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This famous artist is in the Charlotte area right now to paint two murals. Here’s why

·7 min read

It took experience for street artist Shepard Fairey to learn how much art can have an impact on real-world events.

Years ago, after Fairey added part of his “Andre the Giant has a Posse” imagery to a political billboard, his art got media exposure — as did the politician, Buddy Cianci, who went on to win the Providence, Rhode Island, mayoral race.

Was it because of Fairey’s art? Fairey will never know. But in the OBEY GIANT documentary now playing on Hulu, he said it taught him about the responsibility that comes along with creating public art.

He brings that experience with him as he embarks on his next two murals: In Old Town Rock Hill, and then at Queens University of Charlotte. Fairey flew from L.A. to Charlotte on Friday, Oct. 15.

Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse”
Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse”

Who is Shepard Fairey?

In addition to the “Andre the Giant has a Posse” sticker that transformed into the OBEY GIANT art campaign, Fairey is the artist perhaps best known for the 2008 ”Hope” portrait of Barack Obama.

In 2017, as part of a collaboration with Amplifier, he created the “We The People” series. “We The People” is a campaign that uses public art and storytelling to create a nonparisan dialogue about our country’s identity.

And in April 2020, our Charlotte-area community had big plans for Fairey — but the pandemic had other plans for us all.

“As I often am, I was a bit overly optimistic about ‘Oh, you know this project’s maybe going to be delayed by a couple months,’ ” Fairey told CharlotteFive on Thursday evening via Zoom. “Hey, better late than never.”

Artist Shepard Fairey poses for a picture with his Barack Obama Hope artwork in Los Angeles on Jan. 12, 2009.
Artist Shepard Fairey poses for a picture with his Barack Obama Hope artwork in Los Angeles on Jan. 12, 2009.

Why Fairey selected Charlotte

How did we get so lucky to have Fairey here in the Charlotte area? Well, this is a homecoming of sorts. Fairey has lived in L.A. for the past 21 years, but he grew up in Charleston.

He has family in Rock Hill (a cousin and an uncle). His mom and sister both went to Queens.

He’s got friends here — including Ben Visser of Rock Hill’s Social Design House (the company also designed Fairey’s website). Local artist Mike Wirth, a professor at Queens, was instrumental in making the Charlotte mural happen. His lead art assistant went to Winthrop University. One of his art mentors as a kid was Winthrop’s Chairman of the Art Department, Edmund Lewandowski, who Shepard called “an amazing painter.”

“There’s my personal history — and then my opportunity to create history for other people,” he said.

Here’s what to know about Fairey’s new murals:

Rock Hill mural

The Rock Hill mural is on White Street in Old Town as part of the city’s Mural Mile initiative. On Saturday afternoon as Fairey painted, several members of the community came out to watch. Some brought lawn chairs. One family had a picnic on a lawn across the street.

Here’s what to look for when you see the mural:

  • SEWING: “It’s got some references to Rock Hill’s industrial history. It’s got a reference to the textile industry with a sewing machine and it says ‘Eyes Open, Mind Open, Sew Forth And Create (you know, ‘Go forth and create’). I like the idea of people sewing an ever-expanding tapestry, writing the future, building a mosaic. There’s some cool creative metaphors connected to sewing.”

  • FREEDOM RIDERS: “There’s a train and it says ‘Freedom Rides into the future’, which is a subtle nod to the history with the Freedom Riders but also just the idea of creating a better future.”

  • COCA-COLA: “There’s a portrait of a woman’s profile sort of looking into the distance meditatively. There’s a peace dove, there’s a floral pattern, there’s a subversive twist on the Coca-Cola logo (because of the Coca-Cola bottling plant there).”

  • ‘RISE ABOVE’: “I love Andy Warhol, so the sort of pop art components that also deal with the history but there’s also some text that says ‘Rise Above.’ I think that a lot of our politics and social conversations have gotten really petty and I’d like people to think a little bit more about big picture, human dignity and things that we should be unified about,” Fairey said.

The managing partner for the mural building’s ownership, A.J. Klenk (also the owner of Rock Hill’s Old Town Kitchen & Cocktails and NoDa’s The Goodyear House), told CharlotteFive last year: “Shepherd’s mural will continue the celebration of all that is great about Rock Hill — past, current and future.”

The mural will take about two and half days to complete, Fairey said. It’s part of a partnership between the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation (using the Barre Mitchell Community Initiatives Fund), Catalyst Capital Partners/URS Capital Partners and the Women’s Art Initiative.

Street artist Shepard Fairey paints a mural in Old Town Rock Hill on Saturday, Oct. 16. Several community members came out to watch him paint. Some brought lawn chairs. One family had a picnic.
Street artist Shepard Fairey paints a mural in Old Town Rock Hill on Saturday, Oct. 16. Several community members came out to watch him paint. Some brought lawn chairs. One family had a picnic.

Charlotte mural

After Fairey finishes his Rock Hill piece, he will migrate to Queens. The mural will be on the campus’ Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for the Arts and Civic Engagement building. It is titled: “Embrace Justice”. Here’s what to look for when you see it:

  • ACTIVISM: It features an image of Winter Breeanne, a voting rights activist, projecting words including “The Future is Unwritten”, “Not To Be Served But To Serve”, “Stewardship” and “Integrity And Respect ... Creativity And Innovation”.

  • QUEENS PHILOSOPHY: Some of the verbiage belongs to Fairey and some of it is part of the Queens University philosophical statements. The mural will also have floral patterns, color blocking and decorative, abstract patterns.

  • A MESSAGE: “The V coming from her as an activist is sort of symbolic of ‘How do we conceive and then shape the world we want to live in?’” Fairey said.

“Embrace Justice” will take a couple of days to paint.

“My hope is that people are reminded to think about how they are part of shaping the future of culture of their friends circle, their town, the nation, the world,” he said.

“Sometimes I think that the tendency for people to feel like someone else is lecturing them or didactically telling them what to think and what to do can make people do the opposite. But I think that hopefully the tone of my mural is about intention and possibility — and it reminds people in a way of those things that is empowering, rather than irritating.”

People will ‘OBEY’ — unless you tell them to

The planning behind the message is not all that different from Fairey’s famous “OBEY” art. He has said he selected the word obey because it’s one thing that people will do the least consciously and the most subconsciously.

“A lot of the principles from the ‘OBEY’ project that a lot of people saw as more antagonistic or provocative were actually driven by my belief in people to — if they’re consciously processing things — make good choices. I think that the tone of what I’ve created for this mural is more positive, but where it’s coming from is very similar,” Fairey said.

Advice for new artists

Fairey got his start while working at a skateboard shop as an art student. Now that he is famous, we wanted to know if he had any advice for up-and-coming artists. “First, don’t give up. Second, learn how to live frugally. And be your own harshest and most honest critic, while understanding that what you’re doing is great personal therapy and only you know what you want to achieve,” he said.

“A lot of times, what will resonate with other people is hard to determine but if you build your own style, your own aesthetic that stands apart from other people, your day in the sun will come if you are tenacious.”

Experience Fairey’s work

Buy his art: Some of Fairey’s original art is for sale at the mural site in Old Town Rock Hill.

See him talk: Fairey is giving a student-led discussion at Queens University.

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