Obey Banksy

Banksy’s site—and overall approach to art, really—is everything the Obey campaign could and should have been. Or the other way around, depending on your priorities, I guess.

Banksy is a “guerilla artist” whose graffiti and public art (or “stunts,” if you prefer) speak for themselves. His web site brings you to an image of people lining up to spend thirty bucks on t-shirts calling for the destruction of capitalism (which is, you know, funny). The “shop” on his web site features only free, downloadable items. Is he making a living on his art? Beats me, but I’d be impressed if he is. He’s not running a merchandising empire, and each of his pieces is designed to make you think rather than to make a buck, so that would be quite the feat. He gets it.

Shepard Fairey started tagging public places with his “Andre the Giant has a posse” stickers back when he was just a mischievous skater kid. In art school, he developed a recognizable (and, in my opinion, pretty cool-looking) design and illustration style. His site explains his “Obey the Giant” campaign as “an experiment in Phenomenology,” encouraging people to question their surroundings by introducing imagery akin to “advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious.” If this is true, the Obey campaign is a complete failure, thanks to its clothing line.

The Obey Giant site features some “provocative questions” and Fairey’s answers, including one asking “what kind of clothes you sell and how they work in the way your stickers and posters work?” The answer: “My clothing line is designed to espouse my ideas and be intelligently irreverent. I’m hoping the stencils will get the line banned in high schools, then kids will want it even more and understand oppression on a small scale. I also just enjoy making cool stuff.”

I rather like the design of Obey clothing, but I think that’s not a particularly provocative question and either a disingenuous or a self-delusional answer. Banksy has a similar little Q&A on his site, in which he answers a question about whether he makes t-shirts: “i don’t make shirts because it would feel like the painting was a guerilla marketing campaign for a fashion label.” I am inclined to agree.

And, in theory, that seems like a pretty cool gig to me—making thought-provoking clothing with a guerilla marketing campaign behind it, I mean. Or even just fun clothing with a guerilla marketing campaign. A guy’s gotta make money somehow, right? And I do enjoy the snappy t-shirts. And I suppose I think of tagging to promote a brand more as “viral” marketing than “guerilla” marketing, considering that you’re not trying to fool anybody—you’re just trying to go through different channels, drum up word of mouth among people who are sick of commercials. Actually, I bet Banksy would do a killer job with that kind of thing, if he were so inclined. Maybe the world doesn’t actually need a radical artist who eschews turning his work into merchandise. Maybe Banksy is wasting his time. In that case, I guess, maybe the Obey campaign is everything that Banksy’s stuff could have been.

But I can’t buy an Obey shirt, as much as I like the look of them. It’s funny, because I let myself buy shirts from all kinds of places that must have some shady business practices, and I don’t let that bother me because there’s no ideology visibly plastered on the shirt or the front page of the company’s web site. I guess I’d feel awkward wearing a shirt that says “sweatshop free” if the tag inside read “made in [foreign land where they probably use sweatshop labor],” but most clothing manufacturers are wise about that kind of thing.

Obey is a brand that has come to mean something other than what it was supposed to mean. It’s about art and the urban experience and imagery that makes people question their environments because it hasn’t got anything to sell—except, oh yeah, a trendy line of “streetwear.” I’d be happy to wear the shirts if this were a commercial brand. I can’t wear them because it seems to think it’s not.

Maybe there’s some other company out there that makes really thoughtful and clever clothing but knows it’s not tearing down the established order with t-shirts. Maybe that company is everything Obey could and should have been. Until Obey changes its mission statement, though, I hope it’s a little jealous of Banksy.

[…] Don’t get me wrong: of course I think it’s a good idea to try to change gender stereotypes, and sure, I’d love to see creative people in government positions getting involved. It’s possible that this kind of campaign might even have some gradual effect on gender stereotypes. More than that, though, I think this campaign would act as the kind of “phenomenological experiment” that the Obey campaign was ostensibly shooting for before it became an underground marketing campaign for designer clothing. I think this new signage would make people question whether they can trust their environment more than whether they could trust societal definitions of gender norms. […]

[…] have at times lamented that I think that some of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” designs—on posters, clothing, […]

[…] you’ve been with us awhile, you might remember that I’ve ranted a bit before about Shepard Fairey’s “obey” product line. His “Andre the […]

i have been doing street art for years and recognition is far less than my goal please believe once money becomes a factor things change without recognition a statement becomes far more defined this is a fine truth i have found through experience. as for Obey it is what it will be, nothing is ever exactly what it was, though the best things are constant and true

correction i have been doing street art for years and compensation is far less than my goal

-reason being because art is in itself is a gift-that should keep on giving