Shepard Fairey discusses his process behind the “VOTE” TIME magazine cover

By Daniel Paiz

After what has felt like a lifetime, it is finally election day here in the United States. Results won’t be known for days. The good news is, we can learn a bit more about how this historic VOTE cover came to be. I was lucky enough to virtually attend Shepard Fairey sitting down with TIME‘s creative director D.W. Pine to discuss this cover, his process, and more.

Shepard Fairey an equal opportunist when creating

Pine starts off the interview diving right into the creation of the image. TIME and Fairey are not strangers, as the two have collaborated twice before on covers; most notably the 2008 cover featuring Barack Obama and the iconic HOPE cover. One part of the image stuck out as Fairey describes his creative process: the face covering on the woman.

The bandanna that the woman is wearing is an act of rebellion. Open rebellion was an act of sedition against Britain back in the day. The cover over the face also reflects the times of COVID and dealing with voting in the time of a pandemic.

Shepard Fairey

It’s interesting the combined message delivered on the cover. In 2020 voting should not be an act of rebellion, and yet somehow it feels like it is. The similarity between this image and the HOPE poster in 2008 is evident, though Fairey doesn’t directly draw a line between the two. What’s also fascinating is the process in which the OBEY creator vocalizes how he decides to create his artwork.

Every tool that gives you the end result is valid.

Shepard Fairey

A democratized way of utilizing different medium

Many viewers might assume (wrongly) that Fairey only creates these days via digital means. I too thought this, only to be proven wrong; this guy uses a lot of different avenues to create. On this project he’s figured out a way to use both physical and digital means:

I hand illustrate from photo references, using three different perspectives. I work on the color, typography, scan spray paint and other textures creating a digital mockup. Analog, digital, and then back to analog with screen prints or collages. The spray paint texture brings that organic texture to it. I’m trying to use every kind of platform to share my work with people.

Shepard Fairey

Going analog to digital and then back to analog seems like a lot of work, but those visuals are worth it. Once I heard this though, it clicked. Graffiti artists have to create with any method at their fingertips. So, if you have a grand spectrum to choose from, then you might as well use everything at your disposal.

Fairey doesn’t create with the goal of using all of his resources; he creates in order to try and level the playing field when it comes to public messaging. Murals are a public piece of art that can state things in a way other mediums just can’t:

Murals to me are a way of democratizing art, because people with little power that have some courage have a say. It’s an outlet, a voice in a public space.

Shepard Fairey

Art is a great way to level the playing field when it comes to getting your message out. While some might only still think of New York City when it comes to graffiti or murals, they’ve become global tools of art and expression. The non-commissioned or “illegal” ones (there’s more important things to arrest people for) are still frowned upon, but even big-time artists like this guy still participates in this lane of tagging:

I am the same person inside that I was when I was a teenager discovering hip-hop and punk music; if I’ve been arrested 20 times and my spirit is unchanged, you can fill in the blank…

Shepard Fairey

Inspiration

The artist behind the historic VOTE cover has a variety of inspirations. He reads and checks out the work of other artists. He also deejays and creates skateboard art. Fairey seems to always be consuming. It seems that devouring other forms of expression are fuel for him. There’s little limitation to his craft and it appears to ironically be due to limitations he places on himself:

I have a stylistic system to make things unified and cohesive; I’d design in two or three colors because I couldn’t afford more than that. Those limitations are something that have stuck with me since then. I knew more or less the color palette I would use. It gives me a little bit more freedom in a narrower space to figure things out.

Shepard Fairey

Doing less with more is kind of the first thing listed in a creatives’ rulebook (if such a thing existed). Just because one doesn’t have the means to purchase materials doesn’t mean the art doesn’t still exist. This rings true even for those murals that were mentioned earlier:

 It’s much harder to do those big legal murals, compromised to a degree. The medium is the message; the act itself has a message of defiance and democracy.

Shepard Fairey

Art is just one way to make a difference. There are other options that have become available to this artist due to his continued success.

Hope for the future

While hope is often something expected in young people, Fairey has observed it across all ages. There are people who are doing what they can to help each other. In the midst of a pandemic, helping in any way you can is the best thing to do. It’s going to take some open-mindedness and a belief in equality to get there, at least from Fairey’s perspective:

 I see acts of kindness, like at the start of the pandemic. When bars and venues shut down, people wanted to make sure those people had some support. Everyone that’s not super rich is probably feeling the economic impact of the pandemic.

Shepard Fairey

While it might be easier for a successfully popular artist to contribute, everyone has the ability to do so. That’s the biggest takeaway from this brief interview: a willingness to be open and help others are the first steps towards recovery in a divided nation.

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