Sometimes Instagram is great. I had followed the IG account of an arts foundation not too long ago and found out a week before the event that Shepard Fairey was in town for an exhibition! Hoping to meet the artist himself and see his work, I anxiously emailed the organisers and was lucky enough to have dinner with the OBEY team and be part of the launch of Fairey's 'Visual Disobedience' exhibition in Hong Kong.
Shepard Fairey is an American contemporary street artist, graphic designer, activist, illustrator and founder of OBEY Clothing who emerged from the skateboarding scene. He first became known for his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" OBEY sticker campaign. He became widely known during the 2008 U.S. presidential election for his Barack Obama "Hope" poster. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston calls him one of today's best known and most influential street artists. His work is included in the collections at The Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Not only was his work beautifully curated and presented on a museum-quality level, I was absolutely stunned at the sheer quantity and body of work. Also, I managed to speak briefly with him and he was incredibly humble and generous with his time. We spoke briefly about the Presidential election and how he felt about the anger and divisiveness in America. We agreed that the anger and hate momentum built by Trump wasn't something that was sustainable but questioned really how politics had allowed such a man to go so far in the election.
It's strange that during art classes at school, I never had the chance to fully explore street art as a medium. Meeting Fairey and experiencing his work in real life made me think a little deeper about the essence of street art and try and comment on it as a genre of art (although I believe it might not or perhaps should not be possible).
Fairey sees street art as a valuable medium that allows a more inclusive conversation. According to the artist, "Street art, because it's an active defiance when it's done without permission, is political, even if the content isn't political." “The message is you don’t have to conform. You can do something without permission, you can say what you want to say, you can find your voice.”
“Being able to survive doing art on your own terms is a tremendous success,” he says. “And people find different ways to do that. But what’s special about art is it’s one of the very rare places where someone gets to fulfil their unique vision without having to adhere to anyone else’s rules."
On street art in general - "the authenticity, the site specificity and the (usually) one-off nature of street art" might "serve as an antidote to the super-abundance of online images and to streets that are often cluttered with mass-produced commercial imagery" - Richard Clay, professor of digital humanities at Newcastle University.
"In some cases a photo of a piece of street art online can simply be picked up and adopted in another place. For example, during the Arab Spring, images of Assad with a Hitler moustache appeared online and could soon be seen in Cairo, Beirut and Gaza.
"The ready availability of examples of street art from across the globe informs the practice of artists and the views of their audiences."
A study from the University of Warwick indicates that street art in London is generally now associated with improving economic conditions of urban neighbourhoods. It's partly down to a "loop effect". Arty areas - such as Brixton - attract more cafes and restaurants that in turn attract the art-loving crowd to move in.
Artist Scotty Brave points out there has always been graffiti that was thought-provoking, political and clever. "Modern times have seen graffiti become many different things. Vandalism, art, politics, subcultural visual communication, cryptic language, esoteric social commentary, street art. Even a visual form of humour.
"So when you talk about graffiti, you are talking about all these things. All these things are different, their practitioners are different. Their motives are different, their methods, reasons, approach and application are all different veins of the rebellious act of graffiti.
"Has it lost its power? Of course not, no way, how can it? What power did it ever have?
"The power is in the perception, it's generated by the observer. It can lose power if it allows itself to be generalised, to be boxed, to be spoken of as if it's understood, contained, conquered by those who attempt to categorise, water down and generalise it."
During the dinner, Shepard said a foundation of his work is accessibility. It's about pushing art out there and allowing art to be part of the culture and part of the conversation.