Street artists: you either love ’em or hate ’em. Or, to put it less bluntly, you either find ’em innovative public iconographers or find ’em puerile public nuisances. I surely don’t have to get into the controversy of appraisal and reappraisal that swirls endlessly around English stencil-wielding satirist Banksy, but even the far less secretive and aggressive Shepard Fairey has detractors as fervent as his admirers. Yes, I mean the Obama “HOPE” fellow, though he began launching images into our zeitgeist well before any of us knew the name of the future President of the United States of America. You can learn much more about his early, pre-HOPE work by watching Obey the Giant, a brand new twenty-minute documentary free to watch online. Among the truths revealed: Fairey also created “Andre the Giant has a posse” stickers, those pillars of nineties underground culture and results of an “experiment in phenomenology” that you’ve almost certainly been spotting ever since.
Directed by former Fairey intern Julian Marshall, the short examines the circumstances surrounding his creation of this prankish yet surprisingly long-lived campaign. Why appropriate the image of such a well-known professional wrestler? Why credit him with a posse? Why start spreading the word on the streets of Providence? To address these questions, Obey the Giant goes back to Fairey’s years at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late eighties and early nineties, when he hung out with a tight-knit group of hip-hop-loving skaters, known internally as “the Posse,” and needed a sample image to try making a stencil out of. The documentary, which crowdsourced its $65,000 budget through Kickstarter, features a fictionalized version of Fairey portrayed by an actor. The move seems faintly reminiscent of Banksy’s reality-ambiguous 2012 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, though the real Fairey doesn’t conceal his identity. He even occasionally turns up, so I’ve heard, at the museum here in Los Angeles where my lady works — in the gift shop, as it happens.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.