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Shepard Fairey Fights Back

Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the famous Obama poster image, and who was accused by the AP last week of copyright violation, has now counter-sued pre-emptively sued the AP claiming his use of the image was fair use.

Arguing in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Fairey’s lawyers acknowledged that he had used the photo, which was taken by Mannie Garcia for the AP, but said he had transformed the literal depiction into a "stunning, abstracted and idealized visual image that creates powerful new meaning and conveys a radically different message."

Fairey’s getting some powerful help in his fight. The lawsuit was brought on Fairey’s behalf by the Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project and a San Francisco-based law firm.

It’s been a tumultuous week for Fairey, who opened a 20-year career retrospective at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art on Wednesday, then was arrested on Friday as he was about to deejay a party at the art museum. He was charged with tagging property in Boston with graffiti based on the Andre the Giant street art from his early career, then released a few hours later. He was scheduled to be arraigned today in Brighton District Court.

Fairey has a history of arrests from his years as a street artist. But right now, he’s more of a hero than an outlaw to most of Boston. Currently, in addition to his show at the ICA, he received permission to install several murals around Boston including a giant 20 x 50 foot banner on the side of Boston City Hall that was welcomed by the Mayor himself.

Last week, I had the good fortune to be part of a group of fellow RISD alums and trustees to have dinner with Fairey before seeing the show with him and the curator Pedro Alonzo. Tom Roberts, who taught Fairey in a class on propaganda, was part of our group.

Fairey reminisced about his first days putting up OBEY stickers around Providence, roughly 20 years ago, especially the famous defacement in which he pasted a giant Andre sticker over the mug of the famously corrupt then Mayor Buddy Cianci's billboard.

He also passionately discussed the future of art and design as a force for social change and how this election cycle really opened up new doors for art design since people were really able to witness the power and value of good design as never-before.

The show itself organizes a diverse body of work by theme or idea as opposed to chronologically, allowing a viewer to experience the development of Fairey’s ideas and influences.

Despite his arrest, one effect of the show will surely be a move toward the legitimization of street art (Supply & Demand is the first solo show at an art institution like the ICA for a street artist). And the dueling lawsuits will inevitably make more people want to see the show. That’s good news for anybody interested in design as a force for social change.

Shepard Fairey in Boston

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