The image of interest is Shepard Fairey’s OBEY Giant. Originally conceived in 1989 as a sticker with the phrase “Andre the Giant has a posse” (image 1), it was the definition of culture jamming: “a rebellious wrench in the spokes, a disruption of the semiotics of consumption.” The 1992 revised image (image 2), called simply OBEY, became ubiquitous to the point of iconicism, the figurative and literal poster child for critical street art. Fairey’s 1990 manifesto on the original work claims its intent is to make the viewer question both the sticker and their relationship to their surroundings, and mentions that stickers have been removed by some who consider them vandalism and an eyesore. Fairey notes that this is “ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in America is assaulted with daily.”
But the irony had only just begun. In 2014, the OBEY image was incorporated into a label design for cognac maker Hennessy’s line “Hennessy VS Limited Edition by Shepard Fairey,” which will sell for $32 a bottle. The explicitly subversive image has joined the ranks of advertisements and sits in the window of liquor stores across the United States (and two blocks from my apartment). Though OBEY in its street art form was frequently considered vandalism or an eyesore, its commercial version enjoys tacit acceptance.
Fairey’s culture-jamming work has been co-opted in the third image, and its rebellious reputation is being used to inform consumer perceptions even as the very nature of this use blatantly contradicts the original subversion. Any message it might have possessed has been further muddied by the isolation of the giant’s face and the removal of the linguistic message “OBEY.” What happens to disruption when a powerful visual culture absorbs and re-introduces it in a manifestation of said culture?
These wildly divergent iterations make it difficult to classify the image. Has it become a cultural symbol, rather than an artistic statement? Is it an advertisement? Is it art? Can it be both? Seemingly, Fairey’s work has become too ubiquitous, losing any significance it may have once possessed. But the image continues to cause this researcher to question his surroundings. In this way, at least, it seems not to have strayed far from the original intent.