Shepard Fairey on Art for Social Change, Immigration Reform and Befriending the Subcomandante of the Revolutionary Zapatistas

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Twitter: @labarbaraaa

Today, off the York Street stop in Dumbo, the Obey Giant crew is finishing up a Peace and Justice mural of a lotus woman rendered in cream amidst stained maroon brick. Shepard Fairey and his people are in town for the Wooster Collective’s 10 Year Anniversary event that begins today with a show at a pop up gallery in Chelsea. The murals, however, are part of a project called Dumbo Murals where 8 artists beautify walls under the BQE expressway.

Shepard Fairey sips at a diet Coke while talking to me about the Wooster Collective, “They deserve credit for helping to find an audience for street art.” He goes on to say the founders of Wooster Collective were early promoters of the infamous street artists Banksy and Space Invader in addition to his work. Wooster Collective’s support has primarily lived on the Internet as an archive acting as an agent of dissemination for international street art sightings.

But Fairey himself is also a promoter, a promoter of a rainbow of ideals who happens to be an artist. “For me, it’s about finding as many platforms to connect with people as possible: street art, stickers, T-shirts, the inexpensive screen prints I do and the paintings I do,” Fairey says. In some circles Fairey gets labelled a “sell-out” because of the commercial aspect of his work, particularly his OBEY clothing line and his acceptance into the mainstream artworld (the emblematic Obama Hope image is part of the National Portrait Gallery Museum’s collection in Washington D.C. ).  However, people don’t give him enough credit. Just recently he did work for the L.A. Fund for Education to promote the inclusion of the arts in public curriculums. He has also collaborated with organizations like the American Indian movement, the National Resources Defense Council, the ACLU and many smaller organizations, giving them images to use freely, promoting awareness of social issues and donating monetary proceeds directly to the causes.

In 2009, a campaign to spawn images that would counter the dehumanizing, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the day (that’s still taking place), Fairey, artist and activist Ernesto Yerena, activist Marco Amador and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, created, distributed and sold posters with the above graphics for the We Are Human Campaign. A majority of the proceeds went to NDLON (National Day Labor Organizing Network) and Puente, a grassroots community group that fights for human dignity.

“Europeans are relative newcomers, so what the fuck,” Fairey says getting heated over the subject of immigration. “Oh I’ve been here 100 or 200 years. Your lineage has been here for thousands of years but since you came across the border from Mexico, you’re not legit — these people are so fucking stupid.” With immigration reform being kicked around like a smelly piece of meat by the politicos in the House, immigration advocates and Dreamers getting arrested left and right for protesting peacefully, this work rings relevant and necessary.

Even Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the revolutionary Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico gave an acknowledging nod to Shepard Fairey. The ambassador of the American Indian Movement told Fairey Marcos liked his portrait of MLK, so Fairey smuggled a print to Chiapas and a Zapatista needlepoint artwork was sent from Marcos in return.

Fairey’s still on probation from a previous riff with the graffiti gestapo, but he’ll be in town for a few more days, so don’t be surprised if Obey leaves a trail of propaganda in your neighborhood. Also, check out his and a lot of seminal street artists’ work at the Wooster Collective anniversary show at 525 West 22nd Street in Chelsea. The opening is tonight from 7 to 9 pm but the show goes on until August 27th.