A black-and-white border rocking an enigmatic cult icon under, above, or alongside bold lettering. If Shepard Fairey didn’t kickstart the contemporary poster renaissance, he certainly established a few molds that have been followed, appropriated, mocked, and straight-up stolen while the artist himself has moved on to worldwide fame, an endless string of promotional deals, outlets in all media, and no doubt a lot of scratch. It didn’t take long before everyone’s mom seemed to have their own posse, among other fringe characters, fame seekers, and subversive jokers with a penchant for fucking up city property.
(Image by Aiko)
Fairey has seemingly always been straight-forward about appropriating imagery, telling TACO that every time he does, it’s both on purpose and meant to be recognizable as such. We certainly know his army of Andre the Giants, Misfits skulls, Subcomandantes, Malcoms, and Assatas were self-aware tributes that recontextualized and subverted known imagery rather then creating wholly new icons. Like many fans of creative vandalism, we admire Shepard and have been stoked on his success and what it means for the hundreds of other artists who are coming up.
Staring at the online invitation TACO received for Fairey’s show opening this past Friday at New York’s Jonathan Levine Gallery, I couldn’t believe the image looking right back at me, though I must have seen at it the Charity By Numbers Show…a small girl holding a grenade very much in the style of Aiko, with a flower sprouting from its top. New Yorkers might not have caught this, but anyone with a middling interest in Los Angeles street art would recognize the grenade/flower juxtaposition from the work of our friend 2-Cents, whose black-and-white grenades with flowers sprouting from their tops have covered boxes, billboards, and marquees from the sea to Downtown, and are even sold by MOCA stores around Los Angeles.
What happens when an artist much more famous than you is inspired by the same idea, and all your hard work gets attributed to someone else? Contacting 2-Cents in the same week we’d discussed the unlicensed use of his grenade vase poster on Colin Hay’s recent album, 2-Cents said about the internationally-circulated Fairey image, “I don’t know what to do about it. I may have overreacted a bit with some of my posts I did concerning the matter. But on the other hand, I feel that people needed to know what was happening. It kinda got to the point where I had to say something. People that follow my work know that my main iconic image is the grenade vase. That is what I’ve been bombing around L.A. for the last two years. I sell my grenade vase print alongside Shepard’s work at Los Angeles MOCA Stores. In Santa Monica, my print is literally hanging on the wall right next to his Andre print in the MOCA Store. It just kinda sucks for me ‘cuz it takes some wind out of my sails.”
From top: Banksy, the original photograph, Bast. More on this particular image here.
A lot of things flashed through my mind as I considered 2-Cents’ words. In a genre where we borrow and are inspired liberally by one another, how damaging can it be to a young artist’s career when their work is recycled, knowingly or not, by someone with worldwide fame? Though there be nothing new under the sun, something about 2-Cents work is arresting and fresh to those who come across it– will the effect be dulled once Fairey’s huge show gains momentum?
Which leads us to the big man himself…
Shep’s big profile in the recent weekend events section of the Los Angeles Times had been followed by a letter of complaint by a man whose published photo of Chinese soldiers found their way onto an appropriated image on Fairey’s wheatpasted walls at Echo Park’s Brooklyn Projects. For his part, Fairey says that the image he used was a well known picture from a newspaper and that he consciously used it because it is an iconic image, something he’s done consistently since he was a student at RISD.
When asked about Aiko, 2-Cents, and the grenade, Fairey expressed frustration, saying he has seen the image around town, but in no way meant to copy or appropriate it. Walking TACO through the creative process, he said he was one of the last people to get a paint-by-numbers canvas, and when he did, he chose the little girl, as it was clearly something that could be subverted in a fun way.
Originally thinking of the famous television ad with the little girl, the flower, and the mushroom cloud, he decided to go with a grenade to add something subversive that would fit into the frame and have an impact. “I’ve been sticking flowers in gun and weapons and putting it up on the street since 1996,” Fairey says, “and that idea is part of the culture’s common language ever since hippies stuck flowers’ in soldiers’ guns during Vietnam War protests.” Shep went on to say that when he first saw 2-Cents and Project Rabbit’s stuff up on the street, among others, he never thought “oh, biters” because of some similarities to his stuff, instead he found it cool.
Asked for his thoughts on Shepard, 2-Cents considerately replied, “I don’t want to attack Shep. He has definitely inspired almost everybody that does street art. I was just upset that when he releases the print with the grenade, he automatically has a worldwide audience that will assume that I’m the one biting his style. I’m always going to be putting the image up as it has a deep personal meaning to me. This is also a sign that it is time to move on and start putting up my new designs.”
Fairey can appreciate that, saying “my job as an artist is to keep coming up with fresh stuff. Those artists with talent and a unique voice will succeed, all of our work evolves over time…”
We naturally wish Shep success with his show and continued inspiration and respect for 2-Cents to keep stunning our city with his work. Certainly, there are no easy answers in these situations but to keep on grinding, hitting the city with shit, and keeping ideas as original as possible and giving credit where it is due.
Picasso was known to say ‘good artists copy, great artists steal,” (a quote seemingly stolen from TS Eliot.) Eliot added to his quote, “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling that is unique, utterly different than that from which its torn.” Ha, but I just stole that whole set-up from another article anyway. Suckers!