Fairey Responds To Walmart Ripping Off His Nazi Shirt

Shepard Fairey told us what he thought about Walmart ripping off his Nazi tshirt design:

    “I would say that the Walmart designer(or their supplier’s designer) was referencing the Obey graphic because the distressing and accompanying type are almost identical.”

The funny thing is that when I made that graphic I was referencing a biker logo and it was only brought up to me later that it was the SS skull.

    “I’m anti-fascist and pro-peace, but a lot of people probably just thought I was being antagonistic in the same vein as Vivienne Westwood appropriating the swastika for the Sex Pistol’s clothes. People just dig skulls as rebellious iconography. I’m not proud of making a Nazi skull graphic, but it was not intended maliciously or to be offensive. I think people are much too sensitive about loaded symbols and not sensitive enough to being manipulated by sinister things cloaked in an all-American veneer.

    Skulls, biker or Nazi, in Walmart show it is time for progressive designers to move on.”

For an artist who traffics so heavily in appropriating fascist symbolism and iconography, Shep Fairey might be well served by picking up a few history books.

As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — BEN POPKEN

Recent updates to this story.

• Shep Fairey talks about “the politics of aesthetics.”

• From Shep Fairey’s OBEY manifesto: “The OBEY sticker…. has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.”

• A reader reports eBay pulled his Walmart Totenkopf shirt auctionfor being “Hateful or Discriminatory,” no word on the thousands of other auctions of Nazi memorabilia.

• Day 6, shirt still on sale at Walmart.

• A conversation we had with graphic designer Daniel Edelman.

karlhungus: I can tell you want happened with those walmart t-shirts
karlhungus: speaking from experience
karlhungus: working on stuff like that
karlhungus: not nazi stuff
karlhungus: but the (former) popularity of the skull and crossbones type stuff
fakeout: alrighty, spill the beans
karlhungus: did I show you the look book and packages I did for that ralph lauren ivy cologne?
fakeout: yeah
fakeout: i remember there were some skullies in there
karlhungus: well what has to be understood is that alot of the imagery used by skull and bones and the underground secret society aesthetic comes from nazi imagery
karlhungus: because the real skull and bones has long time connections to the 3rd reich
karlhungus: and alot of iconography was translated, carried over
karlhungus: now smart people that we were
karlhungus: stopped from continuing with alot of really nice stuff because when you put it up on the wall on its own it looked like we were calling for racial purity
karlhungus: I could show you hundreds of designs that had that problem
karlhungus: where you are sitting at your computer, grabbing crap off the internet, making something cool and not really thinking about it
karlhungus: but like I said, we had the sense to stop and say “wait a second, hiel hitler”
karlhungus: but it would seem that their “design team” didn’t have the piece of mind to think in the same way
fakeout: right
karlhungus: I think that its an amazing logo on its own, all things considered
karlhungus: and its that the average walmart shopper either wouldn’t know it if they saw it, or would approve if they knew it
karlhungus: a couple of things happen
karlhungus: one, the link between skull and bones/secret society and the 3rd reich is deep seeded in idea and imagery
karlhungus: and two
karlhungus: you have to be an active filter for it as you work with it
karlhungus: and three
karlhungus: that whole look is over, unless you are ralph lauren and know how to make it look good over and over again
karlhungus: just look it up on google, and you could construct related design in an hour
fakeout: the other thing, SS imagery is royalty free
fakeout: we were thinking someone working from a flash tatoo book
karlhungus: no, you are exactly right
fakeout: there’s other items in the “no boundaries” line that have tatoo imagery on them
karlhungus: thats a huge part of it
karlhungus: thats good, you hit a big nail on the head there
karlhungus: alot of ancient ritual text/imagery as well as stuff like that are outside of the realm of copy right
karlhungus: copyright
karlhungus: most of it you can buy in clip art books at the local barnes and noble
karlhungus: or find on internet sites that house high res scans of pages
karlhungus: so, they just clinched their butt-cheeks and hoped that no one would notice
fakeout: or no one had any idea
karlhungus: its both
karlhungus: god that was the most unpleasant project of my life
karlhungus: like, you need to stop every so often and work out what’s acceptable and stop it from leaving the sketch stage
karlhungus: and those above simple images are just throwing together a couple of elements from “the bank” as it were, and so it can easily head south
karlhungus: or head hitler
karlhungus: and as I said, its just simple sketching, in five minutes a can create a new symbol for the nazi party


Edit Your Comment

  1. brew400 says:

    sure were condemmed to repeat the past, but who cares if we exploit the cool symbols they had…. excluding the meaning, just as the swatika used to be a religous symbol….. (message)

  2. I checked one local Wal-Mart in Baton Rouge – no shirts, and the display shirt was pulled down.

    I wasn’t able to tell if there was a posse of LSU students moping about it anywhere.

  3. Erzengel says:

    as a designer, i have to agree with the guy. symbols dont kill people, people do.

  4. symbols dont kill people, people do.

    As an amateur sociologist, I disagree with you, guy. Symbols reinforce ideas of people of killing other people.

    Symbols have power. Check out the Washington Monument sometime and tell me that you can’t figure out why Washington is so sex-obsessed.

  5. humphrmi says:

    “symbols dont kill people, people do” – I bet there are still people alive today, who will remember that symbol from their childhood, who will disagree with you. And what better group to comment on the overuse of symbols than designers.

