Street art might have a reputation for being provocative and political but in the age of social media take-downs is the movement itself now starting to question what it can and can’t say?
According to world-famous street artist Shepard Fairey, “cancel culture is a problem”.
Speaking to Sky News, the activist and artist said: “I think a lot of people are fearful about having an opinion in their work that others might disagree with.
“Cancel culture is a problem in that people become fearful about what topics they think they are allowed to address and in what ways.”
Having flown in for the opening of Beyond The Streets London – billed as the most comprehensive graffiti & street art exhibition to open in the UK – Fairey’s work features heavily in the three storey take-over of the Saatchi Gallery alongside over 100 other artists, including Keith Haring and the Beastie Boys.
Perhaps best-known for his iconic 2008 Obama “Hope” poster, Fairey’s work has frequently incorporated imagery of important figures of our time – including the likes of Bob Marley and Martin Luther King.
“I have always made a lot of portraits of not just white people,” the American artist explains. “My point was that, you know, we’re all humans who deserve to be treated with dignity and representation matters… but there have been some people that have said to me ‘you’re a white person, you shouldn’t paint anything other than white people’.
“And I say, there’s a way to look at that as actually really narrow minded and exclusionary. Other people say ‘you’re exploiting someone else’s culture by trying to represent it through your work’ but I say, you know, this is all about a dialogue.
“If the art brings up a conversation that I think is constructive about who gets the spotlight and is allowed to talk about what issue, I’m fine to be part of that, but if the idea is that I need to not say anything because I’m a straight white male, I’m not going to listen to that.”
Today street art is a commercial juggernaut, shared on social media, courted by fashion houses – accessible, relatable and at its best subversive.
But as a movement that sets out to stick two fingers up to the establishment, its commercialisation can seem at odds with what street art stands for.
“The whole idea of, of selling out would be compromising your principles to pander to the lowest common denominator,” Fairey insists. “I don’t like to think about these narrow minded categories. I want to reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard.
“Street is where I did a lot of my early work because I had no other opportunities and I still work on the street, it’s a very important thing to me philosophically, but to me, it’s all about creative problem solving and hitting different audiences and as many different people as possible.”
Fairey says his commercial work gives him the freedom to make free works like murals and fund his activism.
“I like the do-it-yourself empowerment model and that requires figuring out how to make it successful in the capitalist world we live in without hopefully being corrupted by the bad forces within capitalism. I’m trying to navigate that very thoughtfully and be, you know, conscious within capitalism.”
A provocateur and proud, he’d like more artists to use their work to make a stand.
“Just look around, if the world looks exactly how you want it to look then then fine, make decorative stuff. If it doesn’t, maybe try to say something.”
Beyond The Streets London runs until 9 May at the Saatchi Gallery.