‘Visual Disobedience’ – a Q&A with Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey’s most recent career survey, ‘Visual Disobedience’, is currently on show in Hong Kong thanks to the HOCA Foundation. Our man in Australia, Damo, went to Hong Kong to check out the show and had a one on one with the man himself.

Shepard Fairey “Peace Dove (Red)” 2012. Mixed Media (Stencil, Silkscreen, and Collage) on Canvas. Copyright Shepard Fairey / OBEY GIANT ART. Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. 

Damo: This is your first career survey being held in Hong Kong. Why Hong Kong and can you explain the concept of the show a little bit?

Shepard: It’s my first career survey in Hong Kong; this will be my 5th museum show. The reason this is happening here in Hong Kong is because the people behind the HOCA Foundation are fans of my work and have collected my work. They asked me over a year ago if I would be willing to put together a career survey and come over here and do some mural projects because they understood that outdoor art is really is important to me. We discussed my schedule and what art I would need to borrow from collectors versus what they had and things that I would have to provide for my own archive. There are 290 pieces of work in the show. So it’s a lot of work.

What’s exciting to me is I think Hong Kong is a really fascinating place in that it’s this hybrid of Asian and Western cultures, and this is my third trip here. I was here in 2000 and did a lot of street art here and worked with some guys who had a gallery and a magazine and did some streetwear. I was back in 2006 for some more street art and clothing projects. This trip I’m getting to do clothing projects, public artworks that are more permanent, this museum show and my usual street art. So in a way this is I think is the trip that embodies every aspect of my practice and philosophy. So that’s why I’m excited about here.

I think it’s important for people to understand both the evolution and the consistency of my work. A big concept of my work is repetition of certain motifs so there is accumulative effect but also that I address things that are happening in the world; current events and my style evolves. So what I like with this show is that you can see from the very beginning to the present through the different pieces that are here. That is a real privilege to get to share with an audience because most people experience my work in a very fragmented way.

Installation View, Visual Disobedience at the Pulse, Hong Kong. Presented by HOCA Foundation. Copyright Shepard Fairey / OBEY GIANT ART. Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. 

Installation View, Visual Disobedience at the Pulse, Hong Kong. Presented by HOCA Foundation. Copyright Shepard Fairey / OBEY GIANT ART. Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. 

Damo: Can you speak a little bit about your most recent Hong Kong walls and why they are important?

Shepard: Well all the walls I’m doing in Hong Kong are themes that I addressed throughout my career. So Visual Disobedience, which is the name of the show. The idea that even if it’s against the rules or the law that putting work up and making visual statements in public is important. Another of my pieces is about both peace and protecting endangered species. My concerns about the environment and the treatment of the planet and all of its species is a big theme in my work.

The challenge in Hong Kong is the bureaucracy. Doing walls with permission which are going to be more permanent, which is a good thing, has the challenge of them getting approval. So I dealt with themes that have been important or me throughout my entire career, but also things that weren’t too controversial. Some of the other imagery that I might have done was rejected. But that’s happened to me all over the world. That’s happened to me in LA, London and in any number of places. That’s where I have the opportunity to say exactly what I want through my website, my social media, and the street art that I do without having to ask permission.

The large scale public works are important because I think that seeing works that are on the same scale or larger than advertising or as an alternative to advertising encourages people to think there could be more of that. That someone like me that came from nothing, I did everything on a shoestring budget, but now I have built my work up to the point that I do things that have the scale to compete with the most monolithic corporations. Hopefully that inspires people to think about personal empowerment.

Natural Springs Installation. EX.IT 1 Hysan Avenue, Causeway Bay. Copyright Obey Giant Art / Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. Photo: Jonathan Furlong

Visual Disobedience. La Cabane, Shin Hing Street, Central. Copyright Obey Giant Art / Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. Photo: Jonathan Furlong

Damo: How do the attitudes and opinions between graffiti and street art differ east versus west?

Shepard: I think the graffiti and street art as therapeutic outlets for existential frustration are consistent. But one of the things I’ve found interesting about Asia is that fashion seems to be more important even than art. I think that that’s probably true in other parts of the world too but especially in Asia. For me what is interesting is the way in which street art and graffiti have influenced streetwear and street fashion means that the aesthetics are very accepted, but on things like a t-shirt rather than as another facet of someone’s art practice. I find that interesting but in a lot of ways I identify with the populism of fashion. But I also identify with the rigor of developing a body of fine art. To me it’s all important but you know here Asia tends to be… people tend to stay more in line a little bit more. Even though there is an appreciation for some street art there is also a lot of people who are also scared to do it. I find that really interesting. But you know everything is becoming more global because of the internet and so it’s interesting to see how things are shifting because of that. The response to my public works has been really enthusiastic on this trip. Back when I was doing the stuff in 2000, if someone saw me putting a poster up, a lot of people yelled at me. Now they are coming up to me and asking me ‘hey what’s going on here’ and it’s a little bit less hostile.

