Shepard Fairey Schools Us in Civics

“I’m a huge Diet Coke drinker,” Shepard Fairey says. “I’ve been switching over to Fresca, but they don’t have it everywhere.”

He and three assistants are about an hour away from finishing Voting Rights, a mural of Fannie Lee Chaney, the mother of activist James Chaney, whom the Ku Klux Klan murdered in Mississippi in 1964 during the Freedom Summer for registering African-Americans to vote. James Chaney was only 21, but Fannie Lee Chaney became an activist in her own right, and lived to see one of her son’s killers convicted of manslaughter in 2005.

Fairey and his team are a well-oiled machine, accustomed to operating on a scissor lift so all four can work in unison. But the pavement along the south-facing facade of 701 Alabama St. is on a slant, so they’re forced to assemble the image two at a time, on a smaller piece of equipment. This is their second mural of the week, having completed an image of labor leader Cesar Chavez above PROXY at 432 Octavia St. in Hayes Valley two days before.

Of their rituals, the only source of mild tension is music choice. One guy prefers Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, another dislikes The Clash and the Sex Pistols, but they tend to agree when it comes to Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube.

While the image of Chaney is striking — her pursed lips and heavy-lidded eyes could be read as defiance or as fatigue over an unjust world — she could be considered an unusual subject. Even if you’ve heard of her, it’s unlikely you’d recognize her face. Fairey chose Chaney because his show, “American Civics,” is a collaboration with the estate of Jim Marshall, a photographer best known for his images of 1960s rock stars like The Who and Jimi Hendrix, but who also captured key figures and moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

“I think that she’s compelling as an image,” Fairey says. “Hopefully, with the supplement of the newspaper articles and things like that, it would make somebody want to know the story behind it and be curious about it. Right now, we’ve been experiencing all these voter-suppression tactics in conservative states. What a lot of people went through for civil rights and voting rights, I think it’s time to be reminded.”

Fairey is most famous for his “OBEY” campaign — which came from John Carpenter’s brilliant satirical horror film, They Live — and for the HOPE poster he created during Barack Obama’s first presidential run. He felt the Bern, but he’s squarely (if slightly reluctantly) behind Hillary Clinton now.

“I would vote for a trained pig over that untrained pig,” Fairey says of Donald Trump. “Hillary’s very shrewd. I don’t know how sincere her repositioning slightly to the left of where she was is, but hopefully it’s not just her being pragmatic to woo the Bernie voters. My thought is that you have to make the best choices with the options that you have in the moment, and then, in an idealistic way, work outside the system and in the system to push for what you want to see in the future.”

“I’m not rah-rah Hillary, but I do think she’s a superior choice,” he adds.

On specific issues, he’s most optimistic about the future of campaign finance reform. Overturning Citizens United is “a tall order,” Fairey says, but the Sanders campaign proved that a candidate could refuse money from billionaires and corporations and remain viable. But climate change, an absence of police accountability, and the “lack of any sort of gun restriction” are issues where the pessimism creeps back in. But he’s not reflexively anti-cop, either.

“I also know some really cool policemen,” he says. “And I know that it would make them feel happier to know they’d have the public trust if the entire police force wore cameras.”

There is some irony in a once-underground street artist calling his show “American Civics.” You can almost hear the haute-bourgeois finger-pointing: Who is this glorified scrawler of graffiti to lecture anyone on propriety? But the show is full of tonal complexity, its pieces of arresting propaganda undermining their own messages in the manner of a vintage soda-fountain sign encouraging patrons to drink hot coffee.

In one image, a hand clutches a fistful of shiny coins with the caption “CORPORATE WELFARE? Be a Maker! Not a Taker!” In another, two male hands shake firmly next to two blackened American flags and the words “LEGAL BRIBERY. It’s not a DREAM! It’s the American SYSTEM.” And in a nod to Sherwin-Williams’ hideously anachronistic “Cover the Earth” logo — as well as to The Rolling Stones — the caption for Paint It Black (Brush) says “I see the green Earth and I want to PAINT it BLACK.” Unsubtle, maybe, but the impetus of WPA-era posters was to make them easily understandable to all.

It’s Fairey’s intuitive grasp of this point that drew the attention of Theron Kabrich, founder of the San Francisco Art Exchange, which mounted “American Civics.” The Art Exchange typically organizes shows around album covers and other themes of pop culture, and Kabrich zeroed in on Fairey’s emerging place in the pantheon of iconography.

“These things that we represent were culturally relevant as the language of the day,” Kabrich says. “Visual iconography is shorthand language. People get it right away. You don’t have to read anything, you just recognize it, and it means a lot. As time goes on, the iconography of that era begins to age, mature, become more significant and more valuable. Shepard’s work is becoming historical artifact in real time.”

Only a few days after its opening, “American Civics” already has plenty of red stickers, and it’s the proceeds from these sales — as well as from Fairey’s streetwear line, OBEY Clothing — that fund the murals, which Fairey pays for out-of-pocket. As a historical artifact, a mural’s subject is only half the issue. The other matter to consider is location. Fairey, once accustomed to putting up posters under cover of darkness, now seeks out prominent locations — and secures permission.

“Now that I can paint things that can last potentially years and years, it’s about who will give me a nice, visible space to work in,” he says. With the assistance of Noise Pop producer Jordan Kurland, Fairey vetted a number of walls, including a spot on the corner of Valencia and 17th streets. The property owner got spooked at the last minute over the possibility of blowback, a decision Fairey says he respects. I mention that that’s right across the street from the Mission Police Station.

“I know that station,” he says, without affect, and climbs back up to finish the last section of Fannie Lee Chaney’s face.

“American Civics” at the San Francisco Art Exchange 458 Geary St. 415-441-8840 or

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