Shepard Fairey's newest book, Supply and Demand, is huge and important looking. The deep-maroon hardback cover is embossed with gold foil; a negative-space dollar sign sits in the middle of a stylized version of the U.S. treasury seal. It doesn't look like an art book; it looks more like an encyclopedia.
"I'll be as bold as to say 'bible,'" said Fairey, unapologetic about the book's uppity packaging. The book, he says,"encapsulates so many different things sociologically and artistically that it's kind of a one-stop shop, a comprehensive volume, and I felt it should be packaged that way."
The art world agrees. Fairey's been showing in top galleries across the U.S. and Europe for years. He's been featured in magazines like Juxtapoz and even Time. But some of the indie kids who used to be his biggest fans think the "street" artist got too big. Some are saying Fairey sold out.
Graffiti writers and skaters who've been following the artist since 1989, when Fairey first started his Andre the Giant has a Posse guerilla-style sticker project, are saying Fairey has strayed from his roots. They're saying his level of street cred has all but disappeared over the last 17 years. And hipsters and art scenesters who latched onto Fairey later, after reading about him in some underground 'zine or hearing about the stunts he pulled with his larger street installations-like putting Andre's face over the Providence, R.I., mayor's re-election billboard in the early '90s-are saying it's the artist's commercial work and sponsorship by companies like Urban Outfitters they no longer dig. "How could he take money from the evil corporations?" they shriek.
It's the inevitable underground-to-mainstream backlash, but Fairey isn't worried. After almost two decades observing and even relying on people talking about and reacting to his work, Fairey saw it coming. He says if you pay attention, human behavior can be predictable.
As a 19-year-old student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey had no idea of the impact the ambiguous Andre stickers would have-people wondering what they meant and where they came from-and he used the mystery to build it. Kids from across the country started putting up stickers, and soon, the old wrestler's sullen face was everywhere.
Back then, the stickers were part of an experiment in "phenomenology," as Fairey likes to categorize it. But before too long, the young artist had an international ad campaign of sorts that was getting a lot of attention. The masses were both confused and intrigued because there was nothing behind the image-nothing was for sale.
Now, the Andre image has evolved into Obey Giant, Fairey's name brand, selling posters, T-shirts and pretty much anything it's emblazoned on. And, despite the impressive body of work he's created post-Andre, after reading Supply and Demand, you realize it's the story itself-the evolution of that simple image of Andre over the years-that is Fairey's greatest work of art.
"It's the idea of the coup," Fairey explained, "of creating something out of nothing-stimulating semiotic consumption just by repeating an image-that was very important and eye-opening."
To Fairey, it doesn't matter what the "underground" kids think; they're all part of a work-in-progress.
"I'm not just trying to do it for the sake of those people liking me," said Fairey, "not just to stay in that club. It's actually to watch and observe the results, and I've already been there and done that part of it, so I'm allowing it to run its course in a way that I think is more revealing."
Shepard Fairey will sign and discuss Supply and Demand at Ducky Waddles Emporium, 414 N. Coast Hwy. 101 in Encinitas, from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, July 15. A dozen of Fairey's silkscreen prints on aluminum will be on view at Ducky's through Aug. 13. www.duckywaddles.com or 760-632-0488.