Shepard Fairey: The Artist Behind the Obama Portrait

A portrait created by a graphic designer ended up becoming the icon for the Obama campaign and an international phenomenon

Los Angeles-based graphic designer Shepard Fairey. (Evolutionary Media Group)

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I feel like it was maybe April or May. I met Obama at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. I had the sticker in my pocket because I knew in one of those introduction lines that he might not know me by name, but he would know the image.

I was with my wife and I shook his hand, pulled the sticker out and said I’m the person that made this. With most of the people he was just quick photo, smile, nice to meet you and on to the next, because there were literally hundreds of people there. But he stepped back and said, “Wow, I love this image,” and “How did you get it spread around so fast?”

He seemed genuinely very appreciative of it, and considering how much his campaign raised and how little money I had to spend in comparison to get the image out there, I think he was impressed. It’s really about the people power, not the dollar power.

Can you tell me about the method of getting the image out there? Did you have teams of people in different cities tagging buildings?

Initially, I made 700 prints—350 to sell on my Web site for $45 each and 350 to have immediately to put up on the street. Then I used the money from the 350 prints to print another 10,000 prints, which were mailed out to various people around the country in places that hadn’t had primaries or caucuses yet. They were distributed at Oprah’s rally at USC [University of Southern California]. A free download was created for my Web site to allow anybody who was a supporter to make his or her own sign. My friend Yosi Sergant was already an Obama supporter and knew a lot of people. He was really instrumental in disseminating the posters to really motivated Obama supporters. I couldn’t have done it all without him.

What do you believe is the artist’s role when it comes to politics?

I think that art has the ability to capture people’s imaginations and make them think that more is possible. My idea about the role of artists is to get people to look at things in a way that’s different than the way they normally would if they are being told how to think, what to do. I think when people receive information through art they are more open-minded.

What’s next for you?

Other than helping Obama be elected, the other most phenomenal result of this poster is that it’s really opened a lot of people’s eyes to the value of art. It’s hard to quantify what art does, but I think now there are some people that are looking at art as a valuable tool that never did in the past.

"Shepard Fairey: Supply & Demand," a 20-year retrospective of Fairey’s work, runs from February 6 to August 16, 2009, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. An expanded, limited-edition copy of the artist’s book, Obey: Supply & Demand, will also be available.


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