Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey
A critique by artist Mark Vallen
Published on the occasion of Fairey’s Los Angeles solo exhibition, Dec., 2007.

[ View the Critical Voices section at the bottom of this page for additional opinions.]

Most well known for his "Obey Giant" street posters, Shepard Fairey has carefully nurtured a reputation as a heroic guerilla street artist waging a one man campaign against the corporate powers-that-be. Infantile posturing aside, Fairey’s art is problematic for another, more troubling reason - that of plagiarism.

Lincoln Cushing, Josh MacPhee, and Favianna Rodriguez, worked closely with me on researching this article, having initially brought Fairey’s plagiarism to my attention. Cushing is an art historian and author of Revolución: Cuban Poster Art, Visions of Peace & Justice, and Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Josh MacPhee is an artist, activist and author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Survey of the Street Stencil, and Favianna Rodriguez is an artist, activist and Chicana print maker. Their invaluable research and documentation provides the foundation for most of what appears in this article.

Poster from the 1956 film, 1984, and Fairey's rip-off version
[ Left: Still from director Michael Anderson’s 1956 film adaptation of George Orwell’s cautionary story of a dystopic future, 1984. Right: Fairey unmistakably stole his image from the "Big Brother is Watching You" propaganda posters used in Anderson’s film, without crediting the source.

What initially disturbed me about the art of Shepard Fairey is that it displays none of the line, modeling and other idiosyncrasies that reveal an artist’s unique personal style. His imagery appears as though it’s xeroxed or run through some computer graphics program; that is to say, it is machine art that any second-rate art student could produce.

In fact, I’ve never seen any evidence indicating Fairey can draw at all. Even the art of Andy Warhol, reliant as it was upon photography and mass commercial imagery, displayed passages of gestural drawing and flamboyant brushstrokes.

Fairey has developed a successful career through expropriating and recontextualizing the artworks of others, which in and of itself does not make for bad art. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein based his paintings on the world of American comic strips and advertising imagery, but one was always aware that Lichtenstein was taking his images from comic books; that was after all the point, to examine the blasé and artificial in modern American commercial culture. When Lichtenstein painted Look Mickey, a 1961 oil on canvas portrait of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, everyone was cognizant of the artist’s source material - they were in on the joke. By contrast, Fairey simply filches artworks and hopes that no one notices - the joke is on you.

Plagiarism is the deliberate passing off of someone else’s work as your own, and Shepard Fairey may be unfamiliar with the term - but not the act. This article is not about the innocent absorption of visual ideas that later materialize unconsciously in an artist’s work, we do after all live in a maelstrom of images and we can’t help but be affected by them. Nor am I referring to an artist’s direct influences - which artist can claim not to have been inspired by techniques or styles employed by others? What I am concerned with is the brazen, intentional copying of already existing artworks created by others - sometimes duplicating the originals without alteration - and then deceiving people by pawning off the counterfeit works as original creations.

Fairey launched his career with a series of obscure street posters, stickers and stencils that combined the words "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" with the visage of deceased wrestling superstar, Andre the Giant. By the early 1990’s the incomprehensible images had become ubiquitous in major urban centers around the world, but in 1993 Titan Sports, Inc. (now World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.) threatened to sue Fairey for violating their trademarked name, Andre the Giant.

Fairey responded to the threatened lawsuit by altering his portrait of the famous wrestler, combining the new image with the word, "Obey". Fairey’s self-titled "absurdist propaganda" campaign was born. The supposed intent of the project, according to the artist, was to: "stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the campaign and their relationship with their surroundings - because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious."

It’s not surprising such pointless twaddle passes for a weighty aesthetic statement of purpose - these days any amateur with a minimally written crackpot manifesto can make waves in the world of art - but I still can’t imagine a more juvenile-sounding rationalization for an art project, especially when current conditions cry out for art that is socially engaged and introspective. Instead of meaningful insights into how propaganda systems work - even in democratic societies - Fairey gives us silly portraits of a dead wrestling champion. The artist toys with the veneer of radical politics, but his views are hollow and non-committal.

Soviet posters plagiarized by  Fairey

[ Left: Meeting - Vladimir Kozlinsky. Linocut. 1919. Kozlinsky’s depiction of workers listening to a revolutionary agitator. Middle top: Fairey’s plagiarized version of Kozlinsky’s linocut. Right: Have You Volunteered? - Dmitry Moor. Famous recruitment poster for the Soviet Red Army. 1920. Middle bottom: Fairey’s plagiarized version of Moor’s Red Army poster.

