Art of confrontation

Delsia Vintinner, who is a maintenance technician in the livability division for the City of Charleston, removes a mural from a wall across from The Post and Courier on King Street Tuesday.

Two large unsigned murals featuring a Boy Scout saluting an American flag with a dollar sign in place of stars have appeared on at least two unused buildings on King Street since Sunday. By noon Tuesday, one had been removed by Charleston code enforcement.

The provocative murals are nearly identical to an illustration featured in guerrilla street artist Shepard Fairey's storefront installation at the Sottile Theatre on King Street. An exhibit of Fairey's work will open Thursday at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, and he has been creating public art on downtown buildings for more than a week.

But the two identical King Street murals have not been attributed to Fairey. When asked by a reporter Monday night if they were his, Fairey neither confirmed nor denied it.

This is typical of the artist. He has long created murals and graffiti art with and without permission, hoping to provoke a response from passersby and authority figures.

He plays with the mixed response to his imagery and the political environment in which he finds himself.

On Tuesday morning, the city removed one of the murals on a building owned by The Post and Courier, but the city had received no additional complaints as of Tuesday afternoon.

Fairey, who works in a variety of media, is best known for his public art - legally sanctioned or not. The Charleston native has created five public art installations in downtown Charleston in less than two weeks; those have been approved by property owners and the city.

But the two Boy Scout murals, if done by Fairey, appear to hark back to origins in graffiti and illegal street art. In 1996, he was arrested for putting a poster of Andre the Giant on an electrical box on East Bay Street. The hulking, close-up black-and-white portrait of the famed wrestler has become Fairey's calling card. Now, an 18-foot by 24-foot version of his trademark OBEY Giant looms over Charleston atop the Francis Marion Hotel.

Guerrilla street art has grown in popularity, spurring debates as to whether the graffiti is truly art or simply vandalism.

Fairey and British street artist Banksy are leaders in the trend. Last October, Banksy, a pseudonym for his work, held a one-month "residency" in New York City, creating 30 public installations. Some were approved by property owners in advance, but most were considered vandalism by the police.

Fairey's art is inspired by underground skateboard culture and propaganda. His work often challenges the viewer to question societal institutions and norms, and he typically works with a palette of red, blue, black, white and beige.

Outside of street art, he is best known for creating the iconic "Hope" poster portraying then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008. The portrait reached near-ubiquity and has been compared to the iconic "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster of World War I.

Fairey landed in legal hot water for basing the mixed-media print on an Associated Press photograph taken in 2006. When sued by the news organization, he argued the poster fell under fair-use guidelines. Fairey settled with the AP out of court, and now his poster hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Fairey's street art, sanctioned or not, leads people to consider the very definition of art in their everyday lives, according to Mark Sloan, director of the College of Charleston's Halsey Center for Contemporary Art.

"When people go to an art gallery, there's the assumption that there's a gatekeeper - someone who has decided what is art and what is good enough," Sloan said. "In the street, people can see it and ask, 'Is this art?'"

That public sphere also draws in many that may not typically take an interest in contemporary art, Sloan said. A May 15 lecture by Fairey in the 1,000-person capacity Charleston Music Hall sold out, and "could have sold out 3,000 tickets," because of Fairey's popularity, Sloan said.

"He's an artist whose reach extends far beyond what we usually see," Sloan said.

Reach Amanda Coyne at 937-5592