Edgy Art: creator of “HOPE” posters displays work



by Hope Smith

There’s only one place where you can see President Obama, young boys with AK-47s, Martin Luther King Jr., faces of giants, Led Zeppelin and Tupac all in the same room: at a Shepard Fairey art exhibit.

Fairey, the contemporary artist most recently known for his popular Barack Obama “HOPE” posters, has been creating vivid, poster-style art with bold messages for over a decade. Soon, UK’s Rasdall Gallery will be the first gallery in Kentucky to display Fairey’s works, which can already be seen in famous institutions dotting the cities of London, New York City, Los Angelos and Boston, among others.

The Student Activities Board has worked long and hard to bring such a big name to campus, SAB Director of Cultural Arts Amanda Rambo said, and student organizers just finished hanging 43 Fairey pieces in the gallery Friday in preparation for the new exhibit.

“Shepard Fairey is such an influential artist right now,” Rambo said. “This is partially because so much of his work is very controversial, but that’s why people like him.”

Fairey experienced his first glimpse of popularity when he created his “Obey Giant” campaign while attending the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1980s. He designed artistic stickers and posters containing an image of a giant’s face and incorporated the single word “Obey” into the design. To his friends, Fairey said on his Website, the image is “amusing and nonsensical,” but to outside viewers, the image can be viewed as “comforting” or “annoying,” depending on the individual.

After graduating from RISD, Fairey continued to design amusing and thought-provoking pieces covering topics like war, peace, communism, music, homosexuality and politics. He shared his art with the world through a wide array of outlets – stickers, t-shirts, books, skateboard decks, graffiti, posters, bicycles, album covers and canvases of many other materials. Fairey was asked to design movie posters and cover art for many musicians, while continuing to push the envelope with works created to spark discussion and provide social commentary.

“He doesn’t fail to criticize anyone, but he’s also not completely negative,” Rambo said. “He’s also done portraits of influential people… people who are great centers of attention for their time for being controversial in some way.”

Fairey’s use of dominant color displays make his pieces pop and might remind viewers of the work of Andy Warhol or the infamous Uncle Sam posters of World Wars I and II that bear the message “I want you,” in reference to U.S. Army recruitment. The artist often uses the strongest hues of red, black, cream and blue in his material.

Fairey also finds himself in the center of controversy due to the various legal battles he has fought over his art concerning copyright infringement, fair use and graffiti-related arrests. He continues to design new works in spite of these issues, as well as further his involvement in the art world.

Rambo’s favorite piece on display is Fairey’s “Toxicity Inspector,” one of the first to catch your eye upon entering the gallery.

“It’s a man in a gas mask, holding a rose with a piece sign, but he’s confused,” Rambo said. “It’s like he’s thinking, ‘Is this thing gonna blow up?’ because that’s all he knows.”

“Toxicity Inspector” can be seen, alongside 42 other pieces, at the Rasdall Gallery in the Student Center through Feb. 17. The opening reception for this installment is 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 20, in the Rasdall Gallery. Food and beverages will be provided and admission is free.