Shepard Fairey – better known as Obey – is one of the most important urban artists in the world, and Lisbon is not under his radar. Nor are the Lisboetas (Lisbon locals). He is the author of the upper part of the mural shared with Vhils in Graça. Further ahead in Sapadores, an inspiration from the April Revolution in Portugal led him to place a carnation in a gun.
Shepard’s weapon is the image. Perhaps the most famous one is “Hope”, the poster that reflected what many Americans felt about Obama running for President. However, his entire visual language uses revolutionary propaganda techniques. It all began in 1989 with a sticker campaign featuring the image of the wrestler André the Giant – and later grew with the slogan “OBEY” that became his nickname.
Being a friend and admirer of Vhils, Shepard’s latest exhibition “Printed Matters: While Supplies Last” is at the Underdogs gallery – running until August 4th – in an ironically printed show that “addresses the environmental and social challenges our planet faces using various approaches in creating images that I consider versatile and impactful.”
Why printing, for an urban artist?
“The creation of prints synthesizes beauty, power, and utility, offering space for creative experimentation. In addition to producing prints for purely practical reasons, I also enjoy enriching utilitarian printing techniques by printing on wood, metal, and canvas, and incorporating stencils into the work,” he says in the presentation.
Obey is also part of the big [U]rban Revolution show at Cordoaria Nacional
A conversation about cities, politics, and art, held at the Gallery during his visit to Lisbon.
What do you like about Lisbon? What’s your idea of the city?
Well, one, it’s really beautiful. It’s charming, it’s got great architecture, it’s got beautiful stone streets and tiles. History is something that I care about, but I also really care about contemporary culture, and I like that there’s a really thriving creative scene here. Vhils is one of my favorite artists, and he’s the reason I came to Lisbon. But there are other artists from here that I really love. There’s Addfuel, who’s doing great, great things that are inspired by traditional tiles, but then weaving into cartoon references, and pop culture references. The graffiti and street art scene here is great. I think that a lot of that is building on itself. I know that Vhils has helped to create opportunities for a lot of artists, and then that just keeps rolling. So what I love about Lisbon is that there’s appreciation for history, and that informs a lot of what’s going on with contemporary culture and art. But it’s not stifling what’s going on with contemporary culture. In a lot of places, you get one or the other, so this is a really nice, harmonious mix.
Did you notice any difference from when you came in 2017?
Well, one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of new construction going on. There’s a lot of awareness that Lisbon is a beautiful place. That’s been sort of a well-kept secret for a long time, and people are now coming here from all over the world. I just happen to have several friends who coincidentally were here as tourists or for weddings right now! That’s created some gentrification problems, rents going up, prices going up. I think that’s always a challenge. I don’t live here, so I don’t know about all the political dynamics there, but what I always say to people, for example, in Los Angeles, where I live, is if you don’t like that vulnerable people are harmed by gentrification, vote for politicians that protect vulnerable people.
What do you think is your role in that – as an artist, and especially as… well you also helped to spread the word about Lisbon with your work, and that kind of creates something pretty antithetic feeling, right? You’re also part of that gentrification, even if involuntary… How do you feel about that?
Well, I feel like it’s a really unfair argument that artists who are just trying to make things look better would be blamed for gentrification! It’s greedy developers, greedy property owners, they’re the ones that create all of the pain and suffering that goes with gentrification. The artists themselves give a gift of something to the city, and then other people see what kind of opportunity is created from what the art draws in, and they exploit that. But that’s not the artist’s role. I mean, when I make a mural, I usually lose money doing the mural.
Why is that?
Because it costs me time, materials, I pay my crew. I’m not paid to do the mural… So you were saying, if you don’t want these things to happen, then vote for people that propose that every new property development has low-income housing. Vote for people that support rent stabilization. And I think that everyone who’s a property owner in a place like this that decides that they’re going to sell for a higher amount to someone that they know doesn’t have the best intentions for the neighborhood, they bear responsibility as well. It’s like the environment.
It’s like the city as a public good. What can artists do about this? Because this is all over the world, and especially all over the world…
What can we do? Well, the solution is definitely not to stop making art. Yes, of course. Oh, you know, when places look better, they become gentrified… So should we just stop making it look better? No. It’s to approach art in public space thoughtfully. I have been asked to work on development projects that, when I did research about the people behind them, I decided it wasn’t a good idea. But I also use all of my communication platforms to talk about how connected everything is. If you don’t want this to happen, then maybe you need to think about all these steps that lead to that. And that’s why I tell people, really research who you vote for and what their policies are, and how they look at creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people, not just taking care of the rich people. Now, that’s been part of my philosophy for a long time.
