With Barack Obama Posters Comes Fame

The artist who created the popular pictures of Obama didn't expect the notoriety.

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Fairey installing his Obama mural on the side of restaurant Marvin in Washington, D.C.

Street artist Shepard Fairey is used to telling people to obey, but asking people to vote—well, that's new territory for him. The California street artist, known for his "Obey" posters of Andre the Giant in the 1990s, is the man behind the most iconic campaign image of Obama this year—a distinguished, patriotic, color-block portrait of the senator above words like hope and progress that has appeared on posters and apparel since early this year. In the final stretch of the election, Fairey is exhibiting one of three limited-edition hand-collaged and hand-stenciled Obama paintings (originally commissioned for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons' charity, which auctioned off one) alongside other works at Washington gallery Irvine Contemporary's politically themed exhibit, "Regime Change Starts at Home." He's also hanging other Obama posters around the District of Columbia and crossing his fingers that his massive fundraising efforts haven't been for naught.

Our Maura Judkis caught up with him this week to talk about his post-Obama poster life, and he revealed that he had no idea the image would become an icon of the 2008 election. "There was a freshness and purity to Obama that is very rare in politics....That's what struck me about him," says Fairey. After selling an initial run of posters on his website for $45 (a huge underestimate, as they now regularly sell for thousands on eBay), Fairey tentatively offered the image to the campaign. "I didn't want to be a liability," says Fairey. "An association with a street artist who's been arrested a couple of times and who has made art critical of what the government's doing in Iraq might be seen as not a positive association for Obama." Nevertheless, the campaign accepted it. Between Fairey's own donations and the money raised from sales of his posters, T-shirts, and buttons, his work has collected more than $700,000 for the campaign.

Other politicians who have been the subject of Fairey's art have not been given as flattering a treatment. Posters of George W. Bush from the 2004 election depict the president as Hitler or as a vampire, and a poster of Nixon is reminiscent of images from communist China. But if the Republicans win, you won't be seeing any scary posters of John McCain. Fairey says he's trying to avoid negativity. "The reason I made the Bush images was that the world was on crazy pills, and I felt I needed to be critical of Bush because some 'Emperor's New Clothes' thing was going on," he says. "Now, people are ready for something that's positive."

Fairey adds that "I'm not going to rest until [the election] is over." Once that happens, he'll go after the bootleggers who have hijacked his style to make copycat images of Obama or McCain. He hopes to make the bootleggers donate some of their profits to the ACLU. However, said Fairey, "if Obama wins, all's forgiven."

Photo courtesy of Martin Irvine.

Corrected on 10/24/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Shepard Fairey image and who commissioned the work. The image of Obama is a hand-stenciled and hand-collaged painting and was originally commissioned for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons' charity.