Shepard Fairey on activism, capitalism and a life in the space between
The politically and socially charged artwork of legendary street-art muralist Shepard Fairey can usually be found on canvases you can see 10 blocks away: buildings, water towers, tall walls. But his latest project leads him to lend his talent to a format you can enjoy at home: a limited edition UNO card game as part of the Mattel Brand Artist series. Fairey uses his art to raise awareness of critical issues facing society, such as the climate crisis. He says it was a natural fit for him to decorate a UNO deck of cards with his original designs, given the card deck’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
The UN is now making a 100% recyclable card game, and plans to remove the cellophane wrappers from all card games this year. The UNO x SHEPARD FAIREY deck is the first deck in the Artist series to be fully durable, with a belly band and a recyclable paper tray, wood-free and cellophane-free paper. To support the artist’s environmental commitment, Mattel made a donation on Fairey’s behalf to Ocean conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the oceans through federal and state legislation.
We spoke with Fairey about his inspiration behind the UNO cards, his activism, his thoughts on capitalism and what we can expect from this world-renowned and extremely productivist artist.
Inside Hook: What motivated you to collaborate with UNO?
Shepard Fairey: I am always honored to collaborate with brands that have an iconic history and a loyal following. I played UNO with my family as a kid, so the game brings back fond memories to me. I love that my art can be part of the conversation while friends and families are enjoying a part of UNO.
We had a first meeting with Mattel and they were delighted to collaborate together on a series of artists. Working with Mattel has been great as they were open to creating a sustainable game and responsive to my vision of creating the images on the cards related to environmental responsibility.
What inspired the illustration of the UNO deck?
First of all, I decided that I wanted to present environmental themed images to accompany the sustainable cards and packaging so that the whole project was aesthetically and conceptually cohesive. Then I looked at the consistent color palette for most of my work and broke it down into color swatches that would work with UNO.
What is your favorite card in the deck?
Number 6 is my favorite because it is a portrait of my wife as an environmental activist. It is very meaningful to me to have my significant other represented throughout the UN.
How does UNO play fit into the ‘obey’ ethic of encouraging people to open their eyes to what is going on around them in society?
Almost all of the cards include pictures and symbols that hopefully encourage the player to think about concepts such as environmental responsibility, peace, and harmony.
How does it feel to go from civil disobedience to working on a business project?
These are all different manifestations of how I share my ideas with the world. Street art and street activism is one way to make a statement and connect with people, but putting my art in front of people in their homes through my clothes or a UNO bridge are other ways to to log in. I see all of this as part of a multiplatform approach to sharing my art and ideas.
How do you, as artists, balance resistance to a capitalist society with the participation and benefit of capitalism?
We are in a capitalist system, so it is naive to claim that we can avoid capitalism. What makes sense is looking at the pros and cons of the system and navigating it in such a way that one can feel ethically comfortable while still being held accountable and hopefully. the, by changing the system by example and perhaps even by donating funds to causes that need support. I know firsthand that all of this can happen within capitalism if you proceed thoughtfully. I even use my art to criticize capitalism while monetizing this art within the same system that is being criticized. I have no other choice, but I can try to improve capitalism while I am also at its mercy in one way or another.
What is your process for conserving murals?
None of my murals are ever dictated by a client. People define commission in different ways, but my murals are never just commissions in the sense that the art I want to do is often subsidized or subscribed by the owner of the building.
How do you use your privilege to raise awareness of social justice issues?
I am sure there are many opportunities presented to me due to my privilege as a straight white male, but I use my art and social media to highlight injustice and frequently benefit activist organizations that work directly on social justice issues. I also often collaborate with organizations or artists representing people facing injustice, whether they are from BIPOC or marginalized in one way or another. I try to raise awareness and be a good ally through all the tools at my disposal.
Why do you choose to critique social justice issues through your art?
Social justice issues are close to my heart and I think art is a great way to communicate. I’ve been inspired by musicians like The Clash, Public Enemy, and Bikini Kill, who have used their art to talk about social issues, as well as visual artists like Barbara Kruger and Robbie Conal.
You call yourself an artist before an activist. What do you think of the “artivism” label that certain critics have attributed to you? Do you use it to describe your work?
No, because I only like music mashups. Seriously, I’m an activist, but I prefer to lead with my art.
How do you feel about being compared to Warhol both in your business and in your process?
That’s great. I love Warhol. I’m more political than Warhol was, but he’s definitely a big inspiration when it comes to reaching large audiences across a variety of mediums.
What questions are you currently passionate about and how does this manifest itself in your art?
I am definitely for environmental responsibility, which was one of the reasons I was happy that UNO used all sustainable materials in the cards and packaging for our collaboration. I care about an inclusive and functional democracy, so I did some things around voting rights.
Other current or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
I work with my friends D * Face and Kai & Sunny on a show that opened in London on September 9. It’s called “Unity” because we work together on all the parts.
What issues do you highlight through these?
The show in London emphasizes unity and collaboration, and harmony, but a lot of the work I do focuses on what I see as the ever-present issues of racism, sexism, change. climate, abuse of power and the need to make democracy work properly.
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