OBEY Giant: A Case Study in the Semiotics of Consumption

Curator's Note

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.


I'm surprised you didn't mention Obey Clothing (founded in 2001). Shepard Fairey turned his anti-brand into a brand long before Hennessy came knocking. I would argue that yes, an image can be both an advertisement and art, but a piece can't stand for anti-commercialism and function as a logo for a clothing line at the same time. The whole premise of the Andre image as a disruption was that it looked like a logo but was not--it appeared to be advertising something but it was just an empty sign; a signifier without a signified. Of course, a sign can't remain empty for long, and soon enough it became associated with both Fairey's anti-consumerist message, as well as Fairey himself. The image contributed to a cult of personality of the type that many artists enjoy. Had Fairey refused to cash in on the image, I would agree that it could still retain its original intent. I might even agree that he could do a one-off Hennessy logo without completely undermining the message. If it still functions for some people as a reminder to question their surroundings that's certainly a positive residual effect of the original campaign, but it relies on the receiver's knowledge of cultural history of a prior generation. I disagree with the claim that current iterations of the image have the same intent--the intent is pretty clearly about promoting a clothing brand. If Fairey really wanted they Obey campaign to retain its subversive force, he should not have leveraged it as a logo for his clothing line.

This is a great addition. I think it's pretty clear that Fairey no longer has the same intent for this campaign, and I do not intend to make any claim to the contrary. He's explicitly told interviewers that he is a capitalist who has no problem monetizing his work, notably in the clothing line you've mentioned. Rather, I think it is quite far from the original intent, but merely hoped to note that in my case happened to retain this one function. Thank you for spurring this clarification. What is most interesting to me is how dissent, or the perceived rebellious nature of the work (the filling of the empty sign, as you put it), is leveraged in the larger consumer culture that is the subject against which the perceived rebellion takes place. The clothing is also an example of this. Thanks for the comment!

As a fan of Negativland, Craig Baldwin, etc. I was interested in your (and Fairey's) use of the term "culture-jamming." How productive do you think this concept is in the present day, now that the commercial incorporation of street art is such a commonplace? Thinking of this example shared on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MoscaMaurer/status/559060072886960128/photo/1 That process has a history too. Even Wild Style deals with graffiti artists getting their work put into galleries and dealing with their changing sense of self. I enjoyed your piece. Thanks!

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