Art News: From Populist Art Hero to Plagiarising Hypocrite

You're a fucking thief

You're a fucking thief

When guerilla street artist Shepard Fairey produced the Obama Hope poster in 2008 it confirmed him in the eyes of the art world as a great new talent. The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl called the poster, “the most efficacious American political illustration since “Uncle Sam Wants You”.

The poster hooked into the growing wave of “Obamania” sweeping across the US and Fairey distributed 300,000 stickers and 500,000 posters during the US election campaign and, as a consequence, saw his poster and fine art sales go through the roof. As a final seal of approval he received a personal letter from Barack Obama endorsing his art…

I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can change the status-quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I am privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support

Hope someone's not nicking your workThe original was acquired by the US National Portrait Gallery, Time and Esquire featured the poster on their covers and GQ named him Person of the Year for 2008. His arrival seemed complete, his fortune and fame assured.

But there were occasional murmurs among the breathless gushing of the critics.

A number of lesser known critics were convinced that Fairey had plagiarised the work of others and failed to attribute it. Here’s a still from Michael Anderson’s 1958 film version of George Orwell’s 1984 next to Fairey’s “Big Brother is Watching You” posters.

Big Brother is Watching You - Then Copying You

Spot the difference?

Or how about comparing Fairey’s Nouveau Black with Koloman Moser’s illustration from a 1901 copy of magazine Ver Sacrum.

Koloman MoserShepard Fairey

Or perhaps looking at this photograph by Ruth-Marion Baruch who, with her husband Pirkle Jones, became the official photographers of the Black Panther Party in early 1968 and a street poster titled “Obey” by Fairey.

Black Panther

Seems fairly clear cut, right? Well no…

Shepard Fairey had, until this month, claimed his appropriation of others images and artwork was covered by fair use and his re-blending of them made them “art”. His definition only stretched as far as his own fair use however as, when a graphic designer called Baxter Orr used a Fairey image in his own artwork, Fairey sued, calling Orr a “parasite”. Until this month that is…

The image Fairey based his Obama “Hope” poster on was actually a copyrighted image taken by AP photographer Mannie Garcia in April 2006. Associated Press had made a claim for royalties but, instead of reaching a settlement, Fairey sued them. AP counterclaimed and this week Fairey has admitted in these court documents to having lied to the Judge about which image he used and to having destroyed evidence in the case.

The news came as something of a shock to his lawyers too, who have now withdrawn their services. But the case continues and, whilst Fairey’s lawyers are pulling out they still think he has a case, “We believe as strongly as ever in the fair use and free expression issues at the center of this case, and believe Shepard will prevail on those issues. We hope this unfortunate situation does not obscure those issues”.

We await developments with interest.

For an in depth critique of Fairey’s plagiarism see this article at Art-for-a-change.com which I have liberally plagiarised.


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6 Responses

  1. Wow, the second case of “Obama Art” and plagiarism within a week. That’s a cracking story — I can see the Black Panther simularity but the 1901 stuff is stretching it a little.

    • Whoops, too many gin and lime juices. I didn’t see that Fairey had plagiarised the 1901 style for another work.

  2. I’m on a mailing list for one of his websites and recieved his confession/apology. Well done on confessing I guess, but It’s a pity he lied to start with.

    As the owner of an artwork featuring Mickey Mouse that wasn’t produced by Disney, I’m mostly disappointed in Shepard Fairey because it detracts from the useful point he was trying to make about fair use (which presumably would have stopped him being able to sue anyone else for misappropriating his own images in the future?)

  3. […] Follow up #2: Art News: From Populist Art Hero to Plagiarising Hypocrite […]

  4. […] and fair use between the Press Association and Shepard Fairey back in October. The post is here – Art News: From Populist Hero to Plagiarising Hypocrite – but, in a nutshell, the Press Association ended up in a lawsuit with Fairey over whether he […]

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