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

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

To show his support for Barack Obama, Los Angeles-based graphic designer Shepard Fairey created a large-scale, red, white and blue collage of the President-elect. From there, Hope, as he calls it, went viral. He printed posters and stickers of the portrait, and ardent Obama supporters tagged them on city buildings and car bumpers. He put a downloadable version of the design on the web, and others snagged it for t-shirts and signs. Literally, Hope has become the most recognizable image of the campaign, so much so that spoofs have cropped up with the faces of John McCain and Sarah Palin and words other than “hope”—like “nope”—on them. Time magazine commissioned a similar portrait from Fairey for its 2008 Person of the Year cover this past December. Washington, D.C. art collectors Heather and Tony Podesta recently donated Fairey’s original 60-by-44-inch collage to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where it will be on display starting January 17. Fairey spoke with about his work.

You are a product of the urban street artist scene. The National Portrait Gallery isn’t exactly the street. Is it odd for you to see your work hung in a museum?

I’ve never really considered myself just a street artist. I consider myself a populist. I want to put my work in front of people by many different means; the street is one aspect. Commercial projects are another aspect -- T-shirts, album packaging. Art shows and the institutions end up being the couriers for culture for the next generation and are an important component as well. It may seem ironic from one perspective, but I think if you look at my overall strategy, it’s actually not out of step. To me, to be validated by the Smithsonian is only possible because the grass roots populist efforts I made resonated to such a degree.

What specifically about the image do you think made people embrace it?

I think the main thing is that people were moved by Obama. Let’s face it. Obama is younger, he’s handsome. He’s half white, half black; he’s unique-looking. I think that when you talk about making images, [the fact] that it’s not just another 65-year-old white guy helps. Most campaigns rely on photographs because the moment you do something that is a graphic interpretation where any artistic license has been taken, I think a lot of people are scared that it’s going to be perceived as propaganda.

Propaganda has a negative connotation, which it partially deserves, but I think there is some propaganda that is very positive. I feel that if you can do something that gets people’s attention, then maybe they’ll go and find out more about the person. My hope with my image was that if I made an iconic image of Obama that yielded both a recognizable portrait of him and something that seemed to transcend the limitations of a photograph -- something that felt like a passionate art piece and had an idealism to it that would reflect the idealism of the subject -- then it could be a powerful tool.

To me, the qualities that I tried to make sure were in the image were vision, confidence, patriotism. The way I shaded the face half blue, half red—the convergence of the left and the right, the blue states and the red states. These are things that may be more subconsciously understood by the viewer, but I think they made the image powerful and people remembered it. But none of that would have mattered if people didn’t care about Obama. I just happened to make the right image at the right moment.

Was there a tipping point when you knew that this portrait was really taking off?

It has exceeded my expectations almost from the get-go, but I think [it was] about a month after I initially made the image, about the middle of February [2008]. First of all, I received a letter from Obama thanking me for making the image, and then, secondly, his campaign asked me if I would help them out. It was just being seen at rallies and on the Internet and everywhere. I couldn’t turn on C-Span or CNN without seeing the image. Really, when I went to the Democratic Convention in Denver and every two-bit hoodlum vendor that was selling merchandise had pins, stickers, posters, T-shirts of the graphic, then I realized that wow, this image is inseparable from this campaign at this point.

Tell me about when you first met Obama.

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.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.