Note: Read our additional coverage on Shepard Fairey and his visit to PVD here:
Shepard Fairey chose Providence. It’s where he began his career, and it’s now the location for his 100th public mural. AS220 worked with him to find a space – sponsored by downcity real estate firm Cornish Associates – and to find an appropriate subject. That mural was created last week, and Fairey was in town all week to celebrate it, to celebrate the opening of his internationally traveling show, “Facing the Giant: Three Decades of Dissent,” to celebrate the intersection of community and art, and just to celebrate life.
You might know Fairey for his protest-oriented, message-driven artwork. You might know him for the striking mural that’s adorned the back of AS220 since 2010. You might know him as the quiet mastermind behind the swarm of “Andre has a posse” stickers that started in PVD 30 years ago and was carried around the world by members of the skater community. And you almost certainly know him for his campaign-defining Obama posters.
Fairey grew up in South Carolina and came to PVD in the late 1980s to attend RISD (where he now serves on the board of directors), staying for a few years afterward before moving to LA. I had the chance to talk to him about his latest visit to Providence.
“My first introduction to AS220 was when they were putting on inexpensive rock shows for bands that I loved. I had a couple of friends who I don’t think would be welcome characters in too many other places… Just giving access, when art is great for individuals and great for the world, is so important,” Fairey (pronounced “Ferry”) says of his relationship with AS220 and the shared goal of making art more democratic. For the subject of the mural, he focused on spoken word artist and AS220 youth director Anjel Newmann (aka Medusah Black), including a quote from her: “Creativity is the mechanism of self-liberation.”
“For all the fancy wordsmithing I try to do in my life, I never quite nailed it the way she did,” says Fairey, who expanded on the quote. “When people have self-liberation they become more generous, and it can become the mechanism of societal liberation, because the spirit of generosity and collaboration emerges from feeling heard and feeling secure and empowered.
“I’m always happy to have my work in a gallery, but also I know that it’s difficult to find walls. [It’s great] getting a mural where people can stumble upon something in their daily life and just enjoy it, or take their mind off their problems for a second, or makes them think for a moment about what it means to have a non-white person celebrated in a piece of art in a world that’s frequently dominated by privileged people. To have these sayings about empowerment… To be both inviting and graphically appealing, but also touch upon some challenging issue is what I’m trying to achieve in my work. I feel lucky that I get to do that. Public Enemy said it: ‘Reach the bourgeois, and rock the boulevard.’”
Fairey rocked the boulevard under his secondary guise as DJ Diabetic, both at the public opening of his show and in a special appearance at Troop in Olneyville on Thursday, October 24, where he had a packed house sweeping tables aside to let out their dance moves. “DJ Diabetic is a name that was given to me as a joke before I even spun records, because in the design studio I was always the one jumping to curate the selection… so when I started to actually DJ on a regular basis in late 2002, that name just kinda stuck. It’s alliteration of course, but you know, I can run with it in a playful way: ‘DJ Diabetic, skipping the jelly, bringing the jams.’ But I love music, I love what it does in terms of bringing you some visceral enjoyment, and also making you think with the lyrics. And there’s the styles – choices in music come with associated lifestyles, personal styles, clothing styles, political styles. It’s like a whole ecosystem. And then putting mixes together – it’s almost like audio graphic design. If graphic design is taking elements that you like, that you think work independently, and then figuring out how they could be even more powerful in a composition… And going through the trial and error of figuring out color, image, typography – putting together mixes is the same way for me. It’s like a problem-solving addiction to go through that trial and error. If I lost my sight I would definitely be spending a lot of time on music. I mostly just DJ, but I have done some primitive production and worked on a music project, so yeah, I love music. A lot of visual artists are great musicians and vice versa. I think if somebody has got that mindset there’s a lot of crossover. I get that visual art is my number one, but music is a really passionate hobby for me. There is a rhythm to each of them.”
