Fairey: Obey, Orr: Protect

Shepard Fairey’s retrospective at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Arts is sponsored by Levi’s® Brand because, says Robert Cameron, vice president of marketing for the Levi’s® brand:

Levi’s® collaboration with Shepard Fairey is the perfect fit. As original as Levi’s® jeans, Fairey is a groundbreaking innovator who has fast become a cultural icon.

 To further the concept, Fairey and Levi’s® have renamed rebranded International Workers Day:

Fairey will be collaborating with Levi’s® on a limited edition piece that will be unveiled on May 1, also known as "501® Day." 

Fairey is lightning rod for controversy–and not just from cops who arrest him for graffiti or from the Associated Press over his appropriation of Mannie Garcia’s photograph of Obama, which Fairey claims is "fair use" and constitutionally protected. 

Fairey has "appropriated" images before and simply added his "Obey Giant" logo. Some notable examples include images from the Vienna Secessionist movement, Cuban artist Rene Mederos (Fairey paid a settlement in that instance), the Black Panthers, White Panthers, and Industrial Workers of World artist Ralph Bingo Chaplin. No reference to the origins of the art is made when Faiey repurposes them.

An argument could be made that if you know your art history you’ll get the references. Another argument is that he is using leftist images for capitalist ends, and thusly destroying and undermining part of the history of the movement. Counter-argument: Fairey’s art allows those interested the opportunity to learn through art.

Fairey is no stranger to fair use controversy. Last year he sent a cease and desist letter to Austin artist Baxter Orr  who had created and marketed a parody (which falls under fair use) of  Fairey’s "Obey" entitled "Protect." Fairey did in fact try to protect his "Obey Giant" image (which he himself had to rename  when the World Wrestling Foundation claimed copyright infringement over the name "Andre the Giant," –Andre the Giant was an early wrestling celebrity whose image and name are owned by WWF). At the tie Orr commented:

It’s ridiculous for someone who built their empire on appropriating other people’s images," he said. "Obey Giant has become like Tide and Coca-Cola.

Brian Sherwin, the editor of myartspace.com wrote:

My opinion is that Baxter Orr was working well within the realm of fair use– or trademark fair use– when he created, distributed, and sold ‘Protect’. In other words, his image was “fair use” under both copyright and trademark law as far as I‘m concerned…Baxter Orr simply made a parody of a world renowned image which reflected the very intention of fair use…Viewers made the connection between the two images– there was a visual dialogue going on.

When it comes to Fairey’s use of leftist art–much unknown to the average person–then Sherwin’s comments on repurposing become even more valid and on-point:

Orr did not try to conceal the artist of the base image, so to speak. He did not hide the fact that he had used Fairey’s Obey Giant image. In other words, Baxter Orr did not claim that it was a random image that he found online or anything of that nature. He did not try to promote it as work by Shepard Fairey either.

 Meanwhile, start saving your ducats to buy those limited edition Levi’s® 501®Day goods. Consumers of the world unite, because you work for the right to buy. Obey!

And for comparison purposes, here’s Chaplin’s IWW art, and Fairey’s version. Is he taking art off the workers’ backs, or putting it back into our consciousness?


Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.