A non-academically inclined high school student, he finally came into his own by studying art. Even at art school, subversion of political posters started in a big way by him posting the face of Andre the Giant over a mayoral candidate’s face on a billboard as part of a class assignment.
Andre the Giant was certainly his main obsession and vehicle for many years, eventually he incorporated the words ‘Obey Giant’ into the imagery to become his artistic trademark. Behind this obsession was the anti-mainstream questioning of ownership of the public space - by government and corporations through advertising - or by other voices. Street art was not just a vandalism game for him.
And so he went about his underground activities of posting decals based on Andre the Giant and postering. He came out from the street art underground with the Obama poster. Creating that poster was a conscious decision to take part in partisan politics rather than just railing against the 'system' and it redirected his career. He felt he could no longer stand on the sidelines and criticize. He needed to stand up for what he believed in. The poster was not commissioned, the Obama campaign never brought him on board and he let anyone use it - foregoing any financial benefit.
This career changing decision led him in directions that the documentary follows, and it continues to play out until the present. The portrait became iconic and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. The documentary follows the upward and downward directions his career took. As a result of of his Obama portrait, he had his first major gallery show in Boston, where on opening night he was arrested because of some of the graffiti works he had been doing in the city while there. He was accused of damaging public property. A spirit-crushing legal journey lasted many months. Then the more complicated case came up with Associated Press suing him for using one of their pictures as the source for his Obama portrait, which had the potential to bankrupt him even though he never benefited financially. Again, months of legal hell ensued before AP finally dropping the case.
At this point of his career, his exploration of ownership of the public space evolved. He was now famous and generating significant revenue through his work. he was commissioned to paint murals. He became involved in partisan politics and progressive positions, especially in the Trump era. His aesthetic has evolved, with posters and murals that have taken his Obama look into something much more based on a design look, which was already an element of his work, but is now more present as part of the more polished look of his work.
Following the completion of this documentary, he has definitely chosen to move away from his counter-cultural vibe - he recently opened up an Obey Giant clothing store on the Champs Elysées in Paris. His work has become more beautiful than edgy.
Obey Giant’s strength is its exploration of the street art scene and its existential questioning of ownership of the public space. Given the superstar reality of Fairey today, it also covers his development and initial inspirations, which have continued into his current work. At a visceral level. the documentary delivers an understanding of the risks street artists take. Fairey describes his arrests, which have involved police violence but also included the refusal to give him access to his medication for type 1 diabetes - his health and even his life were at risk because of the arrests. So being a street artist had real and significant consequences for him, even leaving aside the court cases brought against him.
It is interesting to contrast Fairey’s career with Banksy’s, probably the world’s two best known street artists. Banksy has continued to stay outside and flaunt the artistic and political system - even while those systems try to take possession of his work. He has consistently kept his critiques at a meta level, certainly with regards to politics. Fairey chose to become involved in partisan politics and issues about which he is passionate. Both valid choices. But I feel that over the years, Fairey’s art has weakened. Audience taste now matters to him.