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Shepard Fairey says honesty is essential to his art despite his 'slip' over a disputed Obama poster [updated]

January 21, 2010 |  9:30 am

FaireyClendenin The rock 'n' roll references were flying Wednesday evening as Shepard Fairey and Robbie Conal, leading, L.A.-based exponents of political street art -- including posters they sometimes paste up illegally -- sat side by side in a Culver City television studio talking about the inspirations and aims of what they do.

In a session that will be available on the Web as part of the "Brave New Conversations" series of chats involving cultural figures who push for social change, Fairey said punk rock changed his life while he was growing up in South Carolina and helped set him on a path toward art-as-agitation; Conal hailed the Clash as "role models" and worked Donny Hathaway's "Everything is Everything" into one of the many quips and plays on words that suggested he could have grown up to carry on in the tradition of Lenny Bruce as easily as that of Francisco Goya.

When someone in the audience brought up Fairey's ongoing legal battle with the Associated Press over his appropriation of an AP photo as a template for his landmark "Hope" poster supporting Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, Conal jumped in with a long anecdote about a nervous moment he had with the AP in 1996 on account of his unauthorized use of a photograph of a black girl being taunted by whites in the background of "Little White Lies," an artwork Pearl Jam commissioned him to do when the band was putting in its two cents against the re-election of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

[Updated 11:52 a.m.: an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the photograph.]

After the program had ended, and with all those musical references already in the air, Culture Monster figured it would be appropriate to ask Fairey to respond to a line from Bob Dylan's song, "Absolutely Sweet Marie" -- "To live outside the law you must be honest."

Fairey, who last fall admitted that he'd lied initially about which AP photo the "Hope" poster was based on, gave an earnest response.

FaireyObama "I would agree 100%" with the Dylan line, Fairey said. "When you're bending the rules you need to be completely accountable and on the level and able to justify all your actions. That's how I've tried to operate most of the time. I had a recent slip you probably know about. That's why I'm so mad at myself. It undermines all the rule-breaking with integrity.

"I've come 100% clean, but the fact I had to -- I don't know if that's something I will ever completely recover from." Having stumbled so publicly, he added, "I had two choices: let that define me, or go on and do the best things I can do and learn from it."

Fairey said that the period last year in which he was trying to negotiate a mutually acceptable fee with AP, then sued to have his use of the photo declared a legal, unpaid "fair use" that transformed an existing work for the sake of creating a separate and original one, was "a very tough time in my life." It led, he said, to his fudging the truth by initially submitting a false court claim that the poster was based on a 2006 shot of Barack Obama and actor George Clooney together, rather than a photo taken during the same panel appearance that showed only Obama.The difference has potential relevance in determining whether the poster was legally a "fair use" of the copyrighted photo.

"The relief of feeling I'm past it is well worth the humiliation," Fairey said. "The burden of concealing something really rips you open inside."

Fairey said it's his bank account that's apt to get ripped open now, as the federal judge in New York who is presiding over his dispute with AP decides what the penalty should be for his false submission. "I'll be fined, and it might be a lot of money." He said that sales of the "Hope" poster earned about $800,000 -- all of which was either plowed back into producing Obama bumper stickers and other campaign paraphernalia, or donated to the Obama campaign and to Feeding America and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Check back later for more on the discussion between Fairey and Conal.

-- Mike Boehm

Top photo: Shepard Fairey. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. Left photo: Photo on which Fairey's Obama "Hope" poster, pictured at right, was based. Credit: Manny Garcia / Associated Press


Shepard Fairey admits to wrongdoing in Associated Press lawsuit

Comments () | Archives (12)

Damn, those are two arrogant and lying mediocrities. They are designers, not creative artists, and OK at what they do. But Goya? Hell, Bruce was quite a stretch, now you wanna say GOYA?! LOL! What losers.

Bad music for bad art. That stuff is for disillusioned and hormonally imballanced adolescents, not responsible adults. Grow up. These folks constantly accuse others of hypocrisy, when they are the ones who illustrate that word. Not by their posters, but by their actions.

art collegia delenda est

These guys are so edgy, they are willing to criticize the majority political party and power structure at every turn. Oh, wait, no they aren't. They are doctrinaire liberals just like the rest of the echochamber arts community. Doing what they do requires about as much "courage" as castigating racism at an NAACP benefit.

