How Shepard Fairey’s arrest provides a new look at an old question: Is it art or is it vandalism?


Shepard Fairey has never been one to play by the rules — and that’s par for the course for someone in a street art community that exists on the cultural margins.

Or does it?

The L.A.-based street artist and graphic designer, best known for his 2008 “Hope” poster timed with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as well as the “Obey” image seen on posters and T-shirts worldwide, was arrested last week while passing through customs at Los Angeles International Airport. Authorities there noticed that Detroit police had issued a warrant last month related to two counts of malicious destruction of property.

Fairey, 45, had been accused of putting up posters, without permission, on private and government property in Detroit. But once he was in custody in L.A., Detroit police backed off: They declined to extradite the artist.


“In terms of graffiti, it’s not as high as a murder or rape or something,” Detroit police Officer Dan Donakowski said Monday, a day before Fairey surrendered to Detroit police and was quickly arraigned and released.

Fairey’s arrest, and his release, provides a window into the evolution of street art, its growing acceptance in American culture and the extent to which an old question, “Is it art or is it vandalism?” now gets answered through new eyes. The social media and press attention that the Detroit incident received speaks to the artist’s fame, which is itself a marker of how street art has become part of the zeitgeist, public art expert Ed Fuentes said.

“Detroit has made this a high profile pursuit, perhaps because of Fairey’s celebrity,” Fuentes said. “That he’s even considered a celebrity in the first place says something about where street art is at, the mainstreaming of it.”

The fine art establishment played a role in 2011, when Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art held its blockbuster exhibition “Art in the Streets,” the first major U.S. museum show on the history of graffiti and street art.

Public policy soon followed. In October 2013, Los Angeles lifted a decade-long ban on public murals, marking a new era for a city with a deep tradition of murals as pictorial chronicles of urban life.

The more permissive mural landscape — in which close to 30 new murals are estimated to have gone up legally since the ordinance passed, according to the Mural Conservancy of L.A. — also nudged a renegade art form further into the mainstream.


The hipness factor of colorful, edgy street art, as increasingly seen in advertising, films and even in fashion, has also contributed to the commercialization of the form. Many commercials were shot in the downtown L.A. arts district, elevating the profile — and the real estate prices — of the area, considered one of the mural capitals of the world, with work by Fairey, JR, DabsMyla and others. Some even wonder if the popularity and commercialization of the art dilutes its street cred and inherent punk rock spirit.

“A lot of artists have to ride that fine line between being true to their roots but also doing work with legal murals and museums. Shepard has been doing that — doing legal and illegal work,” said Jasper Wong, founder of the recently launched outdoor art festival Pow! Wow! held in Long Beach and other cities across the U.S. Wong said his festival obtains necessary permissions before putting up street art, but that people will still pursue illegal art as a way “to speak on issues.”

Some feel that street art is so resilient that the corporatization of it doesn’t threaten its roots as a from-the-ground-up art form.

“I think if you asked any street artist if they wanted to get paid, they’d say yes,” political poster artist Robbie Conal said. “But I don’t think it’s being co-opted. I think it’ll always be there. Street art is irrepressible, it’s unstoppable, it’s this indigenous art movement that comes from down below and bubbles up. In America, we don’t have that many art forms like that — jazz, rap and street art.”

Others remain less enthusiastic. Unwanted graffiti is a potentially expensive concern to building owners and local authorities. L.A.’s Office of Community Beautification removed 30,351,984 square feet of graffiti from 597,701 locations citywide during the 2014-15 fiscal year. The expense came out of a graffiti and street-art removal budget of $7.5 million; factoring in Caltrans, the MTA, schools and the parks department, the city spends about $18 million a year cleaning up unwanted graffiti and street art, according to OCB Director Paul Racs.

But hardly all graffiti and street art are examples of vandalism, and graffiti and street art are differentiated by intent, said Jim Daichendt, dean of arts and humanities at Point Loma Nazarene University and author of “Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art.”


“They’re different by material, message and even the message they’re trying to get across,” he said. “Generally, street art is not as permanent.”

Response to street and graffiti art varies from city to city, but Daichendt said it’s uncommon for an artist of Fairey’s stature to face such harsh criminal charges.

“It’s few and far between,” he said.

MOCA’s 2011 exhibition may have added to local law enforcement’s understanding of the nuances of street art versus graffiti vandalism. Since that show, Daichendt said, law enforcement is “seeing this art form as a benefit to communities. There’s less of a concern of the legality of it. They’re using the terms ‘murals’ now, whether it’s legal or illegal.”

Fairey was in Detroit to create his largest mural to date: a 184-foot stenciled work, commissioned by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services, Meridian Health and the downtown Library Street Collective gallery, to appear on the north side of a structure downtown.

If some see Detroit’s response to Fairey’s other, more illicit activities while in town as an overreaction — he still faces up to five years behind bars and several thousands of dollars in fines if convicted — others said it’s important to understand local context in America’s Comeback City, as it’s called.

“Detroit has very tough laws regarding people tagging private property,” said the Mural Conservancy’s executive director, Isabel Rojas-Williams, who added that the city has seen so many of its buildings deteriorate.


“They’re trying to rebuild, they’re being vigilant, so that’s partly why they’re so strict,” she said. “They went through financial crisis and are coming out of that and they’re trying to change their face.”

Tristan Eaton, an artist who worked with Fairey in Detroit, called the arrest warrant “easy PR” and a “Band-Aid on a city that needs solutions to bigger problems.”

He and others said artists can be part of those solutions.

“It would be smart for Detroit to welcome the influx of young street artists, Shepard and others,” Conal said. “They have a lot of crumbling walls and an infrastructure that’s collapsed and gone bankrupt. They could make the decorating of downtown Detroit a celebration — of the city, of street art and the creativity that’s springing up there.”

Fairey was arrested in Boston in 2009 on charges related to illegal tagging around the time of his exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

And yet his work is also included in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“The question now is: Where does Shepard Fairey want to guide street art?” Fuentes said.

“Does he want to keep the adrenaline rush of putting something up and getting away with it? Versus helping to bring street art into a more legitimate realm, where it’s considered fine art. That’s his choice as an artist. And this is always gonna be the big question with street art.”


Times staff writers Joseph Serna and Matt Hamilton contributed to this article.