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Shepard Fairey talks street art in Sydney—and reveals which word he would have put on a Hillary poster

The US artist was in Australia to create his largest-ever mural, a 44-metre-tall message of “peace and harmony”

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Shepard Fairey and his team of three assistants were in central Sydney this month, painting Fairey’s biggest ever mural on an office block wall, when a passer-by approached the Los Angeles-based artist with a man-to-man warning. “The women aren’t going to like that,” the man confided to Fairey, indicating the word “obey” written in huge letters directly below the mural’s beautiful face. Fairey scratched his chin, and told the man: “Well, maybe she’s saying ‘obey’ to the guys”.

Satisfied, the man wandered off. Several days later, a much larger audience was able to question Fairey when he spoke at Sydney Town Hall on 17 June under the auspices of Vivid Sydney, the annual event organised by the New South Wales government tourism agency, which commissioned the mural. And the artist shared the background to some of his best-known works, as well as his thoughts on the commercialisation of the street art movement.

Fairey came to prominence in 2008 with his Hope poster, which generated support for Barack Obama’s campaign for the US presidency. Having been sued for using an existing press photograph in his design, he said copyright laws should give artists more latitude to create “transformative” works from source materials.

Asked which word he would have chosen if he had done a poster for Hillary Clinton’s recent campaign for the presidency, Fairey said it would have been “meh”. “Hillary, I think, was defeated largely as a result of sexism, but I was not incredibly moved by her as a candidate the way I was by Obama,” Fairey said.

When asked about the Sotheby’s sale of a Banksy wall work, Fairey shrugged. “Banksy’s art being removed and sold is not something that I endorse, but at the same time, he stole the space, so touché,” he said. But Fairy added that while he saw Banksy’s spirit in creating the work as “generous” the motivations of those who remove and sell his work is selfish. “They want to capitalise on it, and he wanted to share it. It’s better for it to stay on the street for people to enjoy.”

Fairey also shows his work in upmarket galleries, and has been asked whether this would “neuter or de-claw” the street art movement. “Give it a rest, you idiot,” Fairey said. “Street art is on the street. Graffiti is on the street. When it’s in the museum, it’s not street art or graffiti. It’s art by that same person done in a different context.”