Obey Giant Poster, Old Truman Brewery, 2007, Ravish London


Obey Giant
@www.ravishlondon.com

The Obey Giant is a poster campaign, which has made a significant contribution to the London street art scene. The work consists of a bringing together of different styles, usually political protest icons superimposed on psychedelic backgrounds. The work is more often than not posted way above eye level, giving a sense that you are looking at the manifestation of power and the representation of ideology. However whilst ideological in their appearance the posters are by and large devoid of political content. One of the first posters I noticed, just off Old Street, which featured the face of some beautiful looking Middle-Eastern woman, wrapped in a headscarf, had me wondering about whether this was about women's oppression, Islamic revolution, a fashion house, or was it one of those sophisticated advertising campaigns.

The Obey Giant campaign was started by Frank Shepard Fairey in 1986 with the 'Andre the Giant Has a Posse' campaign. Fairey used his networks within the skating community to distribute 'Andre' stickers throughout the US. Fairey declared the campaign to be "an experiment in phenomenology", designed 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, frequent and novel encounters with Obey propaganda provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer's perception and attention to detail'. Fairey goes on, 'OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities'. That's fair enough, although the fact that 'the various reactions and interpretations of those who view Fairey's work reflects their personality and the nature of their sensibilities' applies to all advertising. To the extent that Fairey's work is a phenomenological project then all advertising in phenomenological which the philosophical content of Fairey's project is relatively speaking empty.

In 1993 with the prospect of a lawsuit from Titan Sports, Fairey stopped using the trademarked André the Giant, and created the "OBEY" slogan. At this point critics started questioning Fairey's intentions. Fairey has produced a mini-merchandise empire around "OBEY", which have led others to believe that the campaign is just a sophisticated attempt to commodify 'counterculture cool'. Once the consumer has fallen in love with what seems 'counterculture', has invested in time in cracking the secret, the next step is naturally to want to buy into this new exclusive intellectual movement, and get a t-shirt. I nearly did. Obey Giant seems to engage an agenda of social justice, of helping the suppressed in some way, but when you look deeper into it, all you find is commercial offers of t-shirts, posters and stickers.

Reflecting on my own reactions, I think there is something interesting to about how it is 'cool' to be 'counter-culture' without specifying what kind of culture you wish to replace the existing one with. That is to say, if the posters had very obviously been about communism, feminism or the environment, would I have wanted to buy into them so much? Furthermore it makes me think how conservative the hedonistic non-directive 'counter-culture' a la 'James Dean', a la 'if we smoke weed and listen to dub that makes us spiritually different' a la 'fuck the police Camden market t-shirt mentality' actually is. By soaking up peoples' frustrations, and especially where soaking up frustrations means soaking up their cash, these cultural products function as an escapists cul-de-sac and as a form of stultifying conservatism through consumerism. And for Obey Giant, as Mark Vallen has observed, "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 ...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."

Josh McPhee claims that Obey Giant, which reproduces and recontextualises images, produced for protest movements over the years, is copywriting their material. He goes on to say, "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)." Vallen however points out that Obey Giant has also donated a poster to the "Witness Against Torture" campaign.

It could be that Fairey is in producing this art having the last laugh, as his intention may be precisely to get people to think about the extent to which they are achieving something positive by buying into counter-cultural icons. The "Obey Giant" website reads 'manufacturing quality dissent since 1989'. The word manufacturing implying that just as the mass-media age of marketing is able to manufacture desire, it is now also able to manufacture dissent, prompting, controlling and assuaging it. Fairey has himself commented, 'For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention.'

