Visual disobedience. Phenomenology. Any way you try to pin it down, it slips from your hands like a greased pig, its cultural significance refusing to be captured by mere taglines or mash-up phraseology. Beginning with subliminal surface glances and followed by the crinkled nose of contemplative curiosity, each viewing brings further cognizance of its global manifestation. Until ?nally, like an exploding lotus blossom—enlightenment; the simple Rorschach-like stencil sticker of André Roussimoff, better known as wrestling champion Andre The Giant, reaches the synapses with the underscore of its simple commanding message, OBEY.
“I see that thing everywhere. What the hell does it mean?”
Exactly. Good question.
The iconic furrowed brow and meaty mug is the 15-year-old brainchild of Shepard Fairey. As his manifesto states:
“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 re?ect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”
Since its inception, Fairey has printed and distributed over half-a-million stickers. Starting as a demonstration of a stenciling technique to a fellow student while at the Rhode Island School of Design, the purposefully un-symbolic image quickly became an inside joke with his friends. Soon, Fairey came to realize the power of the sticker’s ambiguity and message when he heard a couple arguing about its meaning at a grocery store. The guy was claiming it was a band, while the woman was positive it was a skateboard symbol.
Fairey kept his mouth shut, of course. As he explains, “There should always be latitude for interpretation. The whole idea is to get the neurons firing. People need to be snapped out of the trance of a routine by encountering things that provoke them. It could make them feel happy, sad, angry, whatever—just something that alters the reality of their routine.”
One has to admit, it’s more interesting than ‘So, how was work today, honey?’ Like an urban legend, Fairey achieved the goal of making the world feel more connected through a simple talking point. So much so, that the sticker onslaught morphed into college-dorm posters, ironic T-shirts, billboard graffiti and ubiquitous spray-painted stencils from Toledo to Tokyo. It also provided its young creator with an artistic golden ticket, a recognizable brand. However, like his Giant totem, Fairey has consciously avoided the pigeonhole by keeping his occupation open to interpretation. The 35-year-old artist, entrepreneur, designer, DJ, philosopher, skater, editor and life enthusiast is constantly shifting the bull’s-eye of his career goals. He’s collaborated with designer Paul Frank; spun alongside some of the worlds best DJs like DJ Shadow and Z-Trip under the alias DJ Diabetic; designed for Red Bull, Electronic Arts and the Black Eyed Peas; and still manages to write gut-busting, mind-bending, grappling-hook essays on the state of “us” for his magazine, Swindle (named for the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) Yet, he knows that being at the top of any zeitgeist food chain means there’s only one way to go. To illustrate the point he casually mentions his most recent arrest, lucky number 13, for tagging a billboard in San Diego.
“Look, coming from skateboarding, punk rock and graffiti, three of the most critical subcultures of outsiders and posers, I’m conditioned to not become comfortable with my position, for everyone is a Brutus in my scene; they all really want to rattle the top chimp out of the tree. It keeps me in check, and it keeps me from becoming stagnant. As an artist I have to continue to produce new work and maintain my presence on the street, for the moment you stop regulating your spots on the street they’re gone. People only stay away from your stu? if they know that as soon as they f— with it, you’re going to go ?x it; even if it means getting arrested.”
The cultural story is similar to that of ’80s pop artist Keith Haring and his “Baby”—where art and musical revolution become dance partners on the street and act more as “street-cred” calling cards than a collectible currency. That is, until the scene’s commoditization by big business. Afterward, Haring’s “Baby” went from subway doodle to pitching Hondas. Although Fairey is familiar with the tale, he’s managed to walk the critic’s vaulted line of artistic intelligentsia and sustainability without tumbling down the precipitous sellout slope.
“Luckily, I was able to find a way to make the things I really enjoyed viable for me, and that was really tough to do. Yet the funny thing is you get a little backlash for having some success, which is insane because this backlash is coming from people thinking on a very small scale, people who assume the only way I achieved something of this size was to make a deal with the devil or sign on with a huge corporation. However, they are not looking at the amazing coup I accomplished and not seeing the potential to live out one’s dreams as a creative person. Instead, they assume there must be some kind of sleazy angle to it.”
Trend-driven behavior of this magnitude that’s managed to avoid commercial overexposure and instant name recognition is a testament to Fairey’s ability to navigate the capitalistic world without being co-opted by it—more harmonic-convergence than viral marketing.
“As long as one is promoting the idea of doing things on one’s own terms, it doesn’t really matter what paradigm it’s couched in. … In the commercial world I still have freedom to do exactly what I would do as a fine artist. For example, with the Johnny Cash movie poster I just finished, I would have done nothing different to it as a personal art piece. I am just as proud of this piece and what it’s promoting.
“The problem with these people who are snipers is they feel like, ‘hey, I suffered in the trenches for this culture that is now being embraced by a wider audience and now I don’t want them to have it because they didn’t suffer like I did.’ It’s a very elitist attitude. When I was younger I was mad that the jock bully got into the Beastie Boys, but now I look at it and say maybe the jock bully is going to learn something from the Beastie Boys and become less of a jock bully. The more you succeed, and the less marginalized you feel, the more tolerant you become of other people. For me, in making my own stickers and T-shirts, part of what I enjoyed was escapist recreation that I always thought was me just killing time until I had to fall in line and be a regular square guy.”