OBEY the Commander in Chief!

Yep.  They’re everywhere.

I can’t walk down the sidewalk in Columbus without seeing a poster or sticker with Obama’s face on it.  Do these look familiar?



Am I a little annoyed?  Yeah.  I’m annoyed.  But not for the reason you might suspect.  My annoyance (and deep fascination) springs not from the man depicted, but the man who designed it.

Alright, you recognized these images around Columbus (and my guess is that even for our outside-of-the-heartland readers this image isn’t unfamiliar) — but do you recognize these?


Yes?  Good.  But for any urban dwellers out there that haven’t (and I’ll try to say this without sounding condescending), it’s time to open your eyes when you’re out-n-about in the city.  Seriously.  They’re everywhere.

What is the face of Andre the Giant doing gracing cityscapes all across the globe?

The “OBEY” campaign is the brainchild of Shepherd Fairey, perhaps the second most famous street artist of all time (Banksy is hands-down the first).  In the late ’80s Fairey started posting stickers with a crude drawing of Andre on it with the saying, “Andre the Giant has a Posse.”  He plopped stickers wherever he went, eventually creating a stir of rumors and conspiracies.  In candid interviews Fairey tones down his typical pitch about how the campaign is an “experiment in phenomenology” and admits that he just thought it was funny confusing people into thinking random and fantastical thoughts about what such a sticker could possibly mean.  How deep.

Fascinated with how messages embedded in the cityscape communicated differently, Fairey expanded his reach, bombing stickers and wheatpasted images across the US.  Soon ascending the short ladder of hipness, Fairey was able to support himself financially, becoming a full time street artist.  He now operates an extremely successful brand.  OBEY now sells clothing, limited edition prints, and books.

You may have surmised by my tone that I find Fairey a less than compelling figure.  It’s true.  Without being overly bitchy about it, I think he’s a shallow hack and capitalist pig.

And this isn’t just a case of “I used to like that band before they got famous.”

Street art — stenciling, wheatpasting, and some varieties of tagging — carries with it certain philosophies (that I’ll do my best to explore in a follow-up post) that Fairey has little respect for; but more generally, Fairey has little respect for originality, a key component of street art.  He’s a flagrant, unapologetic plagiarist masquerading under a revolutionary veneer.  Gross.

Mark Vallen, an astute art critic who has done the research to expose Fairey’s careerism, puts it eloquently: “When a will to plagiarize and a love for self-promotion are the only requirements necessary for becoming an artist, then clearly the arts are in deep trouble.”

Here are just a few clipped shots from Vallen’s site, which is linked to above:obeyplag1.jpgobeyplag3.jpg


But I want to be careful here, since the use of art in resistance is a tricky area.  Appropriation, replication without granted permission, subversion through irony, and a deep distrust of all authority are all common features in street art.  But when you make your pay by stealing other people’s aesthetics and allowing it to pass as original stuff, you’re nothing but a banal jerk.

Oh my.  Now that I’ve ranted for so long I’m out of breath to talk about the Obama image as rhetorical situation.  But a few thoughts before I go slam a cup of decaf:

* When subculture aesthetics and practices mix with political propaganda (they’re often close cousins in many regards), the results can be mixed.  I’m wondering how the practice of illegally “tagging” and “bombing” posters on walls and stickers on lampposts gives the campaign a subversive “a revolution is happening!” feel to it.  There is a pervasive irony here, right?  I mean, blatant dismissal of city law for a “higher purpose” isn’t ironic when that higher purpose is ultimately fighting the fundamental adherence to city law.  But what about when it’s for someone who’s job it is to maintain that fundamental order?  I’m polarizing camps here, making the question slightly misleading by being reductive.  Nevertheless, subversive overtones (undertones?) can really help a political campaign in building momentum.

* The image itself deserves a solid rhetorical analysis of visual composition.  It departs significantly from your standard American campaign headshot for a poster.  The simplicity of it all, combined with the steely gaze of Barack can’t help but make me think of this other leader — I think his name was Chairman Mao.  Or am I thinking of Lenny?

Seriously, doesn’t this poster have an aesthetic aura to it that gestures towards revolutionary leaders of the East?


(thanks to garlinggauge.com for pulling these shots together)

*  Hillary caught on a little too late to the power of revolutionary propaganda, the current cultural cache of retro, and the potential of hipster politics.  Did any of you see this poster, released by the Clinton campaign near its death knell?



Anyone out there up for another quick game of juxtaposition?  This hopefully will leave us on a good jumping off point for a rowdy Harlot discussion . . .



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