Later on, and for a long period, Fairey would face legal issues related to appropriation and fair use, which were resolved, as the artist settled out of court in January 2011. In 2015 he commented on the incident: “I believe in copyright but I also believe that my approach to the ‘Hope’ poster was transformative illustration, not appropriation and no different from the approach taken by many works that are highly regarded by art historians. I’m proud of the ‘Hope’ poster as a tool of grassroots activism that hopefully empowers people to feel like they can make a difference even if they don’t come from a position of wealth or power.” In the end, one year after its creation, the “Hope” poster found its place in the U.S. National Portrait Gallery, alongside publications of multiple variations in the Time magazine, the Esquire Magazine, and the book “Art For Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change".
In the years to follow, the artist worked on many other projects, including murals, posters, book and album illustrations, etc. Unsurprisingly, all of these media and means correspond to the artist’s intention to make his art as accessible as possible. Shepard Fairey is a true public artist: “I consider myself a populist artist. I want to reach people through as many different platforms as possible. Street art is a bureaucracy-free way of reaching people, but T-shirts, stickers, commercial jobs, the Internet – there are so many different ways that I use to put my work in front of people.” As a result, the artist has worked on a series of international commissions in the US, Europe, and Africa. The way he chooses to describe his public murals as “propaganda” is indicative of the way he sees himself as a socio-political artist and his art as a carrier of the ideas and the issues that he is interested in addressing. This, inevitably, brings up the concept of meaning
and how this is generated through the way the audience confronts the art of Fairey, in other words, through the way people react to and reflect on it.
His work is highly political and social, not only because he is incorporating politicians and slogans in it but more importantly because the artist is primarily interested in approaching as many people as possible, exhibiting his work in the covers of the books, which we read, in the music albums, to which we listen, and on the walls of the streets, where we walk. “If I put art in a daring spot, it’s more moving to the viewer and demonstrates my conviction.”, he says. After all, Fairey, in many cases, directly expresses his views on politics and society, whenever he is given the chance. For example, in the aftermath of the “Hope” poster, he commented the following: “Obama has had a really tough time, but there have been a lot of things that he's compromised on that I never would have expected. I mean, drones and domestic spying are the last things I would have thought [he'd support]”. The political aspect of his work can, also, be seen under the spectrum of Fairey’s activism and humanitarian activity. Many of his works have been created as part of activism campaigns or were sold to support causes relevant to the Arts, animal rights, poverty, medical research, the environment, etc. The artist, however, doesn’t identify himself as an activist: “People ask me if I’m an activist, and my answer is no. I’m an artist with a point of view, but I want to do my part to supplement activist causes I believe in. I feel fortunate to connect with people who find my imagery useful and help spread it.”
At the same time, the artist's work exists equally in the boundaries of activism, as well as in those of commercial art. Fairey has been criticized for the commerciality of his work, especially because of his relationship with street art. Such a critique is based on the idea that street art is supposed to be free, unruly and arbitrary, a concept that has its roots in the way people used to perceive it back in the 70s and 80s. However, street art has come a long way since then, and, in our days, it is celebrated and exhibited in the world’s biggest galleries, while the artists themselves are no longer seen as borderline criminals and parasites of society. Nonetheless, there is a certain irony in a street artist addressing issues of free speech, capitalism and consumer culture, while working and getting paid by international corporations. This is a contemporary issue that arose as part of the progressive commercialization and institutionalization of street art. In any case, given these relatively new conditions, and the ever-growing destigmatization of street art, it is logical for one to expect that it will evolve in similar ways as other forms of art that found their place in mainstream culture and media. What most artists agree upon, is that financial support is important: “I’ve been hearing some cries of “SELLOUT!” over the various products for sale. I put all the profits back into more stickers and posters for the street because that is my love, not money.”, he says.
At the same time, partnerships with big brands can sometimes function as a strategy of maximizing the exposure of an aesthetic or an idea, which are important for the artist: “I work outside the system, but I’m also willing to infiltrate the system to improve it from within whenever possible. My practice began by doing things on the street, but now I have a lot of opportunities to do sanctioned pieces...”. The art of Shepard Fairey is following street art’s path over the past decades. Starting from drawing on walls, t-shirts and skateboards and facing multiple legal charges to receiving commissions by colossal corporations online, the artist has established himself as one of the most influential figures in the art scene of our days. His work has found its place both in public sites and, over time, inside the world’s biggest art institutions, such as the Smithsonian Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Rising to fame in the early 1990s, Shepard Fairey has rightfully won his place as a major figure of contemporary art, playing a significant role in shaping the public’s perception of politics, society, and art per se.