Fairey simply attached his portrait of Andre the Giant to these two Soviet prints, added the words "Obey Giant", and then took full credit for the works as original designs. Fairey is selling his rip-off version of Kozlinsky’s Meeting as cellphone wallpaper on the Jamster.com website. Jamster is owned by Newscorp, the corporate media conglomerate founded by right-wing billionaire and owner of the Fox News network, Rupert Murdoch, ]

Chinese poster plagiarized by  Fairey

[ Left: Political power comes from the barrel of a gun - Artist unknown. 1968. Chinese poster from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution period. The title of this poster quotes the famous pronouncement made by Mao Tse-Tung. Right: Fairey's plagiarized version titled, Guns and Roses. The Chinese poster's central motif of hands bearing machine guns was plainly digitally scanned without any alteration. Fairey, or his assistants, then applied a modified sun-burst background, placed clip-art roses in the gun barrels, and released the imitation in 2006 as a supposed original work.]

Perhaps the most important falsehood concerning Fairey’s behavior is that it is motivated by some grand theory of aesthetics or weighty political philosophy - but I’m afraid the only scheme at work is the one intended to make Fairey wealthy and famous. Some have, for whatever reason, imagined Fairey to be a progressive political figure, a perception certainly cultivated by the artist; but it’s also not impossible to view Fairey’s work as right-wing in essence, since it largely ransacks leftist history and imagery while the artist laughs all the way to the bank.

For me, the question is not what Fairey’s political allegiances may or may not be, but rather, how his work sets a standard that is ultimately damaging to art and leads to its further dissolution. When a will to plagiarize and a love for self-promotion are the only requirements necessary for becoming an artist, then clearly the arts are in deep trouble.

If the façade of Fairey’s false-front leftism is put aside, it’s fairly clear that what remains is little more than an apolitical black hole. Conceivably the following example will raise an eyebrow or two, not just because it’s proof positive of Fairey’s total and complete ignorance of history - which for him exists only as a source of images to be exploited - but because it should make obvious that anyone so ill-informed should not be in the vanguard of today’s political art.

Fairey's skull T-shirt
[The skull and crossbones T-shirt marketed by Fairey’s OBEY fashion line.]

In 2006 Fairey printed a near exact copy of an already existing skull and crossbones artwork he found, altering the original design only by adding the words "OBEY: Defiant Since '89" along with a small star bearing the face of Andre the Giant. The image was reproduced as a T-shirt and added to Fairey’s OBEY fashion line.

As luck would have it, Wal-Mart plagiarized the master plagiarist, copying and printing Fairey’s rip-off and adding it to the superstore’s own fashion line. A shopper at Wal-Mart recognized the skull motif’s origin and angrily protested - as it was an exact duplication of the infamous logo belonging to the Gestapo, the Nazi "secret state police" that served as personal bodyguards to Adolf Hitler and administered the concentration camps where the genocide of the Jewish people was put into practice.

Unsurprisingly Wal-Mart’s T-shirts became a nationwide controversy, with legions of infuriated citizens insisting the superstore apologize and pull the offensive items from their shelves - a demand that was ultimately met. Eventually it came to light that Shepard Fairey was first responsible for manufacturing and selling the T-shirt, and when confronted by the website, consumerist.com, Fairey offered the following excuse: "When I made that graphic I was referencing a biker logo and it was only brought up to me later that it was the SS skull." First, Fairey openly admits to directly copying an image created by someone else (he calls this "referencing"), and then feigns innocence when faced with the odious background of the original Nazi designers. In the same set of remarks made to consumerist.com, Fairey insists that he is "anti-fascist and pro-peace", but what kind of anti-fascist does not recognize the symbols used by the Nazi regime? Fairey’s only defense here is full-blown ignorance - hardly an attribute expected in artists supposedly dedicated to social commentary.

Logo of the Nazi Gestapo

[The death’s head logo of the Nazi Gestapo.]

Ver Sacrum - Drawing by Koloman Moser, 1901
[Ver Sacrum - Koloman Moser 1901. Front cover illustration for the Vienna Secession magazine, Ver Sacrum.]