Nice Article Mike. Here is a link to the "Little White Lies" Pearl Jam commissioned artwork mentioned in the article:



Or calling Obama a commie Islamist(an absurd contradiction of an impossibility)on Fox, both wings are idiots.

I completely agree, Bob and Donald. Additionally, I'm not sure how such rebels can now be proud of - or praised for - their role in selling Americans this "Hope" tripe. Form over substance is not something an artist should be striving for.

Maybe he can ask the Obama campaign, Feeding America and the American Civil Liberties Union to help pay the fines...

Conal is a true artist. Real Angelenos know that. True to his word and fiercely talented and intelligent. Fairey interviewed him since he cites him as an inspiration. In my opinion, he'll never match up to the wit of Conal's work. Conal makes it very clear he licenses all reference images and is a supporter of all artists being paid for their work - that includes photographers folks.

Donald Frazell you need to get a life. Your comments are hilarious! What a joker/troll you are.
I suggest everyone watch the actual conversation since this article barely scratches the surface.

You folks who accuse Fairey & Conal of being doctrinaire liberals are right. That's what they are. And saying that they lack a certain courage: maybe so. But let me ask you this: Do you want them to stop doing what they're doing? And leave the public space of discourse even more slanted toward corporations? Just what do you want anyway, besides the opportunity to ventilate?

No, Westside and WeHo types are not real Angelenos, they dont know anythng out of their neighborhoods, and mostly from otherplaces. LBC born and raised, been all over LA since a kid, and raised mine. Been literally EVERYWEHERE in the LA area, how many liberals can say that? They dont know America anymore than the idiots over at Fox. Two sides of the same flimsy coin.

The center must hold. I want both wingnusts to shut the hell up and get a backbone, start dealing with real issues rather than self elevating fantasies. I can't stand these two anymore than Limbaugh and Robertson. To paraphrase Hemingway, a such and such left is a such and such right. The distance between supposed opposites like Hitler and Stalin is but crossing a thin straight line, as they come full circle.

Tiny mythical beasts with dreams of grandeur, Air America just went under, wish I could say the same of Fox.

art collegia delenda est

Real issues such as what? What issues are they not dealing with that you think they should deal with? Is there anybody else in the artworld dealing with these issues that you think we should know about? If so I would love to hear.

Yes, what creative art has always done. Bind us together by defining who WE are, exploring nature and OUR place in it, searching, reaching for god, a constantly evolving concept, the only one worth a damn. If artists dont do it, it regresses.

We got babies in the arts now, only concerned with self expression, their career, and irrelevant ideas that make them feel better about themselves, therapy. Click on my name below, and learn. Both left and right are always selfish idiots, the center must hold. Try Anselm Kiefr, but not many at a high level pursuing truth. Though are many lesser artists. None that will stand the test of time, this stuff now is the Salon of Cezanne's age, destined for the trash heap, to be dug out in future gilded ages, like what just ended.

art collegia delenda est
Fine art colleges must be destroyed.
the Bastilles of the pharisees
Save the Watts Towers, tear down the Ivories.

that should about do it, have a nice day!

Every bit of the trails and tribulations that Shepard Fairey has had to contend with this ridiculous lawsuit brought on by the AP is worth us having Barrack Obama president of the United States.

It's interesting that the AP goes after a graphic artist for transforming a mundane photograph into a spectacular graphic design. AP doesn't own the image of Barrack Obama anymore than you or I. Barrack Obama owns his very own image. Ask him if it was okay to make a political poster of his own image. That is the ultimate question: Was it okay with Barrack Obama? After all it is his face in the photograph and the poster.

Oh, but then comes the AP lawyers waving there little work for hire contracts from a photographer who was flattered that 'his photograph' was the basis of the iconic Hope poster. Shepard didn't color copy the photo and resale , he used it as reference, that's it. End of story.

This is much ado about nothing. The AP reports and references news events everyday 'without permission'. Did they get written permission to photograph Mr Obama?

I must conclude that the AP is a right leaning, conservative-based, Obama-hating news organization that are sore losers. In many ways the AP is acting like fascists with a racist bent.

Let it go AP.


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