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From The London Daily Telegraph Magazine, October 20, 2007:

Shepard Fairey: Poster boy

He inspired Bansky, is in demand for major marketing campaigns, but still loves the adrenaline rush of a 'bombing mission'. Robert Ashton meets the godfather of urban art, Shepard Fairey. Photograph by Fergus Greer

It is windy on the 5 Freeway. Noisy, too. Early-evening commuters roar home, nose to tail. An 18-wheeler Freightliner rig screams past us, heading for Elysian Park just north of downtown Los Angeles. Shepard Fairey scrambles from his 4x4, parked on the right-hand shoulder. He quickly scans the traffic for police cruisers, pops the tailgate on his truck and fishes out a brush, a bucket of wallpaper paste and a poster of a fat bald man.

Fairey, the godfather of modern urban art, is on a 'bombing' mission. He clambers up a steep incline towards a whitewashed wall whose potential he spotted from the road a few days earlier. The site has everything a graffiti artist could wish for. 'The way I operate, I look for two things,' Fairey says, struggling for a foothold on the slippery slope. 'Maximum exposure and maximum durability.'

The spot, 20 metres above one of the city's busiest freeways, scores well on both counts. The stark black-and-white image of Fairey's most famous motif, 'André the Giant', will be seen by thousands of people over the coming weeks. (Some of his work remains visible for years.) Its inaccessibility – Fairey stumbles several times, tipping paste all over his black jeans and Adidas trainers – will discourage even the most dogged graffiti buster.

Back in his vehicle, heading to the next target, Fairey explains that dodging the police and risking his neck are part of the urban artist's trade. 'The passion of the act is translated to the viewer,' he says. 'If you choose a real dangerous spot, then people will think, "Wow this guy is really committed to what he is doing." That gets them interested in the message and the motivation behind it. Once, I got chased by the cops in New York and dropped six storeys, from one balcony to another. Now I'm a bit more cautious.'

From New York to Sydney, London to San Francisco, the authorities have chased Fairey as he has plastered the world's cities with his illegal stickers and posters, many of which attack George Bush, the Iraq war and global warming. He has been arrested 13 times and charged with everything from malicious destruction of public property to criminal mischief.

In the late 1980s, as a student at Rhode Island School of Design, one of America's foremost arts institutions, whose alumni include David Byrne and Gus Van Sant, Fairey began his propaganda campaign – a decade before Banksy's stencils appeared on London streets. It was the start of an ongoing experiment in 'phenomenology', the marketing of a product that doesn't exist. Fairey's stickers and posters were usually adorned with the face of a famous French wrestler from the 1970s, the hulking 7ft 4in André René Roussimoff, known as André the Giant, accompanied by Orwellian slogans such as the medium is the message and obey.

Fairey, now 37, still loves the adrenaline rush of staying one step ahead of the law on guerrilla-style forays. But, these days, his work is just as likely to be seen as part of blue-chip marketing campaigns as on derelict buildings. His 'Obey Giant' campaign has grown, via an international network of collaborators replicating Fairey's originals, into a business empire that now boasts a design company, Studio Number One on Wilshire Boulevard (which produces everything from Hollywood posters to album covers for Led Zeppelin and the Smashing Pumpkins), an Obey clothing line, a pop culture and lifestyle magazine, Swindle, and an art gallery on Sunset Boulevard. Fairey and André can no longer claim to be part of the counter culture.

Back at his large Spanish-style house in LA's hip Los Feliz neighbourhood where Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Colin Farrell also have homes, Fairey parks on the terracotta-tiled driveway because the two-car garage is stuffed with paints, spray cans, stencils, artwork and brushes. Here, on a massive wooden bench, Fairey works on his more complex and increasingly collectable fine art pieces, many of which will be seen at a new exhibition in London next month. His walls are covered with his work, including posters featuring Sid Vicious and Vivienne Westwood. Punk is a big influence. He and his wife, Amanda, named their two-year-old daughter Vivienne after Westwood, and Fairey spins punk discs at a club in LA. His moniker on these nights is DJ Diabetic, a reference to the condition that occasionally hampers his ability to slap his art on tall buildings. 'I used to be a very good climber, but now I have a frozen shoulder,' he says. 'It is from doing push-ups. Repetitive motion and diabetes don't mix well.' The diabetes has also affected his eyesight, at one point causing temporary blindness.

