WBUR News | From Obey Giant To Oceans, Shepard Fairey On His First Permanent Mural In Boston

By Andrea Shea,

Shepard Fairey has immortalized the likenesses of wrestling icon André the Giant and President Barack Obama in paint. It's safe to say we've all seen the artist's red, white and blue “Hope” image on T-shirts, buildings and front lawns during Obama's 2008 election campaign.

Now, it's the North Atlantic right whale's turn for a treatment by Fairey. The artist-activist executed a three-color mural on the New England Aquarium's Simons Theatre to highlight the endangered species' plight. It's part of a global environmental public art program known as Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans. Fairey's image is one of 13 new advocacy murals that just went up around Boston.

After introducing himself as an activist, fine artist, street artist, graphic designer and clothing entrepreneur, Fairey added, “I like to make imagery that talks about social justice issues. That's a big theme of my work.”

Describe your relationship with the ocean.
Shepard Fairey: I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which is on the Atlantic and, you know, spent a lot of time in the summers, always at the beach. Then I moved to Rhode Island so I was by the water. Then I moved to California. I've really all my life lived by the water. And my dad is a big outdoorsman and always believed in emphasizing the importance of respecting the ecology of the coast. So, you know, that seemed like him being his usual sort of do-gooder, better-than-everybody else self. But as I got older, I realized there was a real beauty to that. And when I became more engaged in environmental causes the generation gap seemed a little bit smaller between me and my dad.

It's always interesting to think of parental influence, even if it's not direct influence. So this mural, can you describe how the commission came to you?
There's an organization called Pangeaseed that's driving a lot of the artists' participation in this project. I've loved what they've been doing with their painted oceans and printed oceans. So the murals and prints that they're using to create awareness and revenue for ocean preservation — because it falls perfectly in line with the model I'm using for a lot of the work that I do where I make an image about something I care about. I might make a print, I might make a T-shirt I'm going to donate to the NRDC or 350.org or Greenpeace. And so I've been wanting to do something with Pangeaseed for years, and this project happened to come at a time when I had an opening in my schedule.

And also, doing something in Boston on the New England Aquarium is an amazing opportunity. It's a really iconic location that gets a lot of visitors. So it works perfectly for my idea that any message that's worth delivering can be amplified with art.

Can you describe what viewers will see?
It's the North Atlantic right whale at the bottom of the composition — under the water with waves. And then emanating from the whale — not precisely where the blowhole would be, but suggesting that idea — is a "V" which has rays coming up. And the focal point is a mandala with the earth at the center. And it's got some text across the top about vibrant oceans. But really mixed into that mandala, there's flowers, there's ornamentation, but there's also some flames which are the cautionary element about global warming.

This isn't the first piece you've done that confronts climate change.
I just released a print this morning that was about the power of the fossil fuel companies and the need to push back against their disinformation campaigns, their lobbying, their economic leverage, and to ask them with their resources to help the world transition. They've benefited a lot by messing up the atmosphere, and so I think it's only fair. If I can't appeal to legislators to put cap-and-trade in effect, I can at least appeal to voters.

But I've done tons of pieces. During COP21 [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate] in late 2015, I did the "Earth Crisis Globe" that was suspended from the Eiffel Tower. I did a big art show that was all environmentally-themed works in Paris about six months after that. I recently for Greenpeace did a portrait of Joe Biden where he's split down the middle with a blue side and a red side — and factories spewing smoke on one side and green energy on the other side — saying, you know, which future will you deliver for us? It's obviously up to a lot more than just Joe Biden, but Joe Biden is a driver of policy and someone who sets the tone for the conversation.

What is it that art can do, perhaps, that other means of trying to communicate or convince can't? How does art have the power to do something that another mode doesn't? 
Art impacts emotionally and study after study have shown that people are driven more by emotion than they are by intellectual ideas, and that intellectual ideas coalesce often around emotions. So there have been people that use that in a really dangerous, manipulative way for their own gain. I would like to use those techniques in a community-oriented, generous spirit for everyone's benefit.

I actually want to make the invisible hand of persuasion visible. I'm very transparent about what I'm doing. Plus, art is great therapy for me. Just working on pictures is soothing for my feelings of powerlessness about all sorts of bad things going on in the world. If I feel like I'm doing something, then there's also the therapy in that. So I can't think of anything else that has that dichotomy in such a beautiful way

When people see the mural, what do you hope they take away from it? 
I hope they become curious about the whale that's in it. I hope they think about how the oceans cover a massive amount of the planet and that ocean health is really important to the health of the entire planet. I hope that the mandala helps them to see this interconnectedness.

But I'd like people to consider that along with my mural, there's 13 other murals and that all of these murals are about a generous spirit to do things for the world and that we all have small things that we can do. So, yes, these murals are big endeavors, but they're all embodying a spirit that anybody can have in their small and large actions in their life.