He describes himself as the visual arts’ equivalent of a “three chords in the garage punk rock band”, but Shepard Fairey’s credibility as an artist is of a much higher calibre than he perhaps gives himself credit for. His work is instantly recognisable around the world. From the OBEY GIANT art project, Barack Obama’s HOPE campaign through to this year’s ubiquitous “We the People” initiative, Shepard Fairey is a leader in street art; famous for blurring the boundaries of art and design.
Now the iconic American artist has revealed his largest mural to date, ahead of his appearance as part of the Vivid Ideas Game Changer talk series on Saturday 17 June.
Exclusively created for Vivid Sydney, the bespoke mural, named The Peace Waratah is one of his largest yet at 44 metres high by 28 metres wide. Sydneysiders can see it come to life at 309 George Street, where Fairey will continue to live-paint the artwork over the next three days. Fairey has completed over 70 public murals worldwide; and this is his first work in Australia.
Fairey says that the work taps into ever-present themes throughout his portfolio, of peace and harmony. “I am very pro-peace and harmony, and am all for looking at the better side of human nature and what we have in common, as opposed to what sets us apart,” he says. The piece forms part of what Fairey calls a “latitude” in his work, which still sees him attacking hostile human behaviour but also focusing on the positivity of people coming together. It is an approach he describes as being “sometimes the carrot, sometimes the stick.”
Beyond his guerrilla street art presence, Fairey’s works are held in the permanent collections of some of the world’s finest art institutions including the MoMA, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery among others. Given it has been his work in moving outside of traditional art institutions that has made him eventually well-known enough to be displayed in them, is an irony not lost on Fairey, “Now I am sometimes welcome in more elite circles to my great surprise,” he chuckles.
Still, Fairey’s passion remains working in the streets or in print and believes it the best way for his work to be received. “One of the reasons that I still work on the street rather than just focus purely on digital, is because digital art doesn’t have the same visceral impact,” he says. “The physicality [of street art] reminds them of when they get out into the world and molecules collide, and I think that is where the excitement is.”
For all of his achievements, Fairey remains completely grounded. Reflecting on all the support he has received throughout his career, he is humbled. “I don’t in any way feel entitled to support, I feel grateful for it. I am really happy that I have done well enough in my career that I have some resources and that other people are willing to share their resources too,” he says.
So what does the man who spread “HOPE” during the Obama campaign feel about the current state of the world? “I always have hope no matter how dark things look, because without hope you are paralysed,” he says. “When things get darker that is when I am actually more motivated.”
In addition to the mural, Fairey’s fine art work will be showcased at a newly-announced exhibition, Printed Matters at a pop-up gallery in Chippendale, on view from Saturday 17 June to Sunday 9 July 2017.
A selection of Fairey’s music-themed works showcasing his revolutionary visual language and passion for the culture of music is also being exhibition as part of Vivid Sydney at Darling Harbour until June 17.