Street artist Shepard Fairey’s arrest reminds us of earlier accusations of plagiarism

by on February 8, 2009 · 4 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Media

Photo on left by AP Photographer Mannie Garcia; poster on right by Shepard Fairey

Street artist Shepard Fairey was arrested Friday February 6th for tagging by Boston police.  Southern Californians have known of the infamous LA artist’s work for years as his images have mysteriously appeared stenciled along streets – the iconic Andre the Giant and the Obey posters and stencils come to mind immediately. Fairey is also the artist of the now famous red, white, and blue poster of Barack Obama usually with the caption “hope”. Here is the full story.

Shepard Fairey -

Fairey was arrested after two warrants had been issued for him back on January 24th. He is accused by police for tagging property in two locations with graffiti – based on the Andre the Giant image. He is scheduled to be arraigned on a misdemeanor charge Monday, Feb. 9th.  Fairey was in Boston installing his first solo art exhibition placed at the Institute of Contemporary Art.  He was on his way to host the kick-off event when he was arrested.  Of course, this didn’t sit too well for his sponsors. Here is part of  the museum’s statement, which described the reason for his arrest due to:

his efforts posting his art in various areas around the city.  We believe Shepard Fairey has made an important contribution in the history of art and to popular thinking about art and its role in society.  We are enthusiastic to be working with him and are pleased to be showing the first museum retrospective of his work.

Not everyone is pleased with Shepard Fairey, however. The Associated Press is suing him for basing his now-famous image of the President while he was a candidate on a photograph of Obama taken by one of its photographers, Manny Garcia.

… street artist Shepard Fairey who created the image is being sued by the Associated Press for copyright infringement. Fairey has acknowledged that the image he created is based on an Associated Press photograph, taken in April 2006 by Manny Garcia while on assignment at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. “The Associated Press has determined that the photograph used in the poster is an AP photo and that its use required permission,” the AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, said in a statement.

This all opens up accusations of plagiarism against Fairey made by other artists about a year ago.  Artist Mark Vallen along with a several other artists made the charges on the occasion of Fairey’s Los Angeles solo exhibition, in December 2007.  Lincoln Cushing, one of those artists who assisted Vallen in his critique of Fairey, is known by a few of us here in Ocean Beach. Lincoln used to live in OB and produced many community-based and political posters while he resided here. He moved on to the Bay Area where he has become a renowed art historian.  We reprint part of the critique below, go here for the entire article, which is accompanied by a number of fascinating and colorful political posters and artwork. But we have also stumbled upon a whole debate within the art and politics world. See this.

Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey
A critique by artist Mark Vallen

Most well known for his “Obey Giant” street posters, Shepard Fairey has carefully nurtured a reputation as a heroic guerilla street artist waging a one man campaign against the corporate powers-that-be. Infantile posturing aside, Fairey’s art is problematic for another, more troubling reason – that of plagiarism.

Lincoln Cushing, Josh MacPhee, and Favianna Rodriguez, worked closely with me on researching this article, having initially brought Fairey’s plagiarism to my attention. Cushing is an art historian and author of Revolución: Cuban Poster Art, Visions of Peace & Justice, and Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Josh MacPhee is an artist, activist and author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Survey of the Street Stencil, and Favianna Rodriguez is an artist, activist and Chicana print maker. Their invaluable research and documentation provides the foundation for most of what appears in this article.

What initially disturbed me about the art of Shepard Fairey is that it displays none of the line, modeling and other idiosyncrasies that reveal an artist’s unique personal style. His imagery appears as though it’s xeroxed or run through some computer graphics program; that is to say, it is machine art that any second-rate art student could produce.

In fact, I’ve never seen any evidence indicating Fairey can draw at all. Even the art of Andy Warhol, reliant as it was upon photography and mass commercial imagery, displayed passages of gestural drawing and flamboyant brushstrokes. Fairey has developed a successful career through expropriating and recontextualizing the artworks of others, which in and of itself does not make for bad art. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein based his paintings on the world of American comic strips and advertising imagery, but one was always aware that Lichtenstein was taking his images from comic books; that was after all the point, to examine the blasé and artificial in modern American commercial culture. When Lichtenstein painted Look Mickey, a 1961 oil on canvas portrait of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, everyone was cognizant of the artist’s source material – they were in on the joke. By contrast, Fairey simply filches artworks and hopes that no one notices – the joke is on you.

Plagiarism is the deliberate passing off of someone else’s work as your own, and Shepard Fairey may be unfamiliar with the term – but not the act. This article is not about the innocent absorption of visual ideas that later materialize unconsciously in an artist’s work, we do after all live in a maelstrom of images and we can’t help but be affected by them. Nor am I referring to an artist’s direct influences – which artist can claim not to have been inspired by techniques or styles employed by others? What I am concerned with is the brazen, intentional copying of already existing artworks created by others – sometimes duplicating the originals without alteration – and then deceiving people by pawning off the counterfeit works as original creations.

Fairey launched his career with a series of obscure street posters, stickers and stencils that combined the words “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” with the visage of deceased wrestling superstar, Andre the Giant. By the early 1990’s the incomprehensible images had become ubiquitous in major urban centers around the world, but in 1993 Titan Sports, Inc. (now World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.) threatened to sue Fairey for violating their trademarked name, Andre the Giant.

(Keep reading…)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie February 18, 2009 at 12:34 am

I really thought this post would generate an entire discussion about art. But … not to be, or to be not?


da5id January 3, 2010 at 2:15 am

I do like Fairey’s artwork, but as you say, I’m not sure how much ‘art’ there is to it. Have you seen his artwork for the new Tom Petty ‘Live Anthology’ set? On the inside are 4 separate cardboard CD covers, and a lot of them seem to be assembled from clipart. eg, Disc 2 has some kind of truck circa 1950’s or 1960’s which looks like it’s been taken from somewhere; Disc 3 has an old-style microphone which also looks like clipart, as does Disc 4 with some kind of close-up of an ear that looks like it’s been taken from much older artwork (Victorian?).

A lot of his stuff looks Live Traced in Illustrator, especially images of people (Obama etc). As I say, I like how it looks – the layout etc, but original? Hardly. I bet even the frilly bits he puts around the outside of images (ie, borders) are some kind of clipart.


lane tobias January 3, 2010 at 2:53 pm

i think thats why hes so polarizing – on one hand, his art is uber-political and each piece makes a statement. on the other hand, there are probably many in the art community who are offended by his success. clip art? im not sure. is it 100% original artwork? i dont think so either. he is part of a growing guerilla art movement with MUCH more original, ninja-like artists like Banksy.


lewis April 16, 2010 at 10:59 am

What Fairey does is not art it is advertising. It is a pity that there are not more people involved galleries and museums with any devotion to, or background in, the arts instead of business degrees. Same goes with the media.


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