Do you feel a little bit frustrated about the way things are going?
Well, I feel frustrated about nationalism, xenophobia, how democracy is being undermined, about how capitalism and market forces steamroll over everything. Of course, I’m frustrated by all of those things, but that’s part of navigating the realities of the world. And so I can, for example, say, I care about the environment, but I also use spray paint, which isn’t good for the environment. But then I make enough money so I can pay into carbon offset programs that plant trees that try to reverse some of the damage I do. And as soon as there is a substitute for spray paint that’s more healthy for the planet, I will switch to that. That doesn’t yet exist.
You were the author of the Hope Obama add. And then everything just blew.
Well, yeah, I knew that a black man in the United States being elected president was going to create a backlash. If you know anything about the United States, that’s predictable. I didn’t think that the backlash would be as bad as it was. But when you think about the fact that the United States is largely racist and sexist, Hillary Clinton running for president in the next election cycle… Too much. And so instead of getting the first woman, we ended up getting the worst man ever in Trump. I think that luckily a lot of people didn’t like Trump, and they voted him out in 2020. But a lot of important traditions in the American government, standards of decency have been completely undermined now. So now it’s much more chaos in the United States, and it’s much more okay to lie, to manipulate… And so I think the recovery from Trump is going to take a good amount of time.
And it’s not over yet.
Oh no, it’s not over yet. How do you feel about what’s going to happen? Well, I think that Trump is under two indictments now. He’s facing potentially a third very soon. I think there is the possibility that he will not make it for the next presidency. But the fact that he’s even viable at all is terrifying. And then when I look at Marine Le Pen in France, what’s going on in Greece, what’s going on in Spain, I mean, the rise of the right is very problematic. One of the things that I think happens with globalization is that anyone who feels that they’re vulnerable to not just to the forces within their country, but outside forces, is easily manipulated by people that say, I’m the strong nationalist, and I will solve all your problems. And so I have my frustrations with people that exploit that psychology with the citizens, but I also am frustrated with the citizens that don’t see through it.
They don’t educate themselves well enough to understand that the simplistic approach that’s already been shown to be disastrous from Franco, from Hitler, from Stalin, from any number of dictators, it didn’t work then, it’s not gonna work now.
And Salazar in Portugal.
And you’re talking about the world that’s divided, tribalistic. Do you, as an artist, and as a very active artist in political terms, how has that changed for you?
I live my life as a global citizen. I’m using symbols in my work, I’m using archetypes of people in my work that I think translate outside of the United States. That translate in a lot of different cultures and a lot of different places. I think that using things that make people see the commonalities with humanity are very important. And when I travel I’m always open to everyone else, and I hope they’re open to me. Yeah, during the beginning of the Iraq War, people in France were suspicious of me as an American. I understood and I said: Hey, all Americans aren’t the same. I hate George Bush, I hate Dick Cheney, I hate Donald Rumsfeld. Communication is important, and I love traveling. I haven’t changed my attitude about going anywhere except for Russia. Yeah, of course.
What about in the US?
Well, I’m from South Carolina, which is more conservative… What I find a lot of times is that people, most people are not that angry or hostile. They just have attached themselves to talking points that are not truthful. So I just try to have a thoughtful conversation. There’s a very small number of people that are radicalized by social media, and they do things like go to the Capitol on January 6th. When you look at the size of the country, there were a couple of thousand people that followed Trump’s agenda. It’s actually a very, very small percentage of people who have been really radicalized.
But also the way the media functions.
Yes, there’s the Titanic submarine and a few very wealthy people who are probably dead, and then there’s hundreds, thousands of refugees that try to take boats to find a better life, and when they die, no one cares. So it’s what the media decides to focus on also. And I think whether it’s the terror tactics that have been used by people in Middle Eastern countries or right-wing terror tactics in the United States, knowing that these extreme behaviors get the kind of attention that allows them to share their message is what’s driving it. So even if Trump kept the outrage machine going with his tweets leading up to the 2016 election, he would not have been a viable candidate if he wasn’t followed so closely by the media.
Although he did chose the media as one of the most important enemies, and he threw the fake news around.
There’s a book called On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. He’s analyzing how all the tactics of 20th century dictators have translated to what Trump did.