Fairey has incorporated Art Nouveau borders and graphic flourishes in many of his posters, and there’s no doubt in my mind that these elements were not of his design. A conspicuous example of Fairey’s plagiarism exists in his directly stealing the work of Austrian artist Koloman Moser (1868-1918), an important member of the Vienna Secession movement - popularly known as the Art Nouveau movement.

Moser was not only a talented painter, he was also a graphic artist who designed everything from architecture and furniture to ceramics and jewelry. In 1901 Moser created the cover illustration shown at left for the Vienna Secession movement’s journal, Ver Sacrum (The Rite of Spring). The magazine was published from 1898 to 1903, and during that time it printed illustrations by most of the important Secession artists.

Fairey no doubt saw the cover art for Ver Sacrum and created an exact tracing of it, a tracing so precise that when the two versions are put together and held up to the light - all lines match perfectly. Fairey merely altered Moser’s original work with some clumsy border enhancements, a small portrait of Andre the Giant, and the words, "OBEY Propaganda".

Nouveau Black (shown at right), is Fairey's ripped-off poster version of Moser’s art, a literal reproduction of the original, with the border areas outside of the original art embellished with lifeless and crude lines drawn in by someone lacking in draftsmanship. Needless to say, there was no credit given to the original artist, Koloman Moser. An exposé and further examination of this plagiarism by Fairey can be found here.

Fairey's ripped-off poster version of Moser's art

[Fairey's ripped-off poster version of Moser’s art .]

Prague Spring poster plagiarized by Fairey
[ Left: Fairey’s plagiarized poster. Right: Original street poster from Czechoslovakia’s, Prague Spring - Artist unknown 1968. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.]

When the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, began to implement a series of reforms in 1968, the Soviets feared a counterrevolution. Moscow sent tanks and troops to crush the so-called "Prague Spring", but history means nothing to Shepard Fairey, who can strip an image of historic meaning faster than you can say "Czechoslovak Socialist Republic".

During the opening days of the Soviet occupation, Czech patriots glued anti-invasion posters all over the walls of Prague, the nation’s capital. One daring but unidentified Czech artist created a street poster that portrayed the Red Army as liberators in 1945 - but oppressors in 1968. Fairey expropriated that poster and republished it as his own, inserting a portrait of Andre the Giant along with the words, "Make Art, Not War".

It goes without saying that Fairey has never mentioned the Czech poster he plagiarized, and since posters from the Prague Spring are virtually unknown outside of the Czech Republic, he has so far gotten away with calling this poster - like oh so many other works of his - an original design. Recontextualizing an image like the Prague Spring poster could afford an artist opportunities to reveal forgotten recent histories, linking them to current realities so as to produce instructive political insights. But all we get from Fairey is worn-out sloganeering and self-promotion. One can only wish that Fairey would take a cue from the clichéd catchphrase on his poster and "Make Art" himself instead of incessantly reframing and recycling the works of others.

Shepard Fairey ripped-off the historic artwork, One Big Union, created by Ralph "Bingo" Chaplin in 1917 for the Industrial Workers of the World. Chaplin was a steadfast American labor activist in the early 1900’s who fought for unionism and worker’s rights at a time when such activities could get you jailed or killed.

He was a member of the IWW, an associate of famed radical labor activists Mother Jones and "Big" Bill Haywood, the author of the internationally renowned worker’s anthem Solidarity Forever, and an artist who supported himself by painting portraits, working in commercial art studios, and doing odd jobs for labor organizations.

One Big Union - Bingo Chaplin 1917

[One Big Union - Ralph "Bingo" Chaplin. 1917. Artwork created for the Industrial Workers of the World.]

The art of Bingo Chaplin, plagiarized by Fairey
[ T-shirt created by Fairey for his OBEY clothing line. Neither Chaplin nor the IWW are given any credit by Fairey. Click here for a larger view of Chaplin’s artwork.]

Some of the period’s most memorable labor movement graphics were created by Chaplin - including the IWW’s infamous black cat icon, symbol of militant direct action. To say that Chaplin’s contributions to labor and American history is the stuff of legend would be an understatement - but that didn’t stop Fairey from stealing his art.

Fairey made an exact copy of Chaplin’s One Big Union, altering it only by putting a thunder bolt in the clenched fist and adding the words, "OBEY Propaganda". The stolen artwork was then printed as a T-shirt and added to Fairey’s lucrative OBEY fashion line. Of course, Fairey doesn’t bother to credit Chaplin in any way, let alone draw attention to Chaplin’s life and times.