Peace Fingers. Cornwall House, Pan Hoi Street, Quarry Bay. Copyright Obey Giant Art / Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. Photo: Jonathan Furlong. Wall Sponsor: Taikoo Place

Damo: You’re very well known for your President Obama ‘Hope’ image, what do you think of the future state of US politics?

Shepard: Right now I think things are pretty bad in US politics and a lot of that… has to do with the rise of Trump and the Tea Party, people who I think appeal to fear and resentment. Fear and resentment is never the route to solutions that require consensus and compromise. I think that in some ways the rise of this negativity, it will extinguish itself to a degree. It never goes away completely. What I’m trying to say is I think that we’re maybe at the darkest point before the pendulum starts to swing back the other way. Because when things are dysfunctional, which they have been for a long time in the US in the two party system, the incumbent is frequently blamed. So right now the Democrats are being blamed. But there are a lot of Republicans in Congress for the past several years that haven’t been able to achieve anything. The Congress it’s had… the Republicans have been the majority that have been in power in congress even though they didn’t have the presidency. I think that their inability to find any solutions even though they were complaining that Obama was a disaster and is a disaster etcetera, eventually people will say ‘okay well their approach isn’t working either’; that’s my hope. As much as I love the idea of the internet democratises things, one of the things I find very disturbing is these fringe groups have crazy ideas, don’t believe in science, are driven by conspiracy theories, that they have more of a megaphone now. I think the conversation is a lot less civil than it has been in the past. Right now I think if you want to be punk rock and go against the grain use logic, be polite and don’t have a temper tantrum. That’s as punk rock as you can be right now in US politics.

Shepard Fairey. “Repetition Works (Icon)” 2011. Mixed Media (Stencil, Silkscreen, and Collage) on Canvas. Copyright Shepard Fairey / OBEY GIANT ART. Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. 

Damo: You recently passed 800,000 followers on Instagram. How does it feel to have that level of influence?

Shepard: Having a lot of Instagram followers and a lot of Facebook followers, it’s incredible but it’s too abstract for me really. It does make me think that I need to be responsible with my voice. But to me how I define responsible is that I need to think about what say but also not censor myself if the responsible thing to do is to push back something that is happening socially, culturally, politically that I think is bad for people. I try to think through how I interact with my audience. I think I have the responsibility to do that when I have an audience that is that large. I also think I have a responsibility to being true to who I am. I don’t frequently read the comments because I find a lot of that really frustrating, dark and negative and makes me feel bad about humanity. I trust my instincts and I try to research the things that I make art about and that I write about. But from there it’s from whatever the universe decides.

Damo:What one piece of work are you most proud of?

Shepard: There is no one piece that I’m most proud of. I’m proud of each piece as I’m making or as I’m completing it because each piece represents the process of solving a problem. I find that challenging but also therapeutic. I don’t dwell on the end product as much as I enjoy the process of solving the next problem.

Installation View, Visual Disobedience at the Pulse, Hong Kong. Presented by HOCA Foundation. Copyright Shepard Fairey / OBEY GIANT ART. Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. 

Damo: What do you want to be remembered for?

Shepard: I think I want to be remembered for my tenacity, my persistence, that even though I don’t think I’m the most gifted artist, illustrator, designer I have cultivated enough technical skill to be able to convey what I want to convey by a very, very diligent process of trial and error.

I’d like to say to anyone that’s out there, if you have a vision, don’t be held back by what you think is maybe a lack of technical prowess or virtuosity. It’s a very punk rock philosophy. If you have something to say and you have three chords, a guitar and a garage you don’t have to be Mozart.

Damo: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Shepard: Wow…

Probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is… “Listen carefully and speak carefully”.

Chinese Soldiers. Bibo, 163 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. Copyright Obey Giant Art / Courtesy of HOCA Foundation. Photo: Jonathan Furlong

Damo: What’s something you wish you’d been asked in an interview but have never been?

Shepard: Hmm… I’ve never been asked what my favorite Public Enemy song is…

Damo: What is your favorite Public Enemy song?

Shepard: ‘Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos.’ It opens with a lyric “I got a letter from the government the other day. I opened and read it and it said they were suckers”.

Damo: Thank you very much.


‘Visual Disobedience’: A solo exhibition by Shepard Fairey
Exhibition Times: October 27 November 27 | Open from Wednesday to Sunday from 12-8PM Location: Shop B104 Shop 305, The Pulse, No. 28 Beach Road, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong