Shepard Fairey (lower left, gray shirt) puts the finishing touches on the mural titled "Power and Glory" in the Wynwood section of Miami in 2014. REUTERS/Zachary Fagenson

Shepard Fairey was commissioned to paint a mural in downtown Detroit. Now the city is prosecuting him for destruction of property.

When it comes to street artists, Shepard Fairey is about as establishment as it gets. Even if you don’t know his name, you’d probably recognize at least a couple of his images: the much-imitated “Hope” poster that came to symbolize Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and the “Obey” series that features the enigmatic face of the wrestler Andre the Giant. Fairey, 45, began his career by plastering his work around Providence, Rhode Island, in the dead of night, but now he has pieces in the collections of several major museums and has designed album covers for pop acts such as the Black Eyed Peas.

The artist was invited to Detroit earlier this year by Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and one of the driving forces behind the reinvention of the city’s downtown. Gilbert tapped Fairey to create an 18-story mural for the One Campus Martius building, home to the mogul’s Bedrock Real Estate Services company. Some observers noted the irony of Gilbert inviting a street artist to decorate his property, when he has been aggressive in pursuing and punishing people who tag his holdings.

Fairey, for his part, may not have been willing to color entirely within the lines. When he came to Detroit to do the job, several other works in his signature style showed up wheat-pasted around town. These had not been commissioned, solicited, or sanctioned by the owners of those buildings, many of which were abandoned. Now the city is prosecuting the artist on felony charges of malicious destruction of property, claiming that he caused as much as $30,000 in damage. The rap could earn him 10 years behind bars.

(It’s not Fairey’s first legal trouble. He’s been arrested for vandalism many times before, and in 2011 settled a lengthy copyright battle with the Associated Press over charges that he had illegally appropriated an AP photograph to create the Obama “Hope” image, later pleading guilty to a related criminal charge of evidence tampering.)

Artist Shepard Fairey (center) exits Manhattan Federal Court with his lawyers in 2012. Fairey pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lying about which AP image he had used to create his iconic “HOPE” portrait of Barack Obama. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

Prosecutors in Detroit cited as evidence in the case a video in which Fairey explains wheat-pasting, as well as an article from the Detroit Free Press in which he stated that he would be doing “stuff on the street” during his visit. In a court appearance last week, according to Detroit Metro Times, Fairey’s lawyer asserted that the artist didn’t put up the work in question—and that if he had, he would have done it with the aim of beautifying the environment, not destroying it. Fairey’s arraignment is scheduled for September 15.

So why is a city that still has problems providing basic municipal services spending time and money prosecuting a widely lauded artist for putting artworks in public places?

Detroit’s attorney on the case, Doug Baker, told USA Today that the city is pursuing the prosecution to send a message about what is acceptable conduct in the beleaguered city—and what isn’t. “[W]e get people coming into the city that view it as a free-fire zone, that view [i]t as a place where no one cares," he said. "And that's what we're changing. We're changing that culture of belief."

The Detroit case neatly encapsulates many of the contradictory forces in American cities of the 21st century. Developers and politicians are eager to foster the “creative class” and all its perceived economic benefits. They want neighborhoods to be “colorful” and “edgy,” with exciting “street culture” that draws younger consumers to spend dollars in cafes and bars and boutiques—and ultimately to settle down in pricy loft-style apartments, fattening the tax rolls.

Often the work of Fairey and artists like him is used to boost the image of “up-and-coming” neighborhoods around the country, such as Miami’s Wynwood. In this formerly anonymous warehouse district, the late developer Tony Goldman embarked a few years back on a calculated strategy of fostering street art to raise the area’s profile. Goldman—who had previously helped to revive New York’s Soho and South Beach in Miami Beach—commissioned top street artists from around the world, including Fairey, to paint on his Wynwood property. Many more artists put up work in the surrounding neighborhood, often without invitation and illegally.

Goldman’s plan succeeded. Now, with a big mixed-use rezoning recently approved, Wynwood is home to blocks of trendy shops and several construction sites that promise “modernist condominiums” and the like. Fairey and his work, whatever you think of it, perfectly fit this aesthetic game plan for economic development.

An unsanctioned Shepard Fairey work appears on a water tower in a downtown Detroit. (PROEugene Kim/Flickr)

The Detroit case, however, reveals that there’s still a profound disconnect between municipal dreams of a city where artists drive economic growth in an orderly, controlled way, and the reality of how artists see the world—or how they want to be seen. The contradiction occasionally leads to violent clashes. More often, places such as Wynwood (which I just visited last week), simply become increasingly homogenous and expensive.

Whether or not that’s an urban tragedy is up for debate. Meanwhile, artists such as Fairey walk the line between critiquing mainstream culture and becoming it, with varying degrees of success. Fairey himself has gone from being, in his earliest days, the disruptor of commodification to being a commodity himself, his authenticity regularly under attack.

Perhaps this question of authenticity motivated him to put up illegal wheat-pastes in Detroit—if, indeed, he was the one who did it. That’s the explanation that makes sense to former Detroit gallery owner Rick Manore, who told USA Today: “He's using the judicial system and the media to market himself. It's a minor investment and in return his name stays relevant. He's been doing this for years, and he's great at it."

On Fairey’s website, there’s a manifesto from 1990, in which the artist highlights a related conundrum in discussing reaction to the “Obey” image:

The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer.

Twenty-five years later, Detroit is simultaneously rejecting and embracing Fairey’s “slightly disruptive” street art. As for the lasting value of the art itself, the verdict is still out.

About the Author

Sarah Goodyear
Sarah Goodyear

Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.

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