As a teenager in Charleston, South Carolina, skateboarding, punk and urban art were Fairey's life. He wants to recreate punk's energy in mainstream art. 'What was exciting about punk rock was that it really turned things upside down.'

But how 'punk' is it to flog pieces of his art for upwards of £5,000 a go, or sell his skills as an illustrator to multinationals such as Warner Brothers, Virgin and Honda? He is very conscious that he walks a fine line between art and commerce, and bridles at criticism that he has sold out. 'I get accused of being a sell-out by 16-year-old taggers, who get their parents to buy their spray paint,' he says. 'I couldn't have made it as an artist unless I worked for companies. Graphic design was how I paid my bills so I could screen-print my own posters.' Much of the criticism he receives is born out of jealousy: Fairey makes a lot of money, and his distinctive style, with its roots in – among other things – Russian Futurism, Chinese revolutionary art and Norman Rockwell, makes much graffiti look like schoolboy doodles. In New York his work has been defaced by another urban artist, 'the Splasher'.

He has also been attacked by the art establishment, which accuses Fairey of tackling only obvious issues such as the environment and war. Fairey admits his subject matter is not complex, but his images are bold enough to cut through the muddle of advertising images with which his work has to compete. 'I have been accused of dealing in really obvious metaphors, but if they are so obvious, why is the world so f***ed up? My overarching message is: question things. War and the environment will be in my work until the situation changes.'

Fairey (who never uses his first name, Frank) is friends with the Bristol-born graffiti artist Banksy and has accompanied him on many 'bombing' sprees. A Chairman Mao stencil produced by Fairey several years ago is still visible in King's Cross, London, and Banksy says that when Fairey arrives in a city, 'every graffiti writer gets uptight' because he'll spritz their territory with his superior artwork. Unlike his friend and protégé ('I know I inspired Banksy because he told me'), Fairey does not hide behind anonymity – he is happy to explain his ideas. Phenomenology and the André campaign, he states on his website,, 'reawaken a sense of wonder about one's environment' by making people 'question both the campaign… and their relationship with their surroundings'. He is also keen to explain how he is chipping away at the establishment from within. 'If I take a job, I can put money into my art, my magazine or my gallery to promote emerging artists. I circulate that money in positive way,' he says. And he still has strong principles, turning down work from certain car and cigarette companies on ethical grounds.

Fairey turns to the massive piece he is preparing on his garage bench. Based around a huge dollar bill, it is destined for his biggest show yet, Nineteeneightyfouria, in London, which takes London's status as the CCTV capital of the world as its cue. 'People beg to be enslaved,' he says. 'They may complain about this or that, but they will do the exact opposite when the opportunity to change it comes around.'

Fairey works by hand, with stencils, and also uses a computer to manipulate images. The dollar bill painting he says, a critique of the homogeneity of society, will take 100 hours to complete. Close up, it is amazingly detailed. Scraps of wallpaper, sales receipts, even an old cheque for $262 made out to Fairey's former landlord create a layered texture. 'I've always loved collage, especially on the street – the decay when the weather gets in and other people put posters up over my stuff. I capture a bit of that organic feeling, that everything had a life before. I think I am a better communicator than I am an artist, so I try to make things beautiful and that have some qualities that fine art has. But it also has to say something.'

Nineteeneightyfouria is at StolenSpace, London E1, November 2-25

From The London Daily Telegraph, October 30, 2007:

Art sales: Graffiti draws a new crowd

Colin Gleadell on the transition from street to gallery

The race is on to discover the next Banksy. London is enjoying a rash of exhibitions by artists who draw their inspiration from popular street culture, and salerooms are planning to increase the exposure they get in major auctions.

