.
"As I put more stickers around, people really started reacting to it. I would eavesdrop on people talking about it in the grocery store. I saw that somebody had peeled off a sticker and stuck it on his ballcap."
What was once so lame was now being worn as headgear by total strangers.
In the early 1990s, Fairey wound up in Southern California making T-shirts and "really pathetic stuff." Like karate uniforms and pizza delivery shirts. He kept Obey Giant alive in his spare time while doing graphic design for his own shirts and locally produced punk records.
Eventually, advertising firms and corporations took notice. He gave up the T-shirt business in favor of a graphic design company. By this time, much of San Diego and Los Angeles were plastered with Obey Giant imagery.
This only propelled Fairey's popularity. Corporate advertisers, noticing how young people flocked to these ostensibly anti-consumer messages, decided to recruit the young talent for themselves.
"Obey Giant has generated tons of business for me," admits Fairey. "Because it's something they see as a successful, virile marketing campaign. Something that's created a meaning that grows on itself."
And it's something that can evolve. By 1995, the icon took on a "Russian constructivist propaganda style." In keeping with that motif, the word OBEY joined the thematic Giant face, usually seen shaped into squares or stars. Posters started being printed in red, black and khaki, and often evoked images of charismatic dictators. The Richard Nixon propaganda poster says: Corruption is back in style.
Soon, Gen X-ers the world over grew intrigued by the posters they found pasted to their favorite Starbucks. Fairey gave stickers and posters away at punk shows and skateboarding exhibitions. He opened a Web site: www.obeygiant.com and takes orders daily. Sometimes he charges, sometimes he doesn't.
And if you would like to appear obedient without wearing a sticker on your head, the Obey Giant logo has also translated nicely to a full line of clothing. Shepard Fairey can now lay claim to being the Kathie Lee Gifford of the jaded young white male. His Obey shirts, jeans, jackets and shoes are made in Asia. He has never visited the factories.
But the non-revolution needs a uniform. Oh, the irony. Oh, the post-irony.
While traveling, he carries reams of his propaganda art and, almost nightly, "goes postering."
He postered parts of Cleveland recently and the next day retraced his steps with a digital camera, documenting his own illegal activities. Fairey fancies himself an artist, not the leader of an underground revolution. He says he discourages a "Fight Club" mentality that might bond his hordes of followers. The first rule of Obey Giant is to "scrutinize everything. Never make assumptions," he says.
Analysis is the very heart of Fairey's work. Obey Giant, be it ironic, post-ironic, postmodern or just damn confusing, at least poses the question of our own behavior in a world awash with manipulation. The modern consumer obeys.
Fairey sees it like this: "It's not saying disobey. It's not saying obey. The whole project is to get people to question everything, to be a discriminating consumer. So people get mad because I advertise for products. Well, it's even more appropriate if you see the irony in all that, and it makes you question people's motives in an ad. It brings you back to reality."
The irony, or whatever, of the corporate success, his identity in the anti-establishment skateboard scene, the rebellion of street postering and the sudden benefits of working for The Man haven't escaped Fairey. But the money has liberated him to push his private agenda, which is what he's all about.
His work is so loaded with layered meaning and cultural cul-de-sacs -- Obey posters now include Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky -- that most fans don't care about corporate connections. They're into it because it's clever. And for the time being, at least, because it's unincorporated, non-co-opted, unlicensed cool.
Washington fan Lewis Harper says, "I'm sure this isn't where he makes his money, I think this is something he doesn't have to do, and I'm glad that he does it. I think anything that subverts normal consumer advertising or commerce at that level is brilliant."
Harper gets it. The irony is not lost. Consumer society can march forward, questioning its choices even as it wields its credit card. We know we obey. We smirk at the posters as we drive to the mall. We're smarter than Big Brother thinks -- or maybe, that's just what Big Brother wants us to think.
Fairey offers this: "Just don't be a sucker. That's my point."