I remember the first time I saw a Shepard Fairey piece. I was nine years old, on a ski trip with a family friend. It was slapped on a chairlift. ANDRE THE GIANT HAS A POSSE, the sticker read, next to an overexposed image of the man. I didn’t know it was Fairey at the time, but there was something about the image—ironic, funny, slightly menacing, absurd—that lodged it into my memory. It became a sort of nonsense inside-joke between my friend and I, and I can still recall it clearly today. “I called that my ‘Absurdist Propaganda Experiment in Phenomenology,” Fairey says, clearly delighted, when I tell him the story during a studio visit to discuss his upcoming collab with Hublot. “Phenomenology is Heidegger’s theory of a novel encounter that reawakens one’s sense of wonder and attention to detail. So, you were the perfect Guinea-pig.”
This is what Fairey excels at—the instant impression; the indelible image. His ubiquitous OBEY poster-blitz campaign comes to mind, inscrutable authoritarian eyes looking down on the citizenry of cities across the world, intent unverifiable. His HOPE poster went on to visually define the aspirational, revolutionary feel of Obama’s campaign. He’s like an ad man that went rogue, and instead of using his genius for the direct, lingering image to sell cars or cigarettes or burgers, applied it to satirize and subvert society and to engage in activism. Meeting him, he’s exactly who you’d hope he is. He talks a mile a minute, but in direct, clear sentences. He has a wicked sense of humor and the eternal punk’s unflagging, twitchy energy.
Fairey’s studio sits within a non-descript stretch of warehouses abutting the concrete maw of the LA river. The space looks like an improbable combination of an auto body shop, an art gallery, and an underground zine distribution center. Stacked against the walls are hundreds of the posters he’s made for the slew of protests that have shaken the nation lately—Standing Rock, the Women’s March, the March for our Lives—and which he distributed for free. I’m here to check out Fairey’s latest work in the fine art space in which he has been increasingly active, as well as to talk about the process of designing a new timepiece with a venerable watch company like Hublot. My hope is to understand how the young punk and iconic street artist that colonized our minds with Andre and Obey is adapting to this new terrain.
It’s an interesting line that Fairey walks, and he mostly walks it alone. His work increasingly takes place in the unlikely cross-section of street art, fashion, activism, and commerce, in ways that are a bit tough to untangle. He’s aware that it can appear contradictory, but what is clear is that everything is thought through: “All that stuff is stuff that I’m trying to think about and navigate through when I’m working. What I hope is that there are a few layers to my work, that somebody might just enjoy something aesthetically at first, like a t-shirt, and that will lead them in to the concept of the specific, how that piece then fits in to the mosaic of the rest of my practice and my art lineage and my activism. I started with that Andre sticker, but it lead to some profound observations. Everyone is so used to seeing advertising, that something that’s not advertising is shocking. Once I noticed that a novel sticker can be disruptive in this way, Pandora’s box opened. So yeah, that’s kind of how it happened.”
The Hublot project exemplifies this philosophy. It’s an unlikely marriage of the tradition and craftsmanship behind a quality watch with Fairey’s subversive flair. It’s a first for Fairey but not for Hublot, which has been especially adept at bridging the worlds of exquisite timepieces and cultural impact through collabs with luminaries like Kobe, Usain Bolt, and Depeche Mode. More surprising is that it works, especially with a counter-culture figure like Fairey. The watch comes in two colorways—black and red, along with navy blue—that Fairey has increasingly used within his fine art practice, and features his famous “star gear” motif prominently. The base model for the collab is the popular “Big Bang Meca-10” model, in which Hublot leaves the guts of the watch exposed, revealing a ticking mass of expertly aligned gears, number dials, and movements.
It all plays into Fairey’s larger message: “I’m incorporating the Star Gear because that’s an icon of mine that people know—it’s recognizable, but it also has a deeper meaning. I created that icon as a way of highlighting how mechanical production plays a major role in how I work,” he explains. “I’m a screen-printer. I empowered myself by sitting there and printing. The idea that you as an individual have mechanical techniques at your disposal to compete with the monolithic corporations was always an idea that I wanted to put out there—about being industrious and empowering yourself. So with the mechanics of the watch, it made a lot of sense for those two to live together.” We end our conversation rapping about Black Flag, skateboarding, our shared appreciation for the Dead Kennedys. It’s clear that even though he’s now refined his practice, selling canvases that reflect the accumulation of a lifetime of in-the-trenches artmaking experience and collaborating on watch designs, that he’s still the same Fairey that stickerbombed his way into the global consciousness. And if Fairey can embed his message into an object that might end up on the wrists of those who pull the levers, then more power to him.
Written by Sid Feddema