City Desk

Is Shepard Fairey A Plagiarist?

Shepard Fairey is the guy that made that now-ubiquitous Obama poster. The guy has certainly got his 15 minutes of fame leading up to the inauguration and, well, throughout the week. Fairey has been critiqued as a hack and an opportunist. And a guy who likes his 15 minutes of fame. The guy has done Charlie Rose's show. Glad I missed that one. But I dig his art.

Now the bad stuff, the really bad stuff. The AP is going after him for using its photo of Obama in his poster:

"The image, Fairey has acknowledged, is based on an Associated Press photograph, taken in April 2006 by Manny Garcia on assignment for the AP at the National Press Club in Washington.

The AP says it owns the copyright, and wants credit and compensation. Fairey disagrees.

'The Associated Press has determined that the photograph used in the poster is an AP photo and that its use required permission,' the AP's director of media relations, Paul Colford, said in a statement."

And there's been a new critique making the rounds. The critique is that he's a plagiarist. Artist Mark Vallen lobbed the missive a while ago. But it's starting to pop up now.

Vallen writes:

"Plagiarism is the deliberate passing off of someone else's work as your own, and Shepard Fairey may be unfamiliar with the term – but not the act. This article is not about the innocent absorption of visual ideas that later materialize unconsciously in an artist's work, we do after all live in a maelstrom of images and we can't help but be affected by them. Nor am I referring to an artist's direct influences – which artist can claim not to have been inspired by techniques or styles employed by others? What I am concerned with is the brazen, intentional copying of already existing artworks created by others – sometimes duplicating the originals without alteration – and then deceiving people by pawning off the counterfeit works as original creations."

Vallen goes on to get personal:

"Perhaps the most important falsehood concerning Fairey's behavior is that it is motivated by some grand theory of aesthetics or weighty political philosophy – but I'm afraid the only scheme at work is the one intended to make Fairey wealthy and famous. Some have, for whatever reason, imagined Fairey to be a progressive political figure, a perception certainly cultivated by the artist; but it's also not impossible to view Fairey's work as right-wing in essence, since it largely ransacks leftist history and imagery while the artist laughs all the way to the bank."

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  • VNL.

    I don't understand what the big deal is. Is Vallen just hating because he didn't come up with this stuff himself? Or is he just trying to assert his Art History prowress? Shepard Fairey's brilliance lies in his ability to take iconic images, flip the script, and make a whole new statement, giving the image entirely new meaning. If anything, he's paying homage to the strength of the original imagery.

  • C. Kelly

    I don't think the AP has a real case. I think they are just trying to use their group power and $ to squeeze an individual. I hope he doesn't cave.

  • AED

    "15 minutes of fame"? Cherkis, where have you been for the last 20 years? Shepard Fairey is probably one of the most well known, and highly respected artists of last two decades. Respected it seems, with the exception of Mr. Vallen, whose own work is sadly lacking in the creativity that he purports to see missing in Shepard Fairey's work.

  • Adam Zucker

    I just posted an article relating to this very same topic in my blog. I go at this from an art historical perspective. check it out!

  • iremember

    This guy Fairey has made a career out of lifting images that don't belong to him then passing them off as his own. He doesn't deserve any support as an artist. You people that believe he doesn't do this are gravely misinformed and need to do your homework before you embrace your poster boy.

  • Jim

    iremember, are hip hop musicians plaigarists if they sample?

  • Jim Treacher

    "Shepard Fairey’s brilliance lies in his ability to take iconic images, flip the script, and make a whole new statement, giving the image entirely new meaning."

    Yeah, taking a piece of socialist propaganda you found and slapping an "Obey" logo on it is really flipping the script. You must be a big fan of eBaum too.

  • Disobey Giant

    I like his work, but he had to realize that for this purpose he should obtain/purchase proper permission for the photo. I hope he can cut a deal with the photographer but not lose everything (a la The Rolling Stones and Verve).

    Lifting the images to re-purpose them seems to be intrinsic to his art. Regardless of whether we appreciate the validity of his decisions, clearly he can recognize and produce produce competent (and popular) graphical compositions. I am envious of his success, but I don't feel the need to see him toppled. This was a pivotal gig and he blew it. It may not hurt his street cred, but he's not likely to get any evites to the White House.

  • theRake


  • Rumspring

    Why is anyone listening to Vallen? What is motivating Vallen (15 minutes)? Why doesn't this post question the assertions of Vallen's rant?

    Visit and have a look at the editorial from February 2, 2009 about appropriation if you want an enlightened and informed view of these accusations:

  • KCinDC

    People are listening to Vallen because many (though not all) of the examples he gives are damning, showing that Fairey appropriated others' images with essentially no changes, giving no credit to those who did the actual work. The AP case, on the other hand, seems a bit of a stretch, especially since the original photo would have been completely forgotten if Fairey hadn't chosen it.

  • s

    The AP case is weak. This article is weak. Rumspring is right on.

  • Sham

    Vallen's criticism was known long before it was mentioned in the Boston Globe and just before Fairey went mainstream with the Obama image. If you actually read the critique you would realize that the Obama image was not mentioned in the critique. The problem with Fairey is that he is a hypocrite. He slammed Baxter Orr in early 2008 with legal threats after Orr made a parody of the Obey Giant image. So where does he get off crying fair use now? Shepard Fairey has shown his true colors. I read the SuperTouch article and it shows how stupid his supporters are. No one is going to pay for that book just to make the connections that Fairey should have been able to make without it! If he is gong to support fair use he should accept that others are going to use his work and pay him homage in the same way he claims to pay homage to Rene Mederos and other minority artists he has stolen from without giving credit where credit is due!

  • Septic One

    Shepard Fairey should be called out on stealing from minority artists and for twisting the message of other artists. I read articles that open my eyes to how horrible he is as a man. He does not allow artist to comment visually on his art but takes, takes, takes all he can from minority artists and photographers. If he thinks that fair use is creative freedom he should accept that artists will comment on his work visually and profit from it just as he does. NPR did not ask him about any of his contradictions and ICA did not either. He is a hypocrite and steals culture for his own profit and messages. He is a rightest selling a leftist message for his own fame and fortune. Support the ASL group in exposing this fraud. Please read and see what he does from the words of this man who has been critical of this artist,

    And the Supertouch article bashing Mr. Vallen is bogus. They only bash Mr. Vallen becauses Vallen is a true revolutionary artist and mentor of the streets. They do it because Mr. Fairey makes them money.