Shepard Fairey’s Joaquin Phoenix: Comeback, or Final Blow?


Shepard Fairey, creator of the frequently vandalized mural on Houston and Bowery, is back in the game with a series of street installations depicting bearded crazy person/actor Joaquin Phoenix. Vulture reports that the Joaquins have been spotted in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston, among other cities. This is presumably linked to the release of Casey Affleck’s documentary coming out next month on Phoenix’s attempts to become a hip-hop artist.

As Fairey’s next move after the great mural fiasco of 2010, does this represent a comeback? Or yet another blow to his career?

Fairey is best known for two particularly successful works: his early “Obey Giant” campaign (available on a T-shirt near you!), featuring an image of Andre the Giant looking formidable, and his Barack Obama Hope poster, created during the 2008 presidential campaign (Happy 49th, Mr. President!). He’s pretty much always been a successful commercial artist, producing album art, movie posters, and work for big corporations like Pepsi.

Most recently, Fairey installed a new mural at the former site of Keith Haring’s legendary work on Houston and Bowery. Literally within hours, people started tagging it, and now the thing has been so beat up it’s going to be taken down. So, sure, a lot of people didn’t like it, but why the vitriol and vandalism?

Fairey told the New York Times in April that “Because I’m straddling the line between all these different worlds — the fine art world, the street art world, commercial design, fashion — I think I’m a target for a lot of narrow-minded people who just aren’t comfortable with my multi-platform approach.” Translation: Other artists are targeting him because they’re jealous of his commercial success — or, they resent him for being a sellout (that may be the same thing, actually).

There’s also been some ruckus over copyright infringement issues, with the AP accusing the artist of appropriating a news photo for his Obama posters without permission. In sum, the last year or two haven’t been a breeze for the artist.

But what of the new works featuring Phoenix? They’re apolitical, openly commercial enough that it would be dumb to criticize them for being commercial, and they’re actually pretty cool-looking. If they don’t go over well, this could be another big blow for Fairey. But if they’re well-received, this could be a turnaround. Remains to be seen.

(Speaking of Joaquin Phoenix, remember his balls-out crazy appearance on Letterman last year? Here you go. Happy Wednesday.)