LA-based street artist Shepard Fairey has been arrested 18 times, once or twice by the same governments that later commissioned him to do work for them. He started his career illegally “street bombing” public spaces with art. Now the Obama "HOPE" Portrait he designed is in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. And other works are in the permanent collections at MoMA, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and others.

Obama “HOPE” Portrait, courtesy Shepard Fairey and Obey Giant

As an example of Fairey’s power to cut-through with his aesthetic, HOPE is rivalled only by the incessant ripping off of that design in the years since, and most likely well into the future.

Fairey is in Sydney as the headline speaker for Vivid’s Game Changers talk series. He is also painting a 44-metre-high mural in the Sydney CBD, and has announced a pop-up exhibition in Chippendale, called Printed Matters. The title of the show refers to the idea that even in a digital age, printing still matters. “I think when people see a piece on the street, or they hold a print, the tangible side of it, the physicality of it reminds them what it’s like when they get out into the world and molecules collide, and I think that’s where the excitement is,” says Fairey. Sixteen of his works inspired by the 12-inch record sleeve format are also on display on giant cubes in Darling Quarter.

Fairey’s high-profile identity was built on a punk-rock, DIY approach to street art that started in the late 1980s with photocopied stickers, non-existent budgets and a mission to wake people up.

In 1990 as a 20-year-old art-school student, Fairey published his manifesto. It explains the stickers he covertly decorated his college town of Providence with while he was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. The earliest versions depicted Andre The Giant (the late wrestler and star of the beloved The Princess Bride) with the text: “Andre The Giant Has A Posse”. It started as a joke (that the image and text were meaningless gave them their meaning. They were designed to confuse and annoy by being incongruous) and was an extension of Fairey’s love of band and skateboard merch, which he used to make for himself when he was a broke high-school kid. The stickers evolved to depict a close-up of Andre’s face and the word “OBEY”. In his book Supply and Demand Fairey writes: “I approached it with the punk-rock mentality that if the sticker pissed anyone off, they would be people who deserved to be offended, because they were the one’s pissing me off with their authoritarian principals.” The location of the stickers, as with so much of Fairey’s work, was as important as the art itself; how they fit into the environment, or didn’t fit in. His mission is to give passers-by a sense of wonder about the environment they most likely don’t even notice anymore. Fairey’s production methods and distribution improved. Others started putting up stickers for him. The OBEY giant went analogue viral. From stickers he moved into posters and paste-ups.

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Peace Waratah

Fairey says there are layers to OBEY. “Originally I was inspired by [George] Orwell, but also this movie, They Live.” In it, people are manipulated by aliens – humans fall in line submissively; they consume, sleep, never question their surroundings. “But when you put on these special glasses, you can see what the true agenda of every communication is,” says Fairey. “So ads that say ‘Vacation in Tahiti’ really say: ‘Marry and Reproduce’. ‘Sleep’. ‘Consume’. ‘Obey’.” That last word had the most impact for Fairey. “It’s the idea of consciously obeying versus subconsciously conforming, which is something that is important to me.

“Really, the ‘obey’ is designed to encourage people to question whether they agree with the agenda of every communication they are confronted with. And it’s also become, in a sense, a brand for me,” he says. (Literally, actually; he has a clothing label of that name.)

Fairey is a populist. Central to his work is democratising art. His purpose then, when he was considered a vandal with a poster and a bucket of glue up a ladder in the middle of the night, and now, as an artist exhibiting in galleries and being offered spare walls to paint, is to awaken the public with art. The point of his early work might have been to baffle and entertain, but his later work has focused on specific causes and sends clear messages with calls to action. An incomplete list of his targets includes capitalism, socio-economic inequality, gun control, the environment, abuse of power, education.

He’s also a disruptor reclaiming public space from corporations, private ownership and advertisers. Fairey re-appropriates sites usually used for advertising (walls, billboards, signs, political campaign collateral), using the tactics and designs employed by corporations and even governments against them. Fairey has written in the past that his work “intentionally riffs on the symbolism of mass communication”. He uses the visual language of advertising – and its close relative, propaganda – we’re all so accustomed to, and just beneath the surface of that is humour and meaning.

Fairey working on The Peace Waratah, courtesy Shepard Fairey and Obey Giant

He’s been accused by some in the art world of being “too obvious”, as Fairey puts it. “I try to make my work fairly easy to understand; not cryptic, not mysterious. I really like the idea that it’s possible to speak a language that is fairly universal … that’s the way I want it. I want to reach a lot of people.”

Risky Business, courtesy Shepard Fairey and Obey Giant

Fairey just finished a large-scale mural in Berlin. It shows a suited businessman with a half-skeleton face reading a newspaper with the headline: “Manifest Density”. At the top of the artwork it reads: “No Future”, and in smaller text at the bottom in German are the words: “racism, sexism, apathy, ignorance, xenophobia”. The visual language of propaganda; the play on the Euro-American-centric idea of world domination, and the ignorance implied in “density” all hit the brief. He was asked to address the idea that the US and Europe are moving to the right and becoming more intolerant.

Fairey’s Sydney mural is very different to that one in Berlin; for us he was instructed to come up with something “apolitical and positive”. Peace Waratah, rendered in calming blue-green (not Fairey’s more common red, black and off-white), is a woman with a waratah tucked behind her ear. She looks meditative, possibly sleepy, definitely serene. But Fairey maintains this design was not his “backup plan” should Sydney have rejected something more provocative. This style, too, he says, fits into his philosophy. “This mural is tapping into themes that are always present in my work. I’m pro peace and harmony,” he says. “Before [as a younger artist] I felt I needed to attack the way in which people are hostile to each other … I was attacking the attacking. And I still do that because I think that villains need to be called out. But I’m now addressing what I think is a full spectrum, from angry and provocative to very gentle and more diplomatic. He also adds that it’s easier to get public approval for pieces that are less confrontational.

Repetiton Works, courtesy Shepard Fairey and Obey Giant

Of course Fairey has been accused of selling out – he’s a punk-rock-living, hip-hop-loving former wall bandit with a mission to expose capitalism for being a cipher of happiness, turned sanctioned artist accepted by the very establishment he once protested against. But despite becoming well known and high-profile, he’s remained consistent in his philosophy and practice: he still goes on illicit night-time art escapades. And he still believes the street is the best possible gallery. “I’m no longer seen as an underdog, but I’ve passionately maintained my belief in independent thinking and resourceful self-empowerment,” he has written in another of his books, Covert to Overt. And, as he says, “If I did all work like that [confrontational] I would feel like there was a dimension of my personality that was being neglected.”

Also, he has hope. “Because without hope, you’re really paralysed … sometimes [it’s] hard to muster the hope, but it’s essential,” says Fairey. “When things get darker I actually get more motivated, but I’m always really motivated.

“Sometimes I think it takes a really tough situation for people to understand how important it is to be engaged. That’s what I’m hoping for the US right now. But in the meantime, while this process of painful education is happening … I really do hope that there’s a learning curve there.

“No matter what I’m going to do what I can to put the spotlight on things that I think are positive and negative and be outspoken with my work.”

Shepard Fairey's exhibition, Printed Matters, will show at a pop-up gallery in Chippendale from June 17 to July 9. His mural Peace Waratah is at 309 George Street, Sydney.