A poster rendition of President Barack Obama superimposed with the word “Hope” catapulted street artist Shepard Fairey into mainstream consciousness during the 2008 election, and the internationally recognized street artist is now spreading his art – and politics – to the Mission.
On Thursday, Fairey could be seen standing on a lift some 20 feet in the air against the humble beginnings of a mural that he is currently painting on the side of a building that houses Otherlab, a design and makerspace at 701 Alabama st.
Once completed, the Mission mural will follow in the same vein as his iconic Obama poster – a boldly colored illustration inspired by an expressive 1964 portrait taken by award-winning photographer Jim Marshall.
The photograph captures Fannie Lee Chaney, a Black civil rights activist, on the day she found out that her son and two of his friends were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for registering Black voters.
“It was a voter suppression tactic then, and we are experiencing that again now,” said Fairey, adding that the message behind Chaney’s portrait, as well as four more of Marshall’s photographs that Fairey used in this series, called American Civics, still rings true.
With Chaney’s solemn but determined demeanor greeting passersby, Fairey especially hopes to reach millennials during another critical election season and encourage them to vote.
“I hope that when you look at the sacrifices that certain people have had to make just to have the right to vote, that it reminds everybody not to squander that right,” said Fairey. “As flawed as the two-party system is and as polarizing as things have been lately, it only gets worse when people don’t participate because it means that [the agenda] of those who are very powerful and want to influence the process through their campaign contributions, targeted advertisement or through social media is taking priority.”
Fairey’s art project includes a total of five adaptations of Marshall photographs focusing on what he believes to be critical social justice issues today – voting rights, mass incarcerations, gun culture, workers rights, and the country’s wealth gap.
Two of these adaptations can be viewed in the form of murals in San Francisco – at 20th and Alabama Streets and another in Hayes Valley. With 100 fine art prints of each illustration for sale, Fairey will introduce American Civics in a public art opening on Saturday at the San Francisco Art Exchange at 458 Geary St. He plans to allocate some 20 percent of the proceeds to support select social justice organizations.
“What I’m trying to do is do images inspired by Jim Marshall’s photography in the 60s but that are completely relevant to what’s going on now – from workers’ rights issues, [the country’s] obsession with guns, voter suppression, to america’s poverty and extreme wealth,” said Fairey, adding that the point of the series is to push for change.
“It’s not just me making pictures about it, I’m trying to actually do something that helps people who are in the mix,” he said.
On Wednesday, Fairey completed a Hayes Valley mural of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, whom Marshall photographed in 1966. The mural’s creation commanded the better part of two days, and Fairey estimates that the Mission mural will not be finished before Friday afternoon.
By noon on Thursday, word about a Fairey mural in the Mission attracted a crowd that gathered on the sidewalk below, hoping to get a glimpse of the artist in creation mode while musing about Fairey’s political references.
“My parents actually marched with Cesar Chavez so it was very important to me to have my son exposed to the importance of art and social justice, that’s why I’m here,” said Angelica Fematt-Davidson, who came to view the mural with her son. The former Mission resident said it was “an honor” to have Fairey’s work in the neighborhood.
Others who traveled from outside of the city to witness the artist’s process agreed.
Nicolas Lealuga, a musician from San Jose, said that he has long appreciated Fairey’s art as a platform for political commentary.
“I like the fact that he has actual opinions that most kids my age want to listen to and hear. His art backs it up – it’s a 360 in his life,” said Lealuga. “I think he’s an idol for a lot of young artists and creatives.”