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Shepard Fairey on free speech, Trump, truth – and ten years of Delayed Gratification

‘Lotus Angel’, 2020 © Shepard Fairey

Art by Shepard Fairey

It’s been ten years since you created the first cover for Delayed Gratification, which made such a difference in raising awareness of the magazine when we launched. So I wanted to start by saying thank you.
My pleasure. When we talked back in 2010 we shared the sentiment that print is really important and that I value it, you value it. It made sense for us to come together on that, and I’m glad Delayed Gratification is still going. I always try to project optimism because I think that keeping people’s spirits up is important, but I really didn’t have high hopes for the viability of your project! It’s a very tough business, and so congratulations.

What can you tell me about ‘Lotus Angel’, our cover image for DG #40?
I created that right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as a symbol of hope. The angel is about the positive side of human nature and the lotus is a beautiful flower that grows from the mud. So the marriage of those two things was about hope and perseverance and growth.

All the proceeds from sales of the print are going to help people whose livelihoods were compromised by Covid-19. How important is it for you to give something back?
The beginning of Covid was, on the whole, a really nice time for me in that it forced me to slow down. That was bundled with the guilt of knowing a lot of other people were facing major crises. But then I thought: “Well, with my less demanding schedule I can actually apply some of my time to supporting people who are struggling, so that’s a way to balance it out.”

Shepard Fairey at work © Shepard Fairey

It’s especially important now because there are places which are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Venues, restaurants, bars, they’re in a real bind. I want those things to be available and healthy when the world returns to something more normal, so I need to support them now. I guess you could say it’s not me being charitable; it’s actually me being selfish because I want those things there in my life.

It’s been an eventful time in the US with the election and the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the pandemic – how has your experience of the last few months been?
I’m really lucky that even with challenging subject matters I can find joy and therapy in trying to confront them. Art, making pictures, is always joyful. I’m working on a lot of art that’s about climate change, voting and racial injustice, and I enjoy all of it. Even when it’s addressing tough things.

Your ‘Hope’ print will forever be associated with Obama’s 2008 campaign. How did you feel when Joe Biden won the 2020 election?
It’s a real relief that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won. To say the last four years with Trump had been very concerning for me would be an understatement. It’s like all of these principles of fairness and democracy were just thrown out the window. But I’ve always thought that there are too many people who, when it came to both Obama and Biden, felt that voting for that person was enough and then it’s on them to solve the world’s problems.

Fairey’s ‘Obey Fire Sale’ mural, Seattle

What I’ve come to understand is that democracy is about a lot more than voting. It unfortunately comes down to the average person having to curb the influence of deep-pocketed corporations with perpetual vigilance. And of course the variables to create improvement and justice will be better under Biden and Harris than they were under Trump – because Trump was dismantling the apparatus that would curb injustice – but there’s a lot more that needs to be done than just electing those two.

What can we learn from the Trump presidency?
I think one silver lining of the Trump years is that a lot of people who were pretty apathetic and complacent about politics have realised that it really matters who’s in the White House. That’s why we saw the largest turnout in US history. It’s important to remember that while Biden got the largest number of votes in a US election ever, Trump still got the second largest number of votes ever. There are more than 70 million Americans that witnessed the four years of Trump and said, “We want more of that.” That’s absolutely terrifying and the idea of getting past that politically is quite daunting.

‘Migrate’ 2020 © Shepard Fairey

What else can we learn from 2020?
The biggest lesson I would hope for is that Covid has shown we can make change on a mass scale that benefits everyone. That lesson can be applied to a lot of things, but especially climate change. If we continue as before, nearly every climate scientist says that we will get to tipping points that are irreversible. I find it very encouraging to know that we can make small sacrifices for a collective benefit. I am encouraged by how a lot of people were willing to adapt to combat Covid and not just be totally selfish. I think that selfishness really needs to be devalued as a currency within our societies.

Ten years seems like a lifetime for us – how does it feel for you looking back on the last decade?
When we spoke in 2010 we were already talking about the degradation of media in general and print media especially, but it’s mutated into something much more extreme. In 2010 the ‘two realities’ syndrome that is facilitated by social media bubbles didn’t exist in the same way it exists now. The concern I have is: how do we get people back on the same page about facts and truth?

‘Freedom of the Press’ on DG #1; ‘Water Is the New Black’ on DG #20

There’s a difference between protecting free speech and protecting disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Free speech is one thing, but it doesn’t mean that you have to protect things that are false and harmful, and that’s where the line needs to be drawn with the social media companies. Mark Zuckerberg and a bunch of other people have really hidden behind the idea of protecting free speech. It’s been good for their business model, but it’s not good for society.

Do you think art can help?
A lot of the work that I’ve been making has been about trying to draw people into a conversation they wouldn’t otherwise have. I can’t claim that aesthetics will change someone’s mind, but aesthetics affect people emotionally. So there’s a subconscious and a conscious part of aesthetics, and content and narrative. But I’m hoping that that sort of combination can make people more receptive to things and I’ve seen it work.

We have all seen how a great novel or movie or TV show or piece of oratory or Banksy’s artwork can create a conversation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise and change people’s minds. Or at least trigger a slow but steady evolution. It could be the first step. So that’s what I’ve been going for.

Shepard Fairey prints are available from obeygiant.com

Delayed Gratification #40, along with back issues including #20 and #1, are available from our online shop

 

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