Fairey’s true colors

Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus" and a contributing editor to the Minding the Campus website of the Manhattan Institute.

The jig is finally up. Shepard Fairey, an Echo Park-based graphic designer and longtime street artist, admitted earlier this month that he submitted false evidence and lied in a copyright lawsuit involving his most famous creation: the “Hope” poster featuring a stark red-white-and-blue image of Barack Obama.

The Associated Press had always maintained that Fairey created the image by essentially tracing over a close-up photograph of Obama taken by an AP contract photographer, Mannie Garcia, in 2006. Fairey insisted that he had used a smaller, cropped portion of another Garcia photo and that he was entitled to do so under the principle of “fair use.”

On Feb. 9, Fairey filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration from the court that he hadn’t violated any copyright in the creation of his work. The suit was an effort to forestall a copyright-infringement lawsuit by the AP. But on the very day the lawsuit was filed, Daryl Lang, an editor at Photo District News, posted a Photoshop overlay of the image of Obama captured on Fairey’s “Hope” poster and the close-up that the AP maintained he used. The two images matched point for point.

Lang’s overlay put the lie to Fairey’s claim, but it took the artist months to concede that he had used, as the AP had maintained from the beginning, the close-up. Even now, he insists that expropriating the image was “fair use.”

So why wasn’t the jig up as soon as Lang posted his evidence? Because Fairey was “one of us” in the eyes of the fiercely liberal cultural and intellectual elite.


Fairey, by his own description, is a man of the left. His work, as his gallery put it in a 2007 news release, critiques the “underpinnings of the capitalist machine.” Fairey first became the darling of political liberals with a poster in which he depicted then-President George W. Bush as a vampire, complete with fangs and blood dripping down his chin. After the Obama campaign officially incorporated Fairey’s “Hope” poster series into its electoral efforts, Obama sent the artist a letter, included in an exhibit of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, saying, “I am privileged to be a part of your art work and proud to have your support.”

Privileged? Proud?

Fairey has built his artistic career on a combination of vandalism, via graffiti-like hit-and-run art, and an expropriation of other people’s images. While he insists he uses the art of others only as “reference points,” his critics have termed his work outright plagiarism. Since the mid-1980s, he has stenciled on big-city buildings and small-town sidewalks his trademark anti-capitalist image “Obey Giant” (lifted from an image of a well-known wrestler whose trademark-holders threatened Fairey with a lawsuit in 1993). The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, wrote reverently of the works, calling them “epic poetry in an everyday tongue” in an article in February.

Fairey boasts of having been arrested 15 times on graffiti charges in various cities. He pleaded guilty in Boston earlier this year to three counts of vandalism, including affixing a sticker to a traffic sign and putting a poster on a condominium building of his wife holding a gun.

At 39, Fairey may seem a bit old for such merry pranks, but you have to remember that armchair Marxist intellectuals and others of Fairey’s ilk still look back with longing to the grimy 1970s and 1980s in New York, when graffiti blanketed every car in the subway system. They were appalled by the successful efforts of mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani to crack down on the taggers in order to make the city livable for the philistines who had to take the trains to work.

Even some of Fairey’s fellow leftists in the arts community have objected to his free-handed lifting -- without attribution -- of images created by others, even though many of those images are likely in the public domain.

In a 2007 Web post, Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen displayed 15 images drawn from such disparate artistic sources as Soviet socialist realism to Black Panther agitprop that Fairey seemed to have expropriated lock, stock and barrel for his work. The most intriguing was an anti-Iraq war poster Fairey created in 2005, apparently by copying a 1930s WPA advert for Yellowstone National Park. He added camels and oil derricks for local color, but he seemed to be counting on the fact that most arty types, never having been near a battlefield, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a bomb cloud and a geyser.

But if Fairey has always felt other people’s work was fair game, he himself has been quite, um, capitalist when it comes to protecting his own property rights. He threatened graphic artist Baxter Orr of Austin, Texas, with a lawsuit for spoofing his “Obey Giant” signature stencil. In August, the Eastsider neighborhood blog mocked Fairey the street artist for slapping a layer of anti-graffiti coating onto his Sunset Boulevard studio. Fairey fired back with a four-letter-word-adorned e-mail blasting the Eastsider as “irresponsible,” “obnoxious” and a purveyor of the “cheap shot.”

Analogizing Fairey to Roman Polanski is probably unfair. Defacing buildings and defrauding a court by manufacturing and destroying evidence pale in comparison to fleeing the country in order to avoid a sentence for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old who told a grand jury she was drugged, raped and sodomized.

Yet Polanski and Fairey have something in common: thumbing their noses at the law because they’re artists. And they both have support from fellow artists and intellectuals, who seem to agree that there should be one moral standard for artists and another for everyone else. In the case of Polanski, it’s Whoopi Goldberg and Martin Scorsese. In the case of Fairey, it’s the critics and intellectuals who have given him a free pass over the years. It’s not surprising, then, that Fairey thought he could get away with what he almost did.