Andy Warhol once said: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Over the years, art has been the catalyst for various social movements worldwide, with an overwhelming ability to shift cultural narratives and alter how people think, see and act. Just as traditional art has inspired activism and new perspectives, street art has played a similar role in more recent years. Once thought of as mere vandalism, murals have altered the landscape of communities. They have challenged social norms simply by breaking up the oppressive hindrance of daily life.
When Frank ‘Shepard’ Fairey sets out to adorn an empty wall with his style of public art, he aims to enrich the lives of those living in the respective community; but more importantly, to inspire thought and ultimately, change.
Ever since his teenage years, Fairey has had a love for art and the conversations it inspires—be it spontaneous or thought-out. The Charleston, SC-born stencil/screenprint artist began practicing at the age of 14, before eventually graduating from Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, a California high school offering special training in visual and interdisciplinary arts. From there, Fairey’s path led to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a highly exclusive private university and famed training ground for up-and-coming artists. It was there that Fairey’s ideas and interests began to truly blossom and give life to his artistic vision.
He first gained recognition while working in a Providence Skateshop in 1992. There, he spontaneously created a stencil depicting a pro wrestling match featuring Andre the Giant. This quickly turned into his “Andre the Giant has a Posse” sticker campaign. The sticker served as the inspiration for his clothing line and brand, OBEY. Fairey himself, however, gained widespread popularity after his creation of the “HOPE” poster used during Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign. This poster image was perhaps one of the most effective pieces of political art in decades. Fairey has been criticized for his controversial nature, but he maintains that everything from his sticker campaigns to his large-scale murals are “designed to provoke thought about the mechanics of the system we live in, not to destroy it.”
Shepard Fairey Comes to Jersey City, NJ
Today, Shepard Fairey is known as one of the world’s most renowned muralists and in recent years, has even dressed up a couple of walls in Jersey City, NJ. His first local mural entitled “Natural Springs” was created on Monmouth Street in 2015 as part of Mana Contemporary’s Urban Arts Project, the artist’s longest ever horizontal work. During this time, Fairey was concurrently invited by Mayor Steven Fulop to make his mark outside the Grove Street Path Station. The aptly named “Jersey City Wave” is a piece envisioned by Fairey, and is meant to embody the city itself on several levels. In 2017, I spoke with Fairey about his local murals and the effect public art has on society. Our chat rings true today as it did three years ago.
You recently showcased a solo exhibition in Hong Kong entitled “Visual Disobedience” at the HOCA Foundation. It surveys your career trajectory (and some new works). Thinking back to your RISD days, did you ever imagine your artwork would become influential to so many people?
No, I didn’t, because there were so many talented people at RISD. I didn’t expect that I’d be one of the people to succeed relative to all the other phenomenal talent. I thought I would be more of a commercial screen printer and illustrator indulging in my own art hobby projects when I had time.
During your trip to Hong Kong, you collaborated with Project C: Change. This street art campaign that aids endangered wildlife in Asia. How do you feel public art helps to bring about awareness to one’s environment, not just locally, but globally?
Public art can make people ponder an issue they may never consider otherwise, because people encounter public art in their daily lives, not as an out-of-the-way destination. The right message with the right image can impact people emotionally and push them to reconsider or focus intellectually.
It’s been over a year since you completed “The Wave” in JC. What is it symbolic of and how does it represent the city?
First, I wanted “The Wave” to symbolize a few things, and of course, all art has latitude for interpretation, so any Jersey City resident’s interpretation based on their relationship with the water is legitimate. I first wanted to create something that connected with Jersey City’s proximity to the water, but the idea of the wave as a symbol of the recent economic and creative revitalization of the city was important to me. I also like the acknowledgment of the city’s view to the back of the Statue of Liberty as a nod to its role as a scrappy underdog. In a more general sense, acknowledging the power of the ocean and the potential for storms like Sandy to threaten Jersey City if climate change intensifies as a way of connecting to my larger environmental concerns.
“The Wave” is the flagship mural for Jersey City’s public art program. What were your thoughts when Mayor Fulop first reached out to you?
Considering I’ve been arrested many times for street art and have been treated as an enemy, and not so much as a friend, by city officials in the past, I was honored that Mayor Fulop would consider giving me such a prominent location to paint a mural. Even though I have broken some rules in my life, I consider it important to be a good citizen and find ways to do good things for the community, not just for myself. Doing a large topical mural in Jersey City was a great opportunity to create a conversation with the community and remind people that public art enriches people’s lives.
How do mural programs such as this help transform neighborhoods?
Creative people tend to be the early agents of change in a neighborhood. When a neighborhood has art, it usually means it will have cafes, bars, boutiques, and will lead to evolution and economic prosperity. Ironically, that often means that over time, the artists and musicians can no longer afford to stay in that neighborhood; but that always opens opportunities to find other areas. Regardless of the economic stage, a neighborhood is in, I think art is a positive thing that creates conversations, common reference points, and examples of human expression.
You also created your largest horizontal work ever in “Natural Springs” for the Mana Urban Arts Project here in town. What are your thoughts on Mana Contemporary and its growing momentum in the community?
I’ve had nothing but great experiences with Mana. The wall they allowed me to use in Jersey City is incredible. They couldn’t have been more supportive of me with their staff and materials. I recently did a mural on one of their buildings in the Wynwood District of Miami, which is an area with one of the highest concentrations of public art in the world. Mana is supporting a lot of great artists, galleries, and art publications. I wish there were more generous organizations like Mana out there.
Art aside, what are your favorite things about visiting Jersey City?
Pizza and beer, and of course the friendly people.