  6. humphrmi says:

    Whoops, s/overuse/over blown importance/, sorry.

  7. drsmith says:

    I agree with the designer on this. If we take it the way Ben apparently feels about it, then we may as well allow copyright to last forever. In effect what you’re saying is that this particular image of the skull is permanently associated with a sub-sect of the SS and can never be representative of anything else ever again. Sounds like copyright to me.

    I think we should allow symbols to evolve in their meaning and their relevance to society. Sorry that there just happen to be a few people still alive that remember the original meaning, but for those of us that never experienced the world wars, it doesn’t appear as offensive. If I’m destined to repeat history, so be it. But – I’m not about to go through life afraid of what every symbol I see *might* have meant in the past.

  8. Ben Popken says:

    Drmsith, I’m not saying be afraid, but be aware. Shep himself said he was sorry he wasn’t more aware about the symbol’s history. If he had known the symbol’s significance and still used it as part of an artistic statement, that’s would one thing.

    Here’s a repository of extremist symbols. Don’t look at them. I would hate to disturb you if one of them was on your favorite tshirt.

  9. NeonCat says:

    Great, Ben, there goes my wardrobe!

  10. humphrmi says:

    Great link, Ben.

    My point is, designers (especially fashion designers) deluge us with icons because we’re an iconiclastic society. It’s not their fault, they are just selling what we want to buy. But I don’t think that it’s appropriate for designers to then tell us “Hey, it’s just a picture, it doesn’t mean anything” If it didn’t mean anything at all, nobody would buy them. Given that designers are fulfilling our need for icons at a profit, I think the least they owe us is a little research on their icons before they try to sell them.

  11. Trai_Dep says:

    Aww, I actually would have been more impressed if Fairly used an obscure Nazi symbol as part of a sly, quintesentially ironic reference to unthinking consumerism. Especially with “Obey”. In these times.

    Dang, must ALL heroes have feet of clay?!

    What’s a quicker death for Cool of an icon: it being in Wal-Mart or it being seen on 14-year-olds? Never mind: skulls are both.

  12. Jesse McBesse says:

    I don’t mean to stir things up here (really, I don’t)… buuut….

    Ok. So Fairey accidentally makes a nazi shirt, apologizes, and consumerist says that he “might be well served by picking up a few history books” and then throws in a little quotation. Walmart copies said accidental nazi shirt, apologizes, and consumerist has 1.5 billion subsequent posts about walmart’s evil ways surrounding this stupid shirt, etc.

    I’m not saying you should come down any harder on Fairey (because in all likelihood it really WAS an accident). I think maybe this whole incident just goes to show that consumerist is overtly and unapologetically bias against Walmart. I dunno. This just isn’t sitting right with me for some reason.

  13. ElizabethD says:

    He sez: “I think people are much too sensitive about loaded symbols…”

    Oooo, Shep, time to take Semiotics 101, and then maybe an all-day guided tour of Auschwitz. Tsk tsk.

  14. LeopardSeal says:

    Enough already!

    All this over-sensitive PC BS is enough to make any half-reasonable person go insane.

    Yes, it was stupid for a worldwide retailer to sell shirts with a symbol tied to the Third Reich, and at least they pulled the shirts when they were found to be offensive. But seriously, how many Wal-Mart shoppers would have known what the totenkopf stood for? Only a few WW2 history buffs like myself recognised it and once that got out the true uproar began. Mistakes were made, first buy this “designer” (I use the term loosely) and then then by the Wal-Mart suppliers plagerism team.

    But enough is enough already, especially with the “pro-nazi” this and the “anti-semetic” that. These symbols only hold power if people let them. Everyone has a responsibilty to not only to be aware of history, but also to not overreact if ugly reminders inadvertly pop up from time to time.

  15. ElizabethD says:

    But, onrampofframp, I think this is disingenuous of you: “These symbols only hold power if people let them.”

    What?? You mean, I can “decide” that the specific skull symbol on the Wal-Mart shirt means nothing, despite its dire history a mere 65 years ago, and then everything will be OK?

    I’m not buyin’ it. (Literally or figuratively.) The meaning stays attached to the symbol decades, centuries, after the events are past. Labeling arguments like mine “P.C. B.S.” is a cop-out, as you knew when you typed it. It is human decency and respect we are after, not some Marxist canard.

  16. Nancy Sin says:

    Of course the Consumerist would give an independent artist more of a benefit of the doubt and easier treatment than a widely loathed multinational corporation. Thank goodness.

    Now, if only that annoying GIANT were an offensive symbol. I’d love to see that thing go away.

  17. Trai_Dep says:

    Yeah, but the SECOND that a subversive artist locks thousands of his employees overnight, hires scores of illegal aliens, or bankrupts broad swaths of both manufactures or mom-n-pop retailers across these United States, *boy* is Consumerist gonna go medieval on their ass.

    Or if they hire Melman.

    Either/or on the moral imparative score…

  18. XSeaNMX says:

    it would be pretty ironic for Shepard Fairey to complain about plagiarism or “ripping-off” anyone.

    Don’t support Obey.

    Educate yourself.

    That guy, Shepard Fairey, is totally ignorant and pretentious.

    check these links.


  19. ChrisGriswold says:

    Pretty good discussion of Shepard Fairey’s plagiarism here: [www.art-for-a-change.com]