Shepard Fairey: Being An Art Capitalist Is Hard

The guy who made the famous Obama poster? I went to a talk tonight at the New York Public Library between him (Shepard Fairey), Lawrence Lessig, and Steven Johnson about how remixing plays into our, on the one hand, corporate and litigious, and on the other, mashing up and free-wheeling, society. Here are my favorite quotes/ideas from the night:

Steven Johnson: “Ideas get better when they circulate.”
Larwrence Lessig: Why not charge people when they quote you?
Shepard Fairey:
“‘Images that are in public space that aren’t advertising reawaken a sense of wonder.”
“I’ve never had an original thought in my life…and there’s tons of people on the internet happy to tell me just that.”
“Every spoof gives more power to the original.”
“I said, ok, I’ll pay the licensing fee it. And [the AP] said, no, we want to claim damages. I said damages? Because of my poster the Mannie Garcia picture is now worth more than it ever would have been.”

RELATED: AP wants credit for Fairey’s Obama image [Bostonist]

UPDATE: Here is the audio from Lessig’s presentation:


Edit Your Comment

  1. KarbonKopy says:

    Shepard Fairey makes great art, but the dude is a total hipocret. He posts his artwork on his site and tells folks to take and and get it out there…be it on merchandise, posters, or whatever it maybe. After these folks go out and use this image of his, he decides to change his mind and send our cease and desist letters. I find it fitting he stole the photo himself….

  2. Brian Johnson says:

    Shepard Fairey is pretty much a hack. Changing the color of someone’s painting or poster and sticking a logo on it does not make art or parody or spoof or homage.

  3. Chris Walters says:

    Peter Schjeldahl wrote a not exactly favorable review of the new Fairey show in last week’s New Yorker. My favorite bit of the review, though, was this trivia:

    The original shows Obama seated at a dais (next to George Clooney) at the National Press Club, in 2006, and attending to a speaker who stands outside the frame, to his left. Knowing this rather deflates the mystery of an expression that has suggested, to some, a visionary surveying the future. Obama listens, merely, with a grimly amused concentration that may be explained by the identity of the speaker, the conservative Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas.


  4. nsv says:

    Whatever else he did, he sure picked the right photo to steal.

  5. WorldHarmony says:

    Regardless of what we think about his fame or work, the fact is that HE came up with this design.

    • BlazerUnit says:

      @WorldHarmony: That, and he isn’t personally profiting from the Obama image at all.

      • Trai_Dep says:

        @BlazerUnit: Yup. It cracks me up that people that have never done a composition or stared at a blank surface frustratingly are suddenly experts on what is, or isn’t art.
        They probably think that Robbie Conal isn’t art either (no flowers, no lips and it won’t fit above a couch).

      • Prada James says:

        @BlazerUnit: Not true. He sold a few runs of the poster on his website. I bought a couple (offset print, hand signed/numbered) and resold them on ebay for a tidy profit. I think he also may have sold shirts and stickers as well.

    • ElizabethD says:


      I agree. IMO, Fairey’s posterized red-white-blue image is brilliant. When I first saw it during the campaign, I caught my breath. In his choice of image (and yeah, I read the New Yorker review; ha ha) and colors, Fairey managed to sum up EVERYTHING positive about Obama’s candidacy: intelligence, poise, authentic patriotism (as opposed to mindless flag-waving), determination. It is iconic in the best sense.

    • Sparerib says:

      @WorldHarmony: The composition is based on a photograph he took from an image from a Google Images search. There are avenues in order to obtain photography to use and not use. If a photograph is defined by it’s composition, and the composition from the photograph is used to create another piece of art, why should the photographer not be compensated?

      • Sparerib says:

        @Sparerib: That being said: I don’t believe that AP owns any rights to Fairey’s work, and I do believe it’s an incredible piece of work. I have not read anywhere that he did this pro bono, and I guarantee he made money somewhere on it.