Ruth-Marion Baruch and her husband Pirkle Jones, became the official photographers of the Black Panther Party in early 1968. Baruch wanted to do a photographic essay on the Panthers, and when the director of San Francisco’s De Young Museum told her his museum would show the works, Baruch made contact with Kathleen Cleaver, the party’s communications secretary and spokesperson.

The photo essay project and museum exhibit was approved by the Panther Party leadership, and the photographer’s first assignment was to cover an Oakland demonstration demanding the freedom of imprisoned Panther leader, Huey P. Newton. One of the photos taken by Pirkle Jones that day was of a young Panther listening to speeches at the rally - that photographic image was stolen by Fairey and made into the street poster shown at right.

Photographer Pirkle Jones plagiarized by Fairey

[ Left: Black Panther - Pirkle Jones. Photograph. 1968. Portrait of an anonymous Panther at a political rally in Oakland, California. The Panther photos of Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones are internationally famous and have long been available in book form. Right: Fairey’s street poster, which neither credits Pirkle Jones nor makes any mention of the Black Panther Party.]

Shepard Fairey’s ill-conceived poster ridiculously places a badge of Andre the Giant on the Panther’s iconic black beret, adding a single word along the bottom of the design - "Obey". If the public at large recognizes the image as that of a Black Panther militant - and why would they - what, if any meaning, could they possibly attach to such a visual? Pirkle Jones gave us a compassionate image that served the cause of African-American dignity and liberation, while Fairey gave us a stolen and regurgitated image stripped of all historical meaning and refashioned to serve only one purpose - the advancement of Fairey’s career.

Artist Rupert Garcia plagiarized by Fairey
[ Left: Down with the Whiteness - Rupert Garcia. Silkscreen print. 1969. In the permanent collection of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Right: Shepard Fairey’s rip-off version of Garcia’s silkscreen. Fairey published his plagiarized version in his book, Supply and Demand. No credit was given to Rupert Garcia.]

Rupert Garcia is one of the founders of the late 1960’s Chicano Arts Movement, and a personal hero of mine. I first became aware of his works in 1975 when I saw his silkscreen posters published in Towards Revolutionary Art (TRA), a radical arts journal from the San Francisco Bay area of California. Garcia went on to develop a sophisticated graphic style that combined social concern with magical realism, producing large diptych and triptych paintings and chalk pastel drawings. He’s currently represented by the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco, and his works are found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Of the 82 prints by Garcia in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, it is his silkscreen, Down With The Whiteness, that concerns us here. Printed in 1969 as a solidarity statement with the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Garcia’s print echoed events then gripping the US. Just a year prior, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., and riots swept the country from coast to coast. Garcia captured the growing rage of African-Americans with his silkscreen print.

Shepard Fairey made a banal and imitative copy of Down With The Whiteness as part of his ongoing Andre the Giant poster series. But he never credited or even mentioned Rupert Garcia. True to form, Fairey removed all meaning and intent from Garcia’s original by transforming the image into a portrait of Andre the Giant. Adding the asinine slogan, "Power to the Posse", Fairey completed the depoliticalization of a classic poster by one of America’s great political artists.

At right is Liberate Puerto Rico Now!, a poster created by an unknown artist from the Young Lords Party in 1971. Shown at far right is Fairey’s rip-off version, which does not credit or mention the Young Lords Party. The original Young Lords poster announced a 1971 conference at Columbia University on the issue of Independence for Puerto Rico. The event was co-organized by the University’s Puerto Rican Student Union and attended by some 1,000 students.

The Young Lords were a political party founded in the late 1960’s by Puerto Ricans living in Chicago and New York. Modeled after the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords preached independence and self-determination for Puerto Rico, but also organized to combat racism, poverty, police brutality, and political oppression within Puerto Rican communities in the United States. They defined themselves as anti-imperialists who opposed the US war in Vietnam.

Young Lords Party political poster plagiarized by Fairey

[ Left: Liberate Puerto Rico Now! - Young Lords Party. Silkscreen poster. 1971. Right: Fairey’s rip-off, "Wage Peace: Obey", which neither credits nor makes any mention of the Young Lords Party.]

