Shepard Fairey On The Political & Physical Reaction To His Art
In this article, the artists explains the work he did in Copenhagen and why it's wrong to connect it to the local authorities there.
Republished with kind permission from Shepard Fairey.
In late July, I began a gallery project and series of street murals in Copenhagen. On Aug. 1, POLITIKEN newspaper published an inaccurate story reporting that I was commissioned and paid by the city of Copenhagen to execute the mural they featured in their article. The mural location in question had a controversial history of clash between the city and the supporters and inhabitants of the Youth House formerly located there. In spite of efforts by myself, my gallery, and the Youth House, to correct the record, media outlets continued to perpetuate the misconception that I had been hired or at least prompted by the city to create my mural at the former Youth House location. An unfortunate chain reaction of events took place that I believe may have been, at least in part, catalyzed by media misinformation that continues to circulate. Below is my attempt to thoroughly illuminate my experience in Copenhagen.
Most of my Copenhagen experience was peace and love. Here I’ll cover the aspects that weren’t peace and love.
As a preface, I should mention that, being a street artist, I am very well aware of the contentious nature of the street art/graffiti world. I think street art is one of the most democratic, accessible, empowering, and inspiring art forms there is. To be a street artist, you don’t need permission, just courage and motivation. Street art also is an outlet for the most competitive, frustrated, anarchic, and sometimes, downright barbarically hostile people. These traits may be prominent in the street art/graff community, but certainly are not relegated to it.
I grew up in skateboarding and punk rock, which are both incredibly creative, but can also be macho and aggressive. I accept that there are all different kinds of people, good and bad, in the world, and that each of us has good and bad within us. That concept was the premise of my “Duality of Humanity” art show and series of works. I sympathize with the struggles of humanity. I consistently create art for, and financially support causes fighting injustice. I understand frustration with “the system” and the challenges of life in general, but I never see justification for fighting injustice by perpetuating more injustice. I also see the role of the media as a source of (accurate) information, and thoughtful analysis, deconstructing the variables behind complex situations, not as the CREATOR of contentious situations. I’ll address this further after some context.
After a great trip there in 2004, I went to Copenhagen with nothing but the highest regard for the city and its inhabitants (and that remains). I view myself as an American by birth, but as a world citizen by choice. Traveling the globe has given me greater perspective on how relatively fortunate we are in America, as imperfect as it is. Traveling has also given me perspective on how the U.S. is perceived globally (mostly as redneck imperialists). Just as I’m opposed to U.S. xenophobia and insensitivity to the rest of the world, I’m opposed to xenophobia toward Americans from the rest of the world. Saying all Americans are imperialists is like saying all Arabs are terrorists.
In Copenhagen, one of my seven murals was attacked a couple of times, and Romeo Trinidad and I were attacked by four young adults after the art opening after-party. I can’t say exactly what the motivations were for some of the people’s behavior in Copenhagen, but I have a few theories.
Before going to Copenhagen I spoke with my friends at the V1 gallery about doing some ambitious outdoor art in addition to the gallery show.
Incidentally, one of the spots where I put a large poster in 2004 was the 69 Youth House/Punk House (at the epicenter of the controversy on this trip) where it remained untouched until the weather got to it 6 months later. V1 diligently reached out to property owners and art advocates to find prime locations for murals in Copenhagen. Several great privately owned spaces were offered, and the city council even offered a city square wall usually adorned with advertising posters. They additionally offered to pay for the materials I used there. The gallery and I saw this as a coup of the highest order and a victory of art over advertising. We even discussed that it might lead to a more art friendly attitude by the city.
Anyway, another seemingly unrelated location I was offered was a wall directly next to where the former 69 Youth House (I was informed that the Youth House been since torn down). It was a great, almost 70-foot high wall, and with my connection to punk culture and my history with art at the location, it seemed like a great wall. I was asked to submit a design for approval by the building owner, so I decided to keep the image true to my beliefs, but uncontroversial (so I thought) and presented a Peace Dove in target concept.
It was approved by the owners and was the first project I started when I arrived in Copenhagen. As the crew and I worked, we were approached by friendly, curious people who gave nothing but positive feedback. I also began to hear a little more from locals about how distressing it was when the city evicted the Youth House dwellers, and sold it to a Christian sect that had it demolished. It now sat as an empty lot where there used to be a thriving hub of creative and communal, free-spirited culture. I thought to myself “what a shame, I hope I can do something that is a symbolically positive transformation.”
On the second day of work, I was interviewed by the local paper and explained my history with the location and expressed that the mural was about global peace and my opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mikkel from V1 was also interviewed, and his explanation of all my projects included the city square, and the city’s support for that. Somehow, the resulting newspaper article stated that I had been commissioned and paid by the city to do all the murals, including the 69 Youth House wall. That was not true.
I don’t want to sound paranoid, but I have a feeling that the newspaper knew it would be a more dramatic and controversial story if it appeared that I was collaborating with the very forces who had evicted the Youth House dwellers in 2007 to create a placating propaganda piece. In fact, I found out that the Youth House slogan in the wake of the eviction and demolition is “not forgotten, not forgiven.” Advocating peace is not exactly the same as saying “forgive,” but I see how it could be perceived that way.
After the mural was complete, nothing happened to it the first two days, but the initial sign of controversy arose when an antagonistic blogger yelled at me while on a ladder when I was working on the AK-47/M-16 mural. He asked “what do you think about people wanting to throw paint on your mural because it is disrespectful to the 69 Youth House?”
I replied “How is a mural advocating global peace inflammatory”? He grumbled something about local politics and took off. The next day the mural was hit with a couple paint bombs and graffiti saying “No peace, go home Yankee hipster.”
