Shepard Fairey opens up about commercial success, its relation to his artwork

Shepard Fairey, a Charleston native who has become one of the most coveted street artists in the world, discussed a piece of his work in the "Power & Glory" collection that was unveiled to a small, private crowd Wednesday at the Halsey Gallery. Art sales are just one way Fairey supports his creative endeavors.

Often called one of his generation's most influential street artists, Shepard Fairey is known for his works that often challenge the American dream, capitalism and greed.

Those themes are obvious, if not explicit in Fairey's new collection of works, "Power & Glory," which was unveiled Thursday at the Halsey Gallery of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston.

Images of smoking factories, guns and oil spills are seen throughout the collection, painting a single portrait of a consumerist culture gone awry.

Perhaps equally intriguing, however, is the fact that the Charleston native has proven over the course of his career that an artist can be a mouthpiece for anti-commercialism and at the same time a markedly successful entrepreneur.

In addition to installing murals and creating works of fine art, Fairey heads a globally distributed clothing label and a graphic design business sought out by famous musicians and companies.

And while commercial success may appear at odds with the messages of his art, Fairey told The Post and Courier that his business endeavors are both a means of support and an extension of his creativity.

"All of these things that I was working on as a way to just keep the dream alive of being an artist, I didn't expect them to eventually cross over into successful businesses," he said.

"People say, 'Oh, Shepard Fairey, he did a bunch of street art and then once he got some notoriety, he used that to cash in by doing graphic design and a clothing line.' ... Those things doing well, while fortunate, were in fact an unexpected by-product of me just trying to finance the things that didn't make any money."

His OBEY Clothing line, an apparel company for men and women, spawned from Fairey's OBEY sticker campaign using wrestler Andre the Giant's face that became a symbol for the counterculture skateboard and street art movement in the 1990s. The image has become somewhat of a logo now seen throughout Fairey's works and products.

"I tried to fund my street art by making T-shirts of the things I was putting on the streets. Coming from the punk rock and skateboarding scene where the T-shirt is the canvas ... to me, it made a lot of sense," he said. "It took a long time for the clothing to get any traction; it was really a hobby more than anything for about the first 10 years."

In 2003, Fairey started Studio Number One, a graphic design agency that created the album cover art for The Black Eyed Peas' album "Monkey Business" and Led Zeppelin's compilation "Mothership."

Most recently, the artist designed the label for Hennessy 's Very Special Limited Edition bottle, which will be sold in liquor stores starting July 14 for $32 per bottle. The liquor company has partnered with similar street artists, such as Futura and Os Gemeos, to design the limited edition bottle over the past four years.

"Shepard Fairey personifies the qualities Hennessy wishes to champion," said Rodney Williams, senior vice president of Hennessy USA, in a written statement. "He's consistently pushed himself, his craft and his audience, reshaping the way we appreciate art in the process. This new Hennessy Limited Edition bottle design is further evidence of his talent, passion and commitment to his craft, the same characteristics Hennessy has pursued since 1765."

Fairey said he chose to partner with the company after discovering the effort it takes to produce the high-end liquor.

"I gained a respect for their process, the craftsmanship, and that a lot of its variables require a lot of artistry," he said. "I would never do work for somebody I felt was contrary to my belief system. ... I've turned down work from Hummer and Camel cigarettes."

To sweeten the deal, Hennessy has pledged to set up a charity to send an underprivileged student to his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. Plus, the company is funding his mural tour this summer, when Fairey will travel to different cities to paint public murals similar to those he's installed around downtown Charleston.

"They are supporting me as an artist, but not in a way that is crassly connected, where it looks like they're co-opting me," he said. "How much more ideal can one find in a situation, accepting the parameters of capitalism?"

Now that he has established a means to support his art, Fairey said he's now able to donate to the causes he believes in, from the Natural Resources Defense Council to the cleanup of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I can channel that money to a cause that is meaningful to me, and that is a luxurious position to be in, and it took a long time for me to do better than just subsist," he said. "I can't take credit for how my businesses have done commercially, but I can say I've helped shape them ethically."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail