Shepard Fairey tags Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Over the past week, the blocks just behind the old Hudson’s site in downtown Detroit have morphed into a virtual “Shepardville.”

That would be Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the Obama “Hope” poster, who stenciled his trademark murals on a variety of sites around Library Street and Gratiot just east of Woodward.

The Los Angeles artist says he’s crazy about Detroit.

“Everyone here is so enthusiastic,” he says. “And in Detroit, street art isn’t seen as vandalism, but as an enhancement.” Fairey smiles. “It’s quite a reversal for me.”

Newly installed are a 184-foot-tall mural that takes up an entire wall on the east side of the Compuware building (now 1 Campus Martius), a large billboard towering over East Grand River, a nearby water tower with the artist’s trademark “Obey” logo, and several temporary murals of varying sizes along the newish art-alley known as The Belt.

There’s even a gallery show of Fairey’s smaller works at the Library Street Collective, up through Aug. 15.

Fairey, who finished the Compuware mural late last week, works with stencils and spray paint and a sharply restricted color palette, usually limited to red, black and tan. It’s a form of branding that that makes his work instantly recognizable.

The limit on colors was born of necessity, he says. “Years ago, I really got into screen printing and wanted to minimize how many color layers I had to deal with.” It’s a pragmatism that dovetails with what he calls his “reductive sensibility,” and an enviable talent for turning liabilities into assets.

Fairey’s designs have an amusing agit-prop quality to them and draw on a visual vocabulary that ranges from advertising kitsch to Art Deco to the sharp-edged look of Russian Constructivism.

Crowding his work are patriotic images, oil derricks, peace signs, flags, lotus flowers and his “Obey” logo — a scowling face, sometimes embedded in a star, that looks a lot like President Richard Nixon. These disparate elements are thrown together in mash-ups that comment on topics close to Fairey’s heart — climate change, state violence and government surveillance.

Speaking in The Belt on Thursday to a group of third- through eighth-graders from the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fairey, 45, says he was first drawn to working on the street as a way of “democratizing art — putting it where people can see it.”

But in the case of his Detroit pieces, there’s more than just art-for-the-people at work. Now in heavy demand, Fairey was brought to Detroit on commission by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services, the Library Street Collective and Meridian Health Plan.

One child wants to know whether Fairey’s fame has forced him to abandon street art, since he cannot count on the anonymity he once enjoyed.

“No,” he says. “I still go out. I’ve been arrested 17 times,” he says proudly, “including once last summer. But I’m more careful now because I have kids.”