Brain Floss: Shepard Fairey

Photo: Jon Furlong

Words by John McGuire

It all started in the late '80s when a young East Coast skate rat, fired up and frustrated with school and rules, found tremendous creative momentum in art and skateboarding. Shepard's life path took a wild turn onto a portentous trajectory with a crude xeroxed cut and paste sticker. What started as a visual joke only to entertain friends and mark turf, turned into an explosive commercial phenomenon. OBEY GIANT is a real creative threat on many levels. It's a hugely successful mechanism that baffles and synthesizes the world of art and marketing. Most noted for his poster work, he has become an important part of the American cultural landscape in 2008 when he gained global exposure by creating the Obama "HOPE" poster. He was able to visually engage and inspire droves of young voters and renew their enthusiasm in a damaged democracy. A real skater success story, it seemed only appropriate to commission this artistic icon to portray and immortalize the man that is arguably the most creative, inspirational, and TWS' Most Influential skateboarder, Mark Gonzales.

Briefly describe your times as a mid-80s East Coast skate rat.

I grew up in a small skate scene in South Carolina. So if I saw someone in a skate or punk tee or with ollie wear on their shoes, I introduced myself and asked them if they knew about any spots or ramps. The SC scene was very DIY, so I stole plywood and built ramps and made a lot of homemade stencils for tee shirts and boards. There was a friendly competition in our skate crew, but we had an "us versus the world" mentality.

Which skateboard graphics had a powerful or lasting impression on you?

In the '80s I loved the Bones Ripper, the Vision Gator, The Vision Gonz, the Vision Old Ghosts series that John Grigley designed, and the Santa Cruz Rob Roskopp. There are really too many good ones to name since pros kept their graphics for a year or longer and artists could spend a lot of time on their graphics. My favorite artists doing great illustration and design then were Vernon Court Johnson for Powell-Peralta and Jim Phillips for Santa Cruz. I liked the punk/new wave style graphics for Sims and Vision too.

What are the similarities between skateboarding and creating art?

Skateboarding and art both find a balance between creativity, practice to develop style and technique, and natural ability. I think the best artists and skateboarders are free spirits and risk takers who are passionate about honing their skills. I was surprised in the '80s that the creative connection between art and skateboarding was not recognized. Even though skaters like Gonz, Chris Miller, Natas, Andy Howell, and Lance Mountain were doing art, it did not become cool to be "artsy" in skateboarding until the mid-90s.

Is there any defining moment when you felt your shift from skater/artist to artist/skater?

When I saw the Blind Video Days video I knew I was falling behind the cutting edge of innovative skateboarding. I was also starting to get some traction with my sticker project and some tee shirt designs. I still skated a lot though. I had a mini-ramp in my art studio and I street skated a good bit too.

You've managed to really popularize or make art accessible again. From stickers to T-shirts, posters, numbered prints, and decks. Was that the original intent or did it evolve that way?

The things that inspired me were skateboard graphics, punk album covers, T-shirts, stickers--all very unpretentious accessible things. I've tried to stick largely to the skateboarding and the punk rock model of promotion and distribution. Though now I have a market for more expensive paintings, which helps me pay for big mural and street art projects. I give a lot of stuff away and do a lot of charity projects, which I think keeps my work "for the people."

You've done so much skateboard artwork. What are some of your favorite past projects?

When my childhood heroes like Natas [Kaupas] or Tommy Guerrero and Jim Thiebaud, have asked me to do boards for their companies, it's pretty surreal. My tribute to Natas' Santa Monica Airlines "Black Panther" board is one of my favorites.


What's your favorite era in the broad spectrum, timeline of skateboarding?

I think you are always nostalgic for the era that shaped you, so I love '80s skating. Street skating was new and fertile for rapid creative growth. The sport was still pretty outsider, so I liked being part of a rebellious tribe.

What concerns you about the future?

The environment. We need to take care of the planet. I've snapped a lot of skateboards made of trees over the years, so I'm not saying, "don't use the planet's resources," but I'm talking about pushing for sustainable ways to use them. Global warming is curbed by skating instead of driving.

You've had issues with law enforcement and legal channels. Does that remind you of the more deviant, delinquent days of skateboarding?

My first arrest was for skateboarding, but I don't count that in the 16 I have for street art.

Could skateboarding's ubiquity ultimately be what might deter future generations, as it becomes the norm?  

Skating requires too much risk, creativity, and dedication for the system to render it impotent. It evolves quickly, so the innovators will always be ahead of "the norm."

Skateboarding owes no one anything, as skateboarders we owe it everything. What would your letter to skateboarding sound like?

Dear Skateboarding, Thank you for saving my life! I mean that metaphorically, not literally. I was a frustrated jock kid who didn't love organized sports or the social hierarchy. I liked drawing, so I didn't fit in a typical social group. Skateboarding gave me an unstructured outlet for my aggression that fostered creative independent thinking. There were no rules.

How rewarding and exciting is it to do the portrait cover of Gonz?

This cover is a big deal for me. Mark Gonzales has always been one of my favorites in his skateboarding and art. Mark's style and creativity as a street skater have shaped our modern idea of street skating. I met Mark in '92 in NYC and he traded me one of his drawings for a couple of my Andre tees. I felt like the luckiest person ever. He attended one of my art shows in NY about a year ago and I reflected on how kind he was in '92 when I needed validation. Thanks Mark.

Your commercial level, approach, and style have been compared to Warhol. Is this shortsighted?

Warhol did great things as an artist by making art accessible to the masses and making pop(ular) subject matter fair play in the art world. He was ahead of the curve doing music-related projects and starting a magazine. I think I use a lot of the same approaches as Warhol, but by doing street art I've also bypassed a lot of the rules Warhol had to bend or re-define. Street art is accessible in placement and free for the masses.

Were you writing and doodling on your griptape in the late '80s just like Gonz and Natas?
Funny, but I didn't draw on my griptape because I thought it would make it less grippy. I did try out clear griptape so I could make a sicker collage underneath. I also made stencils for board bottoms and tee shirts a lot.

Do you remember spending time on placing and collecting stickers?

Of course. I was broke though, so instead of buying a lot of stickers, I'd buy my favorites and Xerox them on to sticker paper. I loved it when logos were clear black and white in a skate mag, so I could use that to make xeroxed stickers. My parents were pissed that I covered the station wagon in stickers.

Shepard Fairey boardslide circa 1989.

Did this give you the idea to launch and spread your message through your original "Andre the Giant has a posse" stickers?

I was working at a skate shop in Rhode Island the summer of '89 after my first year of art college when I made the first Andre sicker. The sticker was initially for a few friends, a new "posse" to make an even more "exclusive" sub-crew of our skate team. Former pro skater Eric Pupecki was my co-conspirator when I made that first Andre sticker. We just stuck them at skate spots and everywhere else. Hip-hop culture and slang ("posse") were creeping into skate culture, so tagging and listening to Public Enemy were the new punk.

How much of your stuff is still hands-on drawing, sketching, and drafting?

I still illustrate traditionally all the time. I use the computer a bit too, but I'm cutting stencils, collaging, and painting a lot. I like getting my hands dirty.

For more of Shepard’s artwork visit