Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.
Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).
One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.
Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.
People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.
His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.
One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.
Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.