Even Shepard Fairey’s assistants are appropriated. It’s 1 p.m. and 80 degrees on December 2 in Miami, where Fairey’s installing an 80-foot-long mural as part of the events swirling around Art Basel, with some help from a skate-punk nicknamed Baby, whose real name is Spencer Elden. Baby played the aquatic infant chasing a buck on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
When I arrive, Fairey, 39, is dangling off a ladder, trying to shade one corner of the mural with red spray paint. The piece is made up of his signature red-and-black color palette, which he adopted when he was broke and figured out how to use a paper clip to rig the machines at Kinko’s, which have only red or black toner cartridges, to get free copies. “The wind is blowing the red in the wrong direction,” he yells, then jumps down and ushers me inside a whitewashed warehouse behind the mural, where a couple unrelated to his team is in the corner passing a joint back and forth.
Fairey gained notoriety with his street art—especially the Obey stencils, an icon that finds its way even to this Miami mural on the subject of human-rights violations in Burma. But he got very famous for his Obama Hope poster, which ended up in the National Portrait Gallery and also in court, where the Associated Press is suing him for copyright infringement over the source photo he used. Then Fairey dug himself in even deeper, first saying the photo the AP said he used wasn’t the right one and then destroying evidence to try to hide the fact that it was. “There were two images from the same photo shoot, and I thought that one was a crop of the other,” Fairey explains. “When I realized I made a mistake I tried to cover it up.” Why? “It was embarrassment more than anything. But I should never have tried to cover it up, and I regret that more than anything in my life.” Nonetheless, he thinks Hope “passed the test of fair use on every criteria.” And no matter what happens, things are working out okay: His notoriety helped his advertising and graphic-design business take off, and last year, big-shot gallerist Jeffrey Deitch (whom he first approached back in 2003, to no avail) signed him up and coordinated this Miami jaunt.
Fairey has been arrested fifteen times, and seems to be struggling with his defiance and his career-mindedness. “Since the lawsuit started, I’ve been very careful” about appropriation, he says. “I collaborate with photographers, or licensed photographs, or shoot my own photographs and use friends and family as models.” Plus, he notes, he’s “a very capable illustrator.”
He gets a text message. “Ha!” he says, reading. “Val Kilmer’s going to come to this dinner I’m hosting with Russell Simmons tonight at the Mondrian.” (Fairey also D.J.-ed that night.) He’s eager to get back to L.A., to do more art for his Deitch show. Is he nervous? “Nobody’s going to even look at the art. They’re going to be like, ‘Is that photo cleared?!’ ”