Untitled silkscreen by Cuban artist Rene Mederos, 1972
[ Untitled Silk-screen poster - Rene Mederos, Cuba, 1972. This double portrait by one of Cuba’s most famous poster artists depicts the revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.]

Lincoln Cushing brought my attention to Shepard Fairey having plagiarized a famous artwork by Cuban poster maker Rene Mederos, who was one of the finest Cuban poster artists of the 1960s. The iconic works of Mederos first came to the attention of Americans in the early 1970s when Ramparts magazine published a series of his posters dealing with the subject of the Vietnam war.

The stolen work in question, an untitled silk-screen poster from 1972, portrayed the revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos as guerilla fighters in the mountains of Cuba. The Mederos poster had been reproduced, with full permission from the Mederos estate, in Cushing’s Revolución: Cuban Poster Art, as well as David Kunzle’s book, Che Guevara: Icon, Myth and Message.

Fairey simply copied the Mederos poster in exacting detail, had it printed as a T-shirt for his OBEY clothing line, and sold it under the title of "Cuban Rider". Rene Mederos was not credited or acknowledged by Fairey in any way.

Spotting Mederos’ stolen poster image on the bombingscience.com website where Fairey’s clothing line is sold, Cushing wrote the outlet the following e-mail:

"Please be advised that the 'Cuban Rider' t-shirt you have listed for sale is a direct copy of a poster by Cuban artist Rene Mederos, and is an unauthorized violation of his work. I work closely with the Mederos estate and have represented them in several arrangements for use of his work. Given that your item is violating the intellectual property rights of another artist, you can do one of two things - either negotiate with Rene Mederos' estate for a fair royalty (assuming that they will grant it) or you can immediately stop production of this item and remove advertising from the public. Please let me know how you wish to proceed."

Cuban artist Rene Mederos plagiarized by Fairey

[ Screenshot taken from the "Bombing Science" website 7/18/2007, where the Fairey rip-off of Mederos’ poster was being sold as a T-shirt. Fairey printed the graphic without permission from the Mederos estate.]

Chris Broders, Fairey’s partner in the OBEY clothing brand, wrote Cushing back to acknowledge the copyright violation, making the promise that the item would be pulled from production and never sold again. A current check of the Bombing Science website shows that the illicit T-shirt has indeed been pulled, and in mid-August, 2007, Cushing was contacted by Fairey’s bookkeeper, who asked where a royalty check for the Mederos estate should be sent. While Fairey’s plagiarized version of the Mederos poster was pulled from production, the details of this controversy remained behind the scenes, until now. Fairey never publicly acknowledged - let alone apologized for - stealing the art of Rene Mederos. If only that was the end of the story.

Cuban artist Félix Beltrán plagiarized by Fairey
[ Left: Libertad para Angela Davis (Freedom for Angela Davis) - Félix Beltrán, Cuba, 1971. Original silk-screen print created by Beltrán in solidarity with Angela Davis when she was a political prisoner in the US. Right: Fairey’s plundered version as a street poster, which neither credits Beltrán nor identifies Angela Davis.]

Not content with stealing original artworks from Rene Mederos, Fairey also filched art from another celebrated Cuban poster maker, Félix Beltrán. A well-known street poster by Fairey depicting the celebrated 1960’s radical, Angela Davis, is in fact a near-exact copy of a famous silkscreen print by Beltrán.

Lincoln Cushing identified Fairey’s poster as a copy of Libertad para Angela Davis (Freedom for Angela Davis), created by Beltrán in 1971. Fairey gave no credit or recognition to the Cuban artist, who is very much alive and residing in Mexico. In addition, this particular theft of an existing artwork of Angela Davis begs the question, does Fairey mean to mock or praise leftist icons?

In the 1960s psychedelic poster artist Gary Grimshaw created eye-popping concert posters for performances by the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Cream, and a multitude of other bands. His posters helped set the standard for the counter-culture poster art of the period. In 1968 Grimshaw produced the image of a winged white panther to serve as the emblem for the radical White Panther Party (WPP). Modeled after and inspired by the Black Panther Party (BPP), the White Panthers were a collective of hippie counterculture militants, lead by poet John Sinclair and based in Detroit, Michigan. They sought an emblem that would link their efforts to those of the BPP, and Grimshaw’s white panther logo was simply a variation of the BPP logo - but both insignias were seen as political organizing tools that were strictly not-for-profit symbols.