        • TheWillow says:

          @Sparerib: he gave it to the campaign – dunno that he made *no* money to it, but the campaign made tons more.

          That said… I’m still in the frame of mind that if Andy Warhol’s Marylin Monroes are kosher – then so is this.

      • Trai_Dep says:

        @Sparerib: If Fairey took crayons to an exact mimeograph of the entire photo, maybe. M-a-y-b-e. (See Andy Warhol)
        HOPE’s composition is significantly different than the photo, however. Cropping, emphasizing, etc, IS a key part of applying the artist’s eye.
        That’s aside from HOPE’s construction, which lines to emphasize, the color scheme, etc.
        Bottom line: it’s a transformative work.

        AP is a hack organization that’s annoyed that they can’t cover Vice President Palin.

  6. Chongo says:

    He was just on NPR the the other day talking about the photo, followed by the photographer who took it himself. It was a great conversation and either way you look at the whole situation, he seems to be a thoughtful person.

    As a newbie screen print collector, I’m honestly not a huge fan of his artwork but I do like the now classic Obama one.

    check out the NPR story and audio here:


  7. Trai_Dep says:

    So Ben, did you slip a picture of Captain Duvel Moneycats in Fairey’s bag on the way out?

  8. deep.thought says:

    I think it’s hilarious that he designed Obama’s iconic poster and his brand is OBEY, usually accompanied by the word PROPAGANDA. But yeah, I’m wearing an awesome OBEY shirt right now and have owned some for years.

    Concerning originality, I think he’s mostly right, but it becomes a moot argument pretty quickly. Also, concerning plagiarism, the logo of OBEY (which was on the lapel button of the original Obama image, incl. the word progress instead of hope) is from a print of Andre the Giant he pulled from a newspaper early in his career.

  9. jsbeagle says:

    Doesn’t the AP realize that capitalism is dead?

  10. Segador says:

    It’s all property of the people, comrades.

  11. RandomHookup says:

    Has he been arrested yet this week? Seems to be a good way to draw attention to your art.

  12. Dan Seitz says:

    Fairey getting shitcanned by the Boston Police at his own show at the ICA was quite the spectacle.

    Gee, the AP is claiming damages? Maybe because you made a lot of money off that photo without paying for it, Mr. Fairey? Just a guess.

  13. richcreamerybutter says:

    He’s appearing on Brian Lehrer in a few minutes (if you have access to WNYC).

  14. suburbancowboy says:

    Fairey is a thief. When Duchamp put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, everyone knew it was the Mona Lisa. He was making a statement by referencing something everybody knew already. Everyone knew what Warhol was referencing in his screenprints.

    Fairey on the other hand takes obscure (mostly propaganda) artwork and slaps his logo on it, and sells it hoping that no one will find the original work he stole from. He never credits his “sources” And then he pretends it is this subversive movement, when he is doing it solely for profit.


  15. Corporate_guy says:

    Not sure why people are attacking the Obama poster guy. The AP photo was of a public event. It’s ridiculous for them to act like they own Obama’s face from that angle.

    And he has a very good point that there are zero damages. That original photo was worthless just like all other AP photos no one cares about. He made it worth something.

  16. JPMarat says:

    I’ve always thought Shepard was kind of a douche, but the AP makes him look like a saint. He is totally correct about the image being worth a million times more now that he “remixed” it or whatever the hell they call it these days.

  17. TVarmy says:

    Eh, just split the royalties equally and call it a day.

  18. Trai_Dep says:

    I wonder if all these people firmly defending the AP’s claims of intellectual property theft have paid for every single song they’ve listened to, video they’ve watched and game they’ve played.
    Situational ethics can sometimes bite you back.

    • Nicole Glynn says:

      @Trai_Dep: The difference there is that people who pirate music aren’t then turning around and making their “own” music out of it and claiming originality. A better comparison would be to vanilla ice stealing from queen/david bowie and people thinking that was ok.