The fact that the people are paying less attention to politicians, to what they say, and the fact that they are just living their own lives in a different kind of way…
There’s a problem that’s feeding itself. Politicians understand how social media works, so they’re communicating in a way that is repeating lies – then people repeat that on social media and things will not be vetted by more respected media. Then even people who disagree, who see through the lie, their response, rather than participating in democracy all the time, if they are disillusioned by the candidates, they then talk about their outrage on social media and treat it as if that’s enough. So you know, you can see how this problem builds on itself. And you know, in some ways, the politicians who recognize that there’s a lot of apathy, they keep using tactics that exploit the opportunity within apathy.
And what’s your role in all that?
My role is to try to talk thoughtfully about the issues and encourage people to do more research and to vote. Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t vote. I’ve done at least 25 different campaigns around voting. We have imperfect candidates, but we have to think about this person I think will do better things. It’s something that requires a lot of compromise, thought, analysis, not just image making.
So the irony is that I’m an image maker who’s trying to get people go deeper. And a lot of people only want to think about image.
Getting back to cities, how much are cities the polarization field? People don’t live in communities, the downtowns have been gentrified… How much is that also a cause for all that apathy and that lack of activism and participation?
Well, disconnection has a lot of different causes. And some people say it’s because people aren’t as religious anymore, so they don’t get together in a church. I don’t, I’m not religious. I don’t think that I need my moral framework to be dictated by religion. But I think that the pandemic was forcing people to live in isolation. And now a lot of the things about that lifestyle have persisted, it’s changed culture.
Yeah. And then also the way that social media creates echo chambers where people live very siloed lives. They hear what they want to hear.
Although in the US the echo chambers are becoming geographical echo chambers because people are now living in places where their neighbors think the same as they do.
Yeah. These things are keeping people from having open, trusting conversations, even if they disagree. And whether that’s in larger groups or even just like we’re talking now, I think that it’s important for that to happen. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my art. My art… it’s a communication tool that’s meant to not just be a one-sided conversation.
And, How do you translate that? Can you show us some example of that?
You know, if I’m looking, say, at the environment, and this woman is symbolic of an environmental activist, and she’s a sympathetic protagonist within this,
and then there’s this gas soldier, and you know what the concept of a fire sale is, like sell everything very quickly, but when you’ve got global warming, then that means that there’s dramatic upheaval, things, you know, you may have to sell everything quickly and move. You know, in a sense, it’s saying, okay, how do you feel talking to them, and how do you feel talking to her? So it’s not necessarily me saying, come back to me with your ideas. It can be an internal conversation, and then how you then reconsider engaging with the world, what you buy, who you support economically. So, you know, this is propaganda. I think it intends not to be the last word on an issue. Just by creating an alternative conversation, now there’s multiple approaches to consider, and so it engages, instead of what you’ve already been faced with being the end, I’m hoping to create an additional conversation.
Can you explain a little bit the name of the exhibition and of this body of work that you have here?
For this piece, for example, While Supplies Last, which is part of the title of the show. It’s called Printed Matters, Wild Supplies Last. In this specific piece, there’s the hypnotic, graphic flowers repeated. I think almost everyone responds positively to flowers. Flowers are appealing, but then she’s looking directly at the viewer with the flower with the globe in the middle, and that’s a symbol I use as a badge of environmental activism. So the idea is get your flowers while supplies last, because the way we’re destabilizing the ecology, who knows… But also while supplies last, people love tangible art. That’s why the vinyl record is coming back, because people are saying, this music that makes me feel good, here’s a physical manifestation of it. But print as a medium is dying in newspapers, magazines, things that require a lot of coordination, a lot of effort, and I want them to persist. So Printed Matters, Wild Supplies Last, I want people to value print, not just art prints, but print in general.
This one, which repeats itself there, also, what kind of bird is it? It’s called a red tanager, which was a very, very common bird in the United States, but its population is going down very fast. I like the color red, so I wanted to choose a bird that was a good symbol, but even though this is not a canary, everyone knows the phrase, the canary in the coal mine. So now the whole planet is the coal mine. So when it says, another day in the coal mine, you have these flowers and the bird, but how long we will get that is not sure. We can’t take it for granted. So the idea of another day in the coal mine is we’ve got the factories pumping out pollution, we’ve got the cars pumping out… Let’s think not just selfishly, let’s think about the future and future generations and what kind of planet we want to live on.