[This is a forward that I wrote for the book “Covert to Overt: The Under/Overground Art of Shepard Fairey” which was released today. Shepard has been a trusted friend of mine for close to 20 years now and he remains someone I have unmeasurable respect for – I was honored to contribute something to this book. I though I’d post what I wrote here in case some people didn’t see the book but might enjoy it – though I fully recommend grabbing a copy for yourself regardless.]
1985 was a rough year for me. At home, at school. The fact that my recently divorced family had just moved across the country to somewhere in rural Texas, and had started using an assumed name didn’t help things. What did help things was a tutor that a teacher suggested I spend some time with after school. The tutor was a kid from a few grades above who seemed equally excited about the situation. We actually clicked right away. This was noteworthy because I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite fit in with the other kids. Not saying that I didn’t get along with them, I did, they were just into things I couldn’t really get excited about. I often felt like more of a spectator, just kind of watching things play out around. At that time I didn’t know any better and assumed I was just weird. Not that I’m not weird, but that’s a different story. Anyway, this tutor and I were supposed to work on my math and Latin (yes, Latin) skills which were sub par apparently, though they didn’t get any better during our lessons. Thing is, he didn’t teach me any math or latin, but he did clue me into everything awesome in the world.
The people you can point to in your life who had a significant impact are rare, but this guy, whose name I don’t even remember, introduced me to both Monty Python and the Circle Jerks, among other things. If you know me today you can see how much credit is due this one guy. On his suggestion I snuck home his loaned cassette copy of Group Sex and within seconds of putting it into my walkman I had an overwhelming feeling of “Finally!” Until then music had been one of two things for me – either the slow, mopey and depressing stuff that my mom way constantly playing at home, or the stuff on the radio that people were always dedicating to each other. One psudo-father figure who used to hang out around my house was a big Casey Kasem fan and was always listing to the weekly Top 40 countdowns. I found all of this to be terribly boring. Conversely, this cassette was exciting and scary.
This resonated, and made me excited about what else was out in the world that I didn’t know about. I dove in deep and had similar reactions upon hearing Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, Run DMC, Gorilla Biscuits, NWA and Sick of It All not long after. I’d found my people, and even if they weren’t right there with me physically, knowing they were out there in the world somehow made things better. Knowing that these people who weren’t happy with the way things were and wanted to make a change could do something –even if it was just to sing about it. This was incredibly powerful and meaningful for me to learn at such a young age. Unconsciously these bands became my social litmus test, I could gauge right away where new people I’d meet fit in my world view. Were they people who would accept things as they were, or were they people who would try to change things for the better.
I had a similar experience with art. Growing up I’d been to museums and found them largely boring. I know now that was as much due to what I was being taken to be see as anything else, but as an angsty teenager I really didn’t give a shit about the old masters. Eventually I stumbled onto the likes of Bosch, Darger and Worhal and I got it. Just like the bands I was now obsessed with these artists were commenting on the society surrounding them, and not everything they had to say was roses and sunshine. Even if sometimes it was.
A decade later a friend who I’d been exchanging letters with for a while but never met – a penpal as we used to say – came to visit in Chicago. We spent the entire night of his arrival driving around the city in a borrowed pick up truck, blasting NWA and talking about the drive to have a hand in shaping the future. We talked about small actions that can have huge impacts. Writing a song. Telling someone about a band. Creating an image that makes people ask questions. Simple actions that can change the world. As sun rose we called it a night, having accomplished our goal of installing huge images of a sunken eyed figure looking out over the city commanding people to OBEY.
Or perhaps challenging them to resist such orders.