The BPP logo was itself an adaptation of the insignia utilized by an early civil rights organization in Alabama, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Grimshaw’s winged white panther also came to be used as the logo for the MC5, the rock band that worked closely with the WPP to spread the idea of youth rebellion. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the MC5 would give a legendary performance in Lincoln Park before 5000 antiwar protestors - just prior to Chicago riot police attacking the crowd with tear gas, mace and nightsticks. In 1969 John Sinclair was arrested, tried and convicted for selling marijuana to an undercover police agent, for which he received a ten year prison sentence. An international movement for Sinclair’s release was formed, and in December 1971, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs, and others performed on behalf of the imprisoned White Panther Party leader at a huge "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Again, Gary Grimshaw designed the legendary poster for that historic concert. Two days after the show, the Michigan Supreme Court released Sinclair from prison and later overturned his conviction.

Somewhere along the line, Shepard Fairey discovered Grimshaw’s winged panther artwork and without informing Grimshaw or obtaining permission, copied the image in exact detail for his OBEY clothing label. The plagiarized image was printed as a series of T-shirts, jackets, jeans and baseball caps utilizing the word "OBEY" as part of the design.

On Fairey’s official website, he admits to stealing the panther image. His misdeed was exposed only when the wife and children of Michael Davis, bass player for the MC5, purchased some of Fairey’s illicitly produced attire from a clothing store. Mr. and Ms. Davis immediately understood that Fairey had stolen the image, so they tracked down Fairey and asked for a meeting.

White  Panther Party logo plagiarized by Fairey

[ Left: MC5 at the Straight - Gary Grimshaw 1969. Silkscreen concert poster for an MC5 performance in San Francisco. Right: Shepard Fairey’s ripped-off version of Grimshaw’s panther as printed by Fairey’s OBEY Clothing label.]

In Shepard Fairey’s own words, here’s what happened during those talks: "I met Michael Davis, bassist of the MC5 when his wife Angela Davis (not related to Black Panther Angela Davis, but an awesome coincidence) basically busted me for using the MC5 White Panther logo on an OBEY Clothing label. It was the nicest bust ever because she said she and Michael and their son were fans of Obey and that we should do an official collaboration. I wish all my busts ended up this well!"

First off - Angela Davis was a member of the Communist Party USA, not a member of the Black Panther Party. Historical facts aside, Fairey’s words about being "busted" for using the "MC5 White Panther logo" is an admission of wrongdoing, and when he states "it was the nicest bust ever" he must surely be referring to examples like those found in this article. Knowing that Gary Grimshaw was the artist responsible for creating the White Panther Party emblem, I looked him up on the internet, apparently a feat much too bothersome and difficult for Fairey or his assistants to have undertaken. Grimshaw’s website reflects a decades long record of creative output, and his late 60’s psychedelic rock posters are well known examples of the genre. After detailing Fairey’s plagiarism, I requested Grimshaw’s comments on the matter. Here’s an except of what he wrote back to me:

"The panther image as created by Emory Douglas (Black Panther Party Minister of Culture), and as adapted by myself (White Panther Party Minister of Art), exists in the public domain, as it was intended. It is an icon that people can identify with and organize around, and thus must be free of copyright restrictions and onerous ownership. That is the spirit in which the image was created. The commercial exploitation of this image is not strictly criminal because of its public domain intent, but it reeks of the very mean spirit that the image was meant to oppose. I hope that Michael Davis who characterizes the image as 'our [i.e. MC5] symbol', will recall that shortly after the white panther with wings first appeared in print on the poster I designed for their appearance at the Straight Theatre in San Francisco in 1969, the MC5 publicly disavowed any affiliation with The White Panther Party; at a time when the Party was struggling to free its Chairman, John Sinclair, from the Michigan State Penal System and keep three other Central Committee Members under arrest warrant (including myself) from a similar fate."

There’s not much more that can be added to that unambiguous and modest statement, though I will say this - it’s obvious to me that Grimshaw’s winged white panther is a unique creation to which Fairey can lay no claim. Grimshaw has taken the moral highroad by maintaining his artwork is in the public domain, while insisting it be used only for political and non-profit purposes. In exploiting the panther logo for profit by printing it on boutique clothing, Fairey has accelerated the dehistoricization and commodification of American history, and in my opinion, has forfeited his ability to speak as a dissident.

