Meet Shepard Fairey, the Artist Behind Vancouver’s New Eco-Minded Mural (and, Yes, That Obama Hope Poster, Too)

On August 7, the Burrard Arts Foundation (BAF) will unveil a 10,000-square-foot, 20-storey mural, titled Earth Justice, at Burrard and West Georgia streets in downtown Vancouver. Illustrated by Shepard Fairey—the L.A.-based street artist (and founder of skater apparel line Obey) best known for his Hope portrait of former POTUS Barack Obama—the public art piece will draw attention to threats facing our environment and will be Fairey’s largest installation to date. (Since gaining recognition for his Hope poster in 2008, the artist, who’s also known for his activism, has created murals in cities such as Johannesburg, Toronto and Paris.)

Comprised of an image of Earth being cradled by a pair of hands, Earth Justice is presented in collaboration with this year’s Vancouver Mural Festival as part of BAF’s newly launched Surface Series, a large-scale, rotating public-art program that spotlights the works of contemporary artists from around the world. “We hope that Surface Series will encourage a wide range of people to engage with the arts, generate constructive dialogue and benefit, on some level, from cultural inspiration,” says Christian Chan, founder and board president of BAF.

Chan adds that Fairey was a natural choice for the program. “Shepard’s work has the unique ability to speak to and inspire large segments of our population, who may not always seemingly have an avenue or opportunity to experience and engage with art on a regular basis.”

Earth Justice‘s debut will coincide with the launch of Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent, an art exhibition, running from August 8 to September 28 at BAF (258 E 1st Ave.), that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Obey Giant, a street-art project headed by Fairey.

Ahead of his arrival in Vancouver in early August, when he’ll be hard at work on Earth Justice with paint rollers and spray paints in hand at 1030 West Georgia Street, we chatted with Fairey about the mammoth piece, his design process and that now famous Obama portrait.

In what ways is Earth Justice different from other murals you’ve done?

I’ve never painted a mural this tall, and the colours—shades of blue, the colours of the air and water that sustain life—are slightly different than anything I’ve used before. But I think the style of the imagery is recognizable to people who know my work.

What was the design process like for this piece?

When I was presented the opportunity to paint such a large mural in a unique space, I looked at the challenges of working within that tall but narrow space and decided to keep the imagery simple, iconic and symbolic. My hope is that the design, which features the Earth cradled by hands, can be a visually pleasing gateway to an important and somewhat challenging conversation around climate change, environmental destruction and responsible stewardship of the earth.

Why did you decide to take on this project?

This is only the second mural I’ve done in Canada, and it is an amazing opportunity to paint such a large building and with imagery that represents an important topic to me.

(Fairey’s Hope, created in 2008 during Barack Obama’s presidential run.) 

How did you respond to the press and international recognition you received for your 2008 Hope portrait?

I was exhilarated that my piece of art, which started as a humble bit of grassroots activism, had become such a pervasive symbol and viral phenomenon. The piece did not originate from a deep-pocketed or well-connected source, and it validated my belief that democracy can work if you, first, vote, and, second, use other tools at your disposal to share your views. The attention it brought for me was overwhelming in many ways, but I felt that I had a responsibility as the image’s creator to share my thoughts and support for Obama.

In your opinion, what makes a good mural?

Understanding how the art interfaces with the building itself and the surrounding cityscape. Some people try to make their murals too busy, not realizing that the mural is already competing with a very cluttered landscape. I like to make sure I convey the imagery and the message in an iconic way that uses less to say more.

What motivates and inspires you to improve and continue working in your craft?

It’s a way to fight boredom and make sure that my work achieves its objectives as potently as possible.