I asked about the influence punk rock has had on Fairey’s work and life: “I like a lot of different kinds of music. But punk rock was seminal for me, because punk rock was about an alternative ecosystem. If you don’t like the mainstream, build your own thing. Do it yourself. Coming from South Carolina, where everything was very traditional and conservative and structured, this was like a window into a new world and freedom that I had never considered before, so it was life-changing. Now I think what punk rock did for me, other forms of music have had that same effect, that same ethos, from Black Sabbath to the Rolling Stones to Dylan; it was all just about moving forward and creating free space for new ideas. Like hip-hop, in the mid-to-late ’80s was the new punk rock. Jazz was, as Reggae was in Jamaica.
“A lot of the stuff I played last night [at the show at Troop] was shake your rump, but a lot of it was also pump your fist. I consider a band like NWA a revolutionary group. I don’t agree with all of their misogyny and things like that, but that spirit of punk rock freedom is there in NWA the same way as it’s been in something like Black Flag.”
Fairey describes the collaboration with AS220 as perfectly aligned with his own belief that art – all art, not just visual art – is a means of collaboration that creates stronger communities.
“The reason I started with street art was because that was a guaranteed way to have the art interact with community and create conversations and just know that even if people weren’t talking to me they would be talking to each other, that there are molecules colliding and conversations happening. Art as both a manifestation of individualism and a beacon for conversations around shared humanity. There are very few things that have that duality.
“I wouldn’t make art just to keep in a drawer in my studio or hang in my room. I make art to share with people and sometimes to talk about challenging topics but to make sure that we’re all considering things in relation to each other. I believe in bottom-up not top-down, so art I think is empowering, having a voice is empowering. Anything that makes people feel like they have an opportunity to be participants rather than just living their lives as spectators is very important to me. It’s too long to answer all the different ways in which I try to manifest that in my art, but the delivery systems of my art and the things that I try to support with funds from my art – a lot of community organizations – the very reason why I’m working with AS220. To me it’s essential.
“There are plenty of opportunities [now] for me to get what a lot of artists want out of art, which is something to help your ego and say, hey this is very real simple basic existential thing of ‘Hi, I’m here, I exist, please acknowledge me!’ I can do that and have that good therapy come out of that and do things that I think are good for other people at the same time. Art doesn’t have to be selfish. A lot of people, maybe out of insecurity, choose to be a little selfish about it. But it can definitely be something that lets you build your own self esteem while doing good things in the world.”
A fan of Fairey’s, artist Michael Natiello, who runs a pumpkin project (the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze) in New York, came to PVD to present a carved homage to Fairey’s work, prompting me to ask Fairey, “How does it feel when other artists reference your work?”
“I think it’s amazing when people reference my work because it shows the power of the work. Because you know they’re not doing that reference just for my sake, they’re doing it as something that other people know as well. So whether the reference is critical, satirical, complimentary, I know my work has made an impact. I’m really excited when I see that. I saw someone made an Obama thing in the hope style but they put “nope” underneath it. I was asked, ‘Does that make you mad?’ I go, ‘It makes me question their judgment. But it doesn’t make me mad, it actually makes me happy that they’re giving power to what I did as a grassroots activist, even in their attempt at criticism, and they’re not understanding that.’ That’s why I don’t like to say our current president’s name. I don’t want to give him even that much power.”
I first met Fairey over 25 years ago, when he was introduced to me as “the crazy person who was putting up stickers all over the place.” At the time he seemed to take that as a compliment. A quarter century later I get to ask him how he felt about it. “There are genuinely crazy people out there,” Fairey says, “But there are a lot of people being called crazy because the person defining them that way is afraid to ever draw outside the lines themselves. And so I find it’s a bit of a compliment when I’m considered crazy, or obsessive or whatever other things that someone might consider pejorative, but which I understand are a way of saying I’m not totally normal. Normal keeps things stagnant, and a little crazy keeps things moving.”
Catch this graphical concert for the eyes and brain at 233 Westminster St in PVD. The pop-up gallery displays the selection of favorites from across 30 years of work through Nov 16. A portion of all proceeds go to support AS220. Gallery hours are Tue- Sat, noon – 6pm. The new mural can be seen from the gallery but is on the Founders League Building at 91 Clemence St.
Read our additional coverage on Shepard Fairey and his visit to PVD here: