Shepard Fairey: How I’m Taking on Abuse of Power and Political Corruption in ‘On Our Hands’

My first New York art exhibition in five years, ‘On Our Hands,’ tackles our failed Democracy and corporate greed. Here are the stories behind the artworks.

My biggest concern as a father, artist, and citizen is corruption and abuse of power. Democracy is failing because the influence of corporations means that the average person’s needs are a much lower priority than that of major corporations, or oil and gas companies and their special interests. On Our Hands is my way of addressing these challenges and hopefully creating work that is compelling enough to inspire people to look at an issue they may not otherwise have cared about. It’s definitely not an easy approach, but it was important to me to urge people to see the critical need for campaign finance reform and the restoration of our political structure.

My pieces have become richer and more nuanced with this show, as I’ve put more time into the depth of each image—giving character to the surface and creating additional narrative elements. I still use bold primary imagery but I also incorporate a lot of subtleties in layers of collage, stenciling, and brushwork.

The paintings in the show are mixed media pieces that incorporate a collage of found elements as well as elements I create with screen printing, stenciling with spray paint, and traditional painting. The sculptures add conceptually and literally to the dimension of the work.

By the way, On Our Hands is my first solo exhibition of paintings in New York since 2010 and is on view now at the Jacob Lewis Gallery until Oct. 24. Concurrently I also have my newest print editions with Pace Prints on view one floor below the gallery. Next week my monograph, Covert to Overt: The Under/Overground Art of Shepard Fairey, will be out through Rizzoli.

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This piece is a comment on the elite status and immense power of the oil and gas industries. They are subsidized by the taxpayers yet make no contribution to cleaning up the environmental damage from which they profit handsomely. In essence, the entire industry gives the middle finger to the rest of us from their cozy perch. This piece fits into the theme and title of the show because corporations have many middle fingers “on their hands."

Corporate Welfare

This piece is a comment on corporate subsidy. While average Americans struggle to make ends meet, many profitable industries and corporations receive tax breaks and subsidies. This is due to the dangerously disproportionate influence corporations have on politics and policy. Too much power under the current campaign finance structure yields the ability for corporations to manipulate politics. A lot of people freaked out that the Obama administration lost taxpayers about $535 million by investing in Solyndra, a solar panel company developing new technology, which went bankrupt. However, few people seem upset that the U.S. government gives approximately $70 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to the highly profitable oil and gas industries.

Decoding Disinformation

This piece is inspired by the concept of Big Brother generally, but more specifically the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden leaks that revealed just how extensive the government surveillance programs are and how much covert activity average citizens might not be aware of. Even though modern technology allows for digital encryption and other ways of concealing secret activity, I thought the concept of paper shredding to hide evidence was more tactile and visually compelling. In this piece, the image is actually cut into individual paper strips that are painstakingly glued back down—like reassembling a shredded document. This is one of the more time-consuming pieces in the show. The idea of decoding disinformation is a reminder that what we are told may not be the truth, or at least the whole story.

Earth Crisis

In my imagery I frequently use symbols that have broad recognition but filtered through my style and concept. Earth Crisis is very simple but it uses symbols in the eye, the tear, and the Earth that I think most people respond to—especially if they are rendered powerfully. From an aesthetic standpoint, my biggest inspiration for this piece was the minimal elegance of the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover. Sometimes, less is more to attract the viewers’ attention and make an image memorable, but the image can lead to a conversation with much greater depth. I’m concerned about the future of the planet. My political stance on protecting the planet is driven by my concern for the quality of life for future generations, not by any personal financial benefit. When you look at the true motives of those who deny climate change, they are transparent in their greed or their political benefit in aligning themselves with certain corporate donors. The correlation between Carbon emissions and climate change is virtually unanimous in the scientific community.

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My Florist is a Dick

I’ve been making work designed to question authority and abuse of power for my entire career, including pieces about police brutality. With the number of deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police in the last year, combined with the militaristic and brutal response to ensuing protests, I felt it was time to make another image about police brutality. The skull behind the riot mask is a reference to the aliens from John Carpenter’s They Live, which was the movie that inspired the use of “OBEY” in my work. The use of the flower and the “My Florist is a Dick” tagline are a way to bring both humor and contrast to the piece… most people would be surprised if their florist was sadistic, but it should not be so surprising when those who are drunk with power are sadistic, reminding us that checks and balances for power are essential.

Natural Springs

The woman in the Natural Springs art piece represents an idealistic younger person exhibiting righteous frustration over the environmental destruction perpetuated by fossil fuels. The title Natural Springs is a humorous play on the names of organizations like Americans for Prosperity that have pleasant-sounding names but cause harm to most and only benefit the elite. The propaganda campaigns by fossil fuel corporations to downplay their degradation of the environment and quality of life for average people require remarkable linguistic creativity.

Oil & Gas Handbook

I collect a lot of vintage books because I love the type, design and illustration that demonstrate a dedication to craft in the pre-digital era. I also collect vintage-bound newspaper volumes because they have stories about the current events of the time that can make great collage elements in my art pieces. War, greed, union busting, corruption, etc. are recurring themes throughout the last 100 years. These materials can be useful in my pieces to demonstrate that these are perennial problems. I stumbled upon a book featuring coal and gas hardware that gave me the idea to cut the pages out and place a gas nozzle in the book the way a gangster would hide a gun in a bookshelf. It struck me that when the book was published people were not yet aware of the environmental hazards or finite nature of fossil fuels, so I played on the notion of “endless power” that at the time meant the resources were inexhaustible but now means that the fossil fuel industry has such a disproportionate degree of power financially that it is relatively endless.

Pay Up or Shut UP

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and freedom of expression but this piece is about the speech that is based on the freedom not to speak but more to spend, and the way that speech based on money renders those without money mute. We must fight the greed of the powerful and restore the basic fairness of our society and our democracy. The most crucial step in fighting against political corruption and forcing politicians to get back to creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people is to reform our current campaign finance structure. This piece is specifically making fun of the idea pushed by Citizens United that money is speech, and that the only speech listened to is the speech with big money behind it.

Universal Personhood (3)

Since Islamophobia ratcheted up post-9/11 and the Iraq War started, I’ve made images to remind people that Arabs and Muslims deserve the same human rights as everyone else and should not be viewed with irrational suspicion. When I look at humanity in general, I think most people want to live their lives in peace. I frequently refer to the Dalai Lama when he asks, “When human beings have so much more in common, why do we focus on our differences?” I named this series Universal Personhood because I read an article saying that Egypt had officially declared women to have equal personhood to men. In many countries Arab or otherwise, women are not treated as equals, but when you add the bias against Muslims from the West, I think that Arab and Muslim women face many challenges to reaching universal personhood. These paintings are a celebration of feminine strength and humanity—something I’ve grown to appreciate much more as a father with two daughters now.

Water is the New Black

Starting with a collaboration I did with the Surfrider Foundation in 2009 and continuing with my response to the BP spill in the Gulf in 2010, I’ve made several images of waves and water threatened by or contaminated by oil spills. This piece was largely inspired by the very visible oil platforms off the coast of Santa Barbara, as well as the recent oil spill there. The contrast between the beauty of the coastline and the oil platform that is a symbol of the threat to that coastline is a provocative way for me to indulge my love of beautiful subject matter and a symbol of the threat to the environment. Much in the same way I find the rhythm of waves and the ocean mesmerizing, the process of illustrating the ripples and curves of the water is rhythmic and therapeutic. Unlike climate change, which many people deny because you can’t see it in front of your face, it is hard to refute the destruction that an oil spill brings. I have donated proceeds from almost all of my wave images to the NRDC to help them push legislation that protects the environment from reckless corporations. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry has very deep pockets and is difficult to fight.