Described variously as street, urban or graffiti artists, few have had a traditional fine-art education and most have their roots in graphic design or are simply self-taught. Although they have made the transition from street to gallery to show their art, they receive scant attention from the serious art press and short shrift from museums.

But the artists and galleries that represent them are cocking a snook at the establishment because they have caught the imagination of the public, collectors and investors alike.

Virtually unknown five years ago, Banksy's auction record soared at Sotheby's earlier this month when a painting sold for £323,000. A print that could find no buyer at auction two-and-a-half years ago at £300 sold for nearly £9,000. It's the sort of mark-up that appeals to the young City traders and hedge-fund managers who are a driving force behind this market, says Ralph Taylor of Sotheby's, who has assembled a special street-art section for his next contemporary art sale in London on December 12.

Apart from Banksy, he will have original works by Antony Micallef and the collective group known as Faile, whose first works at auction this month quadrupled estimates, selling for between £36,000 and £39,000 each. Both are represented by the Soho gallery Lazarides, where their work regularly sells out.

"We have targeted artists where demand is currently outweighing supply," says Taylor, "and for some it will be their first appearance at auction." The sale will include works by Miranda Donovan, a young artist who uses brick walls and graffiti as her subject matter, Paul Insect (not his real name), a designer who worked on the latest Doctor Who series and whose last show was bought out completely by Damien Hirst, and Space Invader, a street artist inspired by the computer game.

Special interest will revolve around Suicide Bomber, a painting on cardboard by Adam Neate (estimate £10,000-£15,000), an artist who used to give away such paintings by the hundreds. He had a sell-out show at the Elms Lester gallery off Tottenham Court Road this year and a large self-portrait collage currently on view there has been sold for £75,000.

Director Paul Jones says he has been showing street artists for 16 years, but it is only in the past four that he has been able to sell them. Now the market is frantic. Collectors contact him from all over the world and range from well-known figures such as designer Paul Smith and rock star Eric Clapton to City traders and small-business executives.

News of a new talent can spread rapidly. "Someone came in and as soon as he had bought a painting he was on his mobile. Suddenly I was inundated with buyers for the same artist," says Jones. During my hour-long visit to the gallery on Saturday he sold five works, including two by Miami artist José Parlá. "Two years ago, they would have cost one or two thousand pounds," says Jones. "Now they are up to £35,000 each."

The number of galleries showing street art is also expanding. Last week the Black Rat Press opened under a railway arch in Rivington Street, east London, and sold £120,000 worth of prints by American street artist Swoon.

American graffiti artists also feature in the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. Since Jason Zeloof's family bought the 10-and-a-half-acre site 12 years ago, he has turned the brewery into an all-purpose commercial space that has proved popular for art shows.

Zeloof, 35, who began collecting street art by Banksy and others four years ago, now runs a specialised gallery, Stolen Spaces, with artist Richard Hennings, and is currently showing works on canvas by one of the original American graffiti artists, Seen. On Thursday they open an ambitious exhibition of 130 works by Shepard Fairey. Prices will range from £50 for prints to £20,000 for large paintings.

"There is a natural progression from the young artists collected by Charles Saatchi in the 1990s to the street artists of today," says Taylor. "People used to be looking for the next Damien Hirst; now they are after the next Banksy."

From The London Daily Telegraph, November 6, 2007:

Market news: Impressionist and contemporary art sales

Colin Gleadell rounds up the latest developments in the art market

The fever for graffiti art continued last week at the opening of an exhibition of 130 original works by American street artist Shepard Fairey.

Within hours of the opening at the Stolen Space gallery in Brick Lane, east London, everything had been sold, with prices ranging from £1,500 to £30,000.

"Over the weekend, between 6,000 and 7,000 people came to see the show," a spokesman for the gallery said.