The mural is still being completed when we speak but the work by the 47-year-old Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairey is already doing the rounds on Instagram.
The artwork, on the side of 309 George St in Sydney, is a 50m-high and 30m-wide woman with flowers behind her ears, holding a giant waratah – the floral emblem of New South Wales – and the word “OBEY”.
The artist’s largest work, which will take around 400 cans of spray paint to complete, it’s immediately recognisable as belonging to the same family of the widely popular political posters: the Hope poster that was widely visible through Barack Obama’s campaign and the image prominent through the Trump resistance: We The People.
Fairey, who designed those images, has had an eclectic career jumping between DJing, street art, activism, design and corporate consulting. He’s now in Sydney for Vivid, unveiling the CBD mural and giving a talk on Saturday: “I’m talking about my entire art practice but emphasising DIY movements – punk rock, street art and skateboarding,” he says. Fairey is a descendant not just of 1980s street art and skateboarding culture but of the ironic conceptual art of Marcel Duchamp.
It was the Hope posters that made Fairey’s name as a political artist and brought him to the attention of a mass audience – but as Obama progressed into his presidency, and began to make compromises, the association lost its gloss.
In 2010, The Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert interviewed Fairey and asked: “How’s that ‘Hope’ working out for you now?” Ten years on from those posters, Fairey has a less idealistic view of the president.
“There were things I admire about Obama and things I’m disappointed in – such as drone strikes. I’m unhappy that he didn’t dismantle the surveillance state and he defended domestic spying. But there’s nobody that’s going to be perfect.”
Fairey is still passionate about politics from a grassroots level, which he says is needed now more than ever under the Trump administration.
He highlights “the scapegoating of Muslims and the corporatisation of US politics – and the need for finance reform” as issues that concern him.
But he’s buoyed by the resurgence of activism in America.
“One of the things that was always great about grassroots movements is like-minded people finding each other. Look at the Occupy movement and the belief that a small group of people can provide family for each other, and do good in the world. Right now in the US there’s a lot of cynicism, a lot of people are failing to connect.”
Fairey wants people to “start conversations with different people and explore different strategies for change,” he says. “It’s not hopeless.”