Further support to this motive of Fairey's can be gained when one looks at an astonishing poster he produced and posted up in London in late 2007. The poster contains a message, which when looked at from afar took the form of the face of 'Andre the Giant', which reads: 'This is a poster graphic. This writing is the design upon the poster. The design is used to help sell the poster. We hope to draw your attention to it and encourage you to look at it. When you have done that maybe you'll be persuaded to buy the poster, in this case an Obey poster. Then we want you to hang it. The idea being that the more of you that hang this, the more other people will see it, and the more others will be indoctrinated by our propaganda, adding steam to the already vicious momentum of the Obey juggernaut toward ultimate world domination. This can be a symbiotic relationship with Obey because hanging a clever, or at last 'conceptual' poster design can make one feel superior, a feeling which can also lead to pleasure. A good poster design will attract more buyers and give more pleasure. Therefore buying a poster creates pleasure. When feeling depressed, do not forget this. Obey is most known for creating eye-catching pictures. This writing is trying to pull you in much like an eye-catching picture. It is designed to get you to read it. this is called luring the victim, and you are the victim. But victim of what? You have in inquisitive nature and discriminating intellect, so you want information but you will not be manipulated by subversive sales tactics. But you are a mover and a shaker whose time should not be wasted on gimmicks, so you should stop reading now because all we are attempting to do is to get you to read on. Yet this is a double bind because if you indeed stop you'll be doing what we tell you, and if you read on you'll be doing what we wanted all along. And the more you read on, the more you're falling for this simple design device of telling you exactly how a good commercial design works. But you have a free mind so you can decide for yourself. Exercise your free will. Psychological ploys... they're tricks and this is the worst trick of all since it's describing the trick whilst trying to trick you, and if you've read this far then you're tricked but you wouldn't have known this unless you've read this far. At least we're telling you directly instead of seducing you with a beautiful or haunting visual that may never tell you. We're letting you know that you ought to buy this poster because in essence it's a product and products are to be consumed and you are a consumer and this is a good product. And good products make you superior, and superiority brings you pleasure. We could have written the company's name in special lettering so that it stood out and you'd seen it before you'd read any of this writing and possible have bought it anyway. What we are really suggesting is that you are foolish to buy or not buy a poster merely for the pretty picture. This is a con because if you agree then you'll probably like this writing, which is the poster design. Reflexivity ought not to be so ironic and paradoxical, but life is not always simple. Things are not always what they seem, or sometimes they are even more of what they seem, or land somewhere in between, or both, or neither. But... we're just warning you of all that. A con is a con. A good poster design could be considered as one that gets you to buy a poster, the but that never actually happens to you because you know it's just a design for the poster, and a con. And this [....] the poster. A poster that is evidence of an awareness of, or a susceptibility to Consipicuous Consumption. A product of Obey... repeat.'

This message goes straight to the heart of the consumer's reflexive dilemma, when on the face of it, he or she is attracted to the counter-consumerist message of the poster, and is paradoxically driven by that attraction to want to consume. I would say then that the purpose of the 'Obey campaign' if there is any purpose at all, is to heighten the sense, that very often in buying into counter-consumerist culture, we end up succumbing to it. The irony is that 'Obey Giant's second and very clear purpose is to sell us merchandise which highlights that paradox.

The Obey Giant is a poster campaign, which has made a significant contribution to the street art scene. The work consists of a bringing together of different styles, usually political protest icons superimposed on psychedelic backgrounds. The work is more often than not posted way above eye level, giving a sense that you are looking at the manifestation of power and the representation of ideology. The problem is, the images on offer, often with obscure origins, and furthermore extricated from those origins, do not readily point to any particular ideology, just 'ideology'. One of the first posters I noticed, off Old Street, had the face of some beautiful looking Middle-Eastern looking women, wrapped in a headscarf, with two guns, with flowers coming out of them. I was thinking is this about women's oppression, Islamic revolution, a fashion house, or was it one of those sophisticated advertising campaigns when they sell you an icon, bringing the brand in later.

According to Obey Giant the aim of their 'campaigns' are 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, frequent and novel encounters with Obey propaganda provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer's perception and attention to detail'.

This would be fine if Obey Giant didn't produce merchandise, which have led others to believe that the campaign is just a sophisticated attempt to commodify 'counterculture cool'. Once the consumer has fallen in love with what seems 'counterculture', has invested in time in cracking the secret, the next step is naturally to want to buy into this new exclusive intellectual movement, and get a t-shirt. I nearly did, but a sense of buying into nothing and fakeness produced a sickening effect inside of me that stopped me. Obey Giant seems to engage with an agenda of social justice, of helping the suppressed in some way, but when you look deeper into it, all you can find is offers on t-shirts, posters and stickers.

Reflecting on my own reactions, I think there is something interesting to about how it is 'cool' to be 'counter-culture' without specifying what kind of culture you wish to replace the existing one with. That is to say, if the posters had very obviously been about communism, feminism or the environment, would I have wanted to buy into it so much. No. Furthermore it makes me think how hedonistic non-directive 'counter-culture' a la 'James Dean', a la 'if we smoke weed and listen to dub that makes us spiritually different' a la 'fuck the police Camden market t-shirt mentality' actually is. By soaking up peoples' frustrations, and especially where soaking up frustrations means soaking up their cash, it functions as a form of conservatism through consumerism. And for Obey Giant, as Mark Vallen has observed, "Perhaps the most important falsehood concerning Fairey's [Fairey is the founding father of Obey Giant] 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 ...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."

Josh McPhee claims that Obey Giant, which reproduces and recontextualises images, produced for protest movements over the years, is copywriting their material. He goes on to say, "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)." Vallen however points out that Obey Giant has also donated a poster ot the "Witness Against Torture" campaign.

I don't know quite how Shepherd Fairey, fonder of the Obey Giant campaign, and American, has such a consistent presence in London. Nevertheless, his presence is one of many examples of how the Street Art scene in the major cities of the world, thanks to cheap travel, has become global in its reach. The art you see on the walls of London is not necessarily always produced by home grown London artists.

Date Article Written: 2008



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References

  • The London Crush Final
  • The Obey Giant website
  • A fan's website dedicated to Obey Giant Prints
  • Art for a Change.