US Federal Arts Project poster plagiarized by  Fairey
[ Left: Fairey's derivative poster, Greetings from Iraq, printed in 2005. Right: Ranger Naturalist Service: Yellowstone National Park - Artist unknown. Silkscreen. Circa late 1930s. Created for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in order to promote travel to America's national parks. ]

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 as part of his New Deal program. Millions of Americans had lost their land, jobs or means of support because of the Great Depression, and the WPA helped put them back to work. The Federal Art Project (FAP) of the WPA, administered all arts-related endeavors from 1935-43, providing funding and work for visual artists, writers, actors, and musicians. FAP employed more than 5,000 artists during its existence.

Mostly remembered for the murals it subsidized across the country, FAP was also responsible for generating some 35,000 prints and posters; setting up divisions that created prints in diverse styles using the techniques of silkscreen, woodcut, linocut, and lithography. FAP poster artists covered a multitude of topics from health care and literacy, to labor and war production, with a select group of artists producing posters extolling the beauty of, and encouraging visits to, America's national parks. One such poster, Ranger Naturalist Service: Yellowstone National Park, served as source material for Shepard Fairey.

Fairey's Greetings from Iraq is not a direct scan or tracing of the FAP print, but it does indicate an over reliance on borrowing the design work of others. There was no political point or ironic statement to be made by expropriating the FAP print - it was simply the act of an artist too lazy to come up with an original artwork. While the geyser transformed into an explosion is the focal point of Fairey's bland replication, every other design element from the original work is mirrored in Fairey's version; the sweep of the sky, the horizon line, the rolling foreground, even the placement of the text.

Can Shepard Fairey honestly be described as an artist who can critically assess the "unholy union of government and big business," or offer comments on the "underpinnings of the capitalist machine"? Yet that is exactly how he is promoted in the press release from the Merry Karnowsky Gallery of Los Angeles, where his solo exhibit Imperfect Union opens on December 1, 2007. Missing from that press release, and all other promotional materials released by Fairey, is any mention of his working hand in hand with that "capitalist machine". In a Nov. 3, 2007, interview with the Guardian, Fairey glibly stated, "I’m not against capitalism. If I was, I wouldn’t live in the US. If you get up everyday, work and spend money, you’re participating. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to critique it." - or profit handsomely from it for that matter.

PSFK, the worldwide marketing agency that offers major corporations services in "Advertising & Branding Trends", held a major conference in Los Angeles on Sept. 18, 2007. Entry to the symposium cost $300 per ticket, and one of PSFK’s featured speakers was Shepard Fairey, who shared the podium with Jean-Marie Shields of Starbucks, Kenny Ochoa of Sony BMG, and other luminaries from the corporate world. One such figure was Conn Fishburn, a Yahoo executive that presented a panel titled, "Our Role In Your New World". Mr. Fishburn discussed "how the rise of social networks gives agencies and their creative teams a new and expanded role in shaping consumer experience." PSFK’s press release described Fairey as a "celebrated contemporary artist" who would discuss "how he takes his art and applies it commercially." Fairey gave his address before a well heeled audience of corporate executives from Advanta - Nike, Inc. - Saatchi & Saatchi LA - Visa USA - Warner Bros Records - Young & Rubicam Brands, and a stunning roster of other Fortune 500 companies. No doubt the core of Shepard Fairey’s lecture focused on the "unholy union of government and big business."

Some supporters of Shepard Fairey like to toss around a long misunderstand quote by Pablo Picasso, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." Aside from the ridiculous comparison of Fairey to Picasso, there’s little doubt that Picasso was referring to the "stealing" of aesthetic flourishes and stylings practiced by master artists, and not simply carting off their works and putting his signature to them.

A last ditch defense used by Fairey groupies is to acknowledge that their champion does indeed "borrow" the works of other artists both living and deceased, but it is argued that the plundered works are all in the "public domain", and therefore the rights of artists have not been violated. There are those who say that artists should have the right to alter and otherwise modify already existing works in order to produce new ones or to make pertinent statements. Despite some reservations I generally agree with that viewpoint - provided that such a process is completely transparent. However, I am outraged that anyone could make a career out of the consistent, secretive and wholesale copying of other people’s artworks. Fairey has habitually used, without permission, the works of other artists, both living and deceased. To have created one or two works in such a manner is perhaps forgivable, especially if there was no money involved, but Fairey has developed a profitable livelihood exclusively based on pilfering the artworks of others.

The expropriation and reuse of images in art has today reached soaring heights, but that relentless mining and distortion of history will turn out to be detrimental for art, leaving it hollowed-out and meaningless in the process. When I refer to "mining" in this case I mean the hasty examination and extraction of information from our collective past as performed by individuals who do not fully comprehend it. That is precisely what Fairey is guilty of, utilizing historic images simply because he "likes" them, and not because he has any grasp of their significance as objects of art or history. In 1916 Henry Ford, the famous American multimillionaire, bigot, and founder of the Ford Motor Company, uttered the infamous words, "History is Bunk." That once outrageous statement has now become part and parcel of postmodern art, as reflected in Fairey’s own negligence regarding history.

If carefully examined, the rebellious patina and ersatz activism of Shepard Fairey’s art gives way to reveal little in the way of political imagination. Ultimately his work is the very embodiment of "radical chic", bereft of historical memory and offering only feeble gestures, babbling incoherencies, and obscurantism as a challenge to the deplorable state of the world. Such an artist cannot provide us with a critical assessment of where we stand today.

Critical Voices

Plagiarize \'pla-je-,riz also j - -\ vb -rized; -riz·ing vt [plagiary] : to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (a created production) without crediting the source vi: to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source - pla·gia·riz·er n (From Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary 9th ed, Springfield, Ma: Merriam 1981, p. 870).

A smear campaign against the author of this article is being perpetrated by persons unknown. The attempt at character assassination is being posted on many blogs and websites that allow for reader's comments. Referring to me, the defamer writes, "The fact that he passed out literature - including HIS OWN ART - amongst those standing in line at Fairey's show ought to tell you he's simply an opportunist." Not only did I not attend the opening of Fairey's Los Angeles exhibit at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, I've not been to the gallery at any time during the show's run. I've never attended any of Fairey's solo exhibits. I have absolutely no knowledge of, or connection to, any group or individual who might have passed out the above article, or my artworks, at Fairey's exhibit. If anyone had proposed to me that such a course of action be taken, I would have adamantly forbidden the use of the article, and my artworks, to be used in that manner.

Josh MacPhee, a co-researcher for the above article, offers further comments on image appropriation on the JustSeeds web log. Quoting MacPhee: "One important thing to acknowledge is that Fairey is not just appropriating, but also copyrighting images that exist in our common history. Posters and graphics made in the heat of political struggles are often made by anonymous individuals or groups that want to keep the images in the public domain for use in further struggle. It is unfortunate that Fairey is attempting to personally capitalize on the generosity of others and privatize and enclose the visual commons (as seen by the prominent copyright symbols on his website and products)."

If the Copy Is an Artwork, Then What's the Original? - That's the title of a New York Times article apropos to the "appropriation art" of Fairey. The NYT piece focuses on postmodernist photographer Richard Prince, who has made a career from photographing photos taken by other photographers. Prince has copied several photos made by photographer Jim Krantz - without permission or attribution. Commenting on his works being appropriated, Krantz said: "My whole issue with this, truly, is attribution and recognition. It's an unusual thing to see an artist who doesn't create his own work, and I don't understand the frenzy around it. If I italicized 'Moby-Dick,' then would it be my book? I don't know. But I don't think so."

Lincoln Cushing, a co-researcher of this article, wants the debate on expropriated images to remain constructive, so he wrote a guide titled "Best practices for using the graphic artwork of others". One of the points in his guide for poster makers reads in part: "Give specific credit on the final piece. This is important for all items, including ones that have drifted into that giant grab-bag we call the 'public domain.' Don't contribute to our own historical amnesia and cultural imperialism. Say something about where it's from. This can be as simple as a credit line at the bottom in small type."

Mat Gleason is an art critic, writer, and publisher of the Coagula Art Journal of Los Angeles, California. In a video interview that appeared in the Ovation Network documentary, Art or Not, Gleason compared Fairey's art to advertisments for Coca-Cola, saying; "They're both on the street, they're both promoting a brand, and at the end of the day, it's a very empty experience." Gleason went on to say that, "I think that the art experience is to raise someone's consciousness, and at the end of the day the Shepard Fairey experience is to promote the brand of Shepard Fairey as a corporate entity, so I don't consider it art. He is about the furthest thing from art there is." View Art or Not.