Brush With Greatness
By Gary Singh
MOST CITIES revel in their own pop culture landmarks or specific locales tied to things that celebrities did there. For example, much hoopla survives about the road where James Dean crashed, the hotel room where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols murdered his girlfriend, the garage that spawned Hewlett-Packard, the diner Suzanne Vega wrote a song about or that stretch of highway in Malibu where Mel Gibson got his infamous DUI. San Jose has a few similar sites, for example, the house on Jackson Street where Nirvana stayed in 1990.
I will suggest another local landmark which might possibly achieve similar notoriety: the city utilities box at the corner of Fruitdale and Southwest Expressway, where Shepard Fairey on Aug. 2, 2000, plastered a "promotional" poster for his art show at Anno Domini the next night. No one can vouch for how long the poster lasted, as the authorities painted over it soon thereafter. In fact, many of Shepard's other posters throughout San Jose that weekend were covered up or removed with impressive and extraordinary quickness. Little did anybody in San Jose know that eight years later, Time magazine would commission Shepard to create an image of president-elect Barack Obama for the cover of their 2008 Person of the Year issue—the one you see on the newsstands at this very moment.
Shepard is a world-renowned cultural provocateur who works with viral marketing and street art campaigns as forms of communication. He creates propaganda-style imagery that explores and confounds the role of subliminal advertising in our everyday lives. His most notable operation, "Obey Giant," began with just a few hundred stickers of the professional wrestler, Andre the Giant, containing the words, "Andre the Giant has a posse," including Andre's height and weight. The stickers, in themselves, meant absolutely nothing, but after Shepard and his friends started placing them around Charleston, S.C., an entire street art campaign exploded and the stickers began surfacing in major cities all across the country. Casual observers on the streets became confused. Some folks thought the stickers represented a religious cult, while others thought it was a gang. The campaign was a ridiculing of propaganda and a wiseass stunt to see how the populace would interpret the imagery, but it eventually grew into a worldwide movement, especially when Shepard added the "Obey" slogan to the stickers. "Obey Giant," as a brand, then went big time. "Obey" clothing lines, mural art and even musical instruments emerged and the iconography has infiltrated many facets of pop culture around the globe.
Then came Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and Shepard was hooked. In what was seen by many as a departure from his standard inflammatory, anti-establishment tactics, Shepard, working independently, created the now-ubiquitous Obama "hope" poster, with the candidate's face silkscreened in red, white and blue. The picture became the iconic image of Obama's campaign. When the editors at Time chose the president-elect for their 2008 Person of the Year, they commissioned Shepard to create the cover image for the issue.
So there you have it. When Shepard came and plastered his street art over parts of San Jose eight years ago, the authorities either ripped 'em down or painted over them, and now he's getting paid to make Obama imagery for Time magazine. In fact, if you pull over and visit that hideous utilities box at Southwest and Fruitdale, right next to the 25 bus stop, you will see that two sides of the box appear to be still covered with paint and not the same color as the rest of the structure. The box just might be the only remaining landmark from Shepard Fairey's 2000 San Jose appearance. Think about that next time you look at Time's 2008 Person of the Year issue. Even better, think about it whenever you drive by that intersection.