Though I was flattered by the acknowledgement of my incredible fashion sense bordering on annoying obsession, I was puzzled by the negativity. Then I found out what the newspaper article had written about me, basically positioning me as a pawn of local government propaganda. I asked the gallery to please correct the record on that subject with the media, and I decided to go back and fix the mural as soon as I could. Persistence has been crucial to my accomplishments, and though I can’t control other people’s actions, I can try to make things the way I think they should be, which in this case meant restoring the mural.
While restoring the mural, many people walked up and apologized for the attack on the mural and thanked me for restoring it. However, at one point a tall gentleman started yelling at us that it would just be attacked again along with some other insults. I decided I’d like to talk to him about it and walked over. The conversation was heated, but I stayed calm and made my case for the work while debunking the theory that I was paid to do it by the city or that it was “an ad” for my commercial art show (even though it did not contain the word Obey).
I got a passionate ear full about the history of the Youth House, which I listened to very sympathetically. I explained that my intention was to honor, not disrespect the history of the house, that I was very sympathetic to the injustice, and that punk rock and progressive politics made me who I am. Coincidentally, one of the main organizers of the Youth House, which has a new location, was walking by and joined in the conversation. We decided to sit down at a cafe and talk about a constructive way to move forward collaboratively with the wall. My feeling was that a solution that kept the original message intact, but reflected the legacy and creativity of the Youth House would be the way to go.
I gave the Youth House free reign to conceive art for the lower third of the mural, and a press release was drafted by all of us to reflect our cooperation moving forward, as well as dispel the misinformation that I was commissioned by the city to do the mural in the first place.
The Youth House folks said they’d brainstorm with some of their artists about a fitting evolution of the mural. It seemed as though diplomacy and dialogue had triumphed, and after a couple more days of murals, it was time to savor all the hard street work, and enjoy the art opening itself.
The opening was incredibly positive, and the after-party was a blast. A punk band played, Romeo Trinidad from Obey Clothing and I DJ’ed, and Trentemøller played an awesome set. However, on the way out, a kid, maybe 19 or 20 started yelling at me “Obama illuminati, fuck you, go back to America.” It was more obnoxious than intimidating, so I stopped to talk to him. I unthreateningly asked him why he was saying that stuff to me, and what his problem with me was. He just said “YOU HAVE THE PROBLEM” and did the chest shove every visitor to a playground has experienced.
Then as he raised his fists, I was clocked from the side by someone I never saw. The next thing you know, I’m being attacked by at least three guys and Romeo jumps in to help me. It was crowded, and people tried to pull everyone apart, which somehow left Romeo being ganged up on by a couple guys, so I had to jump back in to help him, while I was being punched and kneed by people behind me.
They quickly ran off, and it seemed that things were over except for my wife freaking out across the parking lot. I was wrong, somehow the attackers had snuck back through the crowd and I caught a punch in the eye out of nowhere as I turned to see Romeo pushed against a wall being punched and kneed. I tried to help him again, and after brief retaliation the attackers fled again.
They did not come back this time. After collecting my breath and DJ equipment, the cops showed up, and I reflected on the fact that this was an ambush, not a random act.
I did not bother filling out a police report because I did not know any of the people, or get a great look at them, so it seemed pointless. The only thing I could see coming out of it was further media commentary like “not-so-street artist whiner Shepard Fairey can’t hold it down in a fight so he snitches to the cops,” or something along those lines.
I’m really only addressing the whole incident now, because though it may not have been provoked by the misinformation in the media, people looking for trouble don’t need a lot of rational justification for being violent. I don’t think the attackers had any connection to the Youth House other than using the story as an excuse to attack me.
I’m not blaming the media for the attack, it may have happened anyway, but even after the record was corrected in the V1/Youth House press release, none of the media outlets corrected the misinformation that was part of the original narrative they jumped on so quickly and continued to perpetuate. I saw an article about the attack a couple of days ago that continued to state that I was paid by the city to do the 69 mural.
Even the Guardian, a paper I respect, and who I spoke with directly and VERY CLEARLY chose to print:
Fairey’s installation, painted on a building adjacent to the vacant site, depicted a dove in flight above the word “peace” and the figure “69″. But the mural appeared to reopen old wounds, with critics accusing Fairey of peddling government-funded propaganda.”The city council is using the painting – directly or indirectly – to decorate the crater-like lot at Jagtvej 69,” said local activist Eskil Andreas Halberg in a letter to Modkraft, a leftwing news website. “The art is being used politically to end the conflict in a certain way: ‘we’re all friends now, right?'”
The writer I spoke to, Dominic Rushe, knew that it wasn’t true that I did that mural collaborating with the city, yet printed it anyway prior to printing my statement.
The media excuse for this kind of misleading writing is to justify it by saying “we were quoting what someone truly said,” so it’s not untrue. A fact, yes; the truth, no. All the writer had to do was call the City of Copenhagen and ask if they commissioned or funded the 69 Youth House mural.
I wish the public demanded a higher standard of reporting, but basically the media is supplying the public’s tabloid mentality demand.
The day after the attack, I met up at the 69 wall with some of the artists from the Youth House, a very talented collective called RaxArt, and they showed me a sketch of what they proposed. It was a powerful scene of hostile riot police like those who had evicted the Youth House dwellers and it incorporated one of the paint bombs on the mural as if it had been thrown by a riot cop.
I thought it was a brilliant solution reflecting the history of the site and keeping my pro-peace message intact, but adding additional emphasis to the idea that peace is always facing attack from injustice, a concept that I felt was already more subtly implied by placing the dove in a target.
Their painting turned out beautifully after two days working night and day. I was very pleased that a dialogue had resulted in such a powerful creative collaboration.
Here is what the RaxArt guys had to say:
Jagtvej 69 functioned as a “house for the youth” since 1982, until the government sold it to a radical Christian sect, wic