Best known as the designer of the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster, created for the 2008 presidential campaign, American street artist and illustrator Shepard Fairey is one of the most influential artists of his generation. Fairey honed his skills in the skateboarding scene of the late 1980s before bringing his distinctive style to the walls of some of the world’s premier art museums.
Although he is considered one of the coolest and most current artists working today, Fairey’s illustrations also keep alive the aesthetics of the Cold War. In particular the artist fuses contemporary street style with the iconography of state propaganda posters, while also making strong reference to Russian constructivist design, art nouveau and pop art. His series of works on the themes of Obey (Propaganda) and Make Art Not War further subvert the discredited rhetoric of Soviet, American and Chinese propaganda from the Cold War era to support his own political activism.
While focusing on accusations of plagiarism in Fairey’s designs, an interesting article written in 2007 by Mark Vallen points out numerous examples where Fairey has appropriated Cold War imagery, recontextualising it for a post-Cold War audience.
Images: Shepard Fairey, Make Art Not War, 2004. Shepard Fairey, design for mural in Providence, Rhode Island, 2010. Courtesy AS220
With the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on 8 December 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev finally brought to an end the nuclear standoff between the United States and the USSR. For the preceding four decades, the ever-present threat of atomic warfare caused consternation across the globe. In the UK, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was formed in 1957 to call for an end to nuclear weapons. The following year British artist and designer, Gerald Holtom, created the group’s logo, which would become one of the most famous symbols in the world. What began as a symbol of despair during the Cold War is now seen as a universal symbol of peace that remains potent to this day.
Also widely used as a protest symbol, the CND circle has often been incorporated into politically-engaged street art. In one corner of London, the emblem can be seen transformed from a peace dove in the Nuclear Dawn graffiti. More recently, Banksy featured the symbol in his anti-war stencil, Soldiers Painting Peace. The work was famously removed from outside the Houses of Parliament for supposedly violating a law against unauthorised protest, before being recreated in a display at Tate Britain in 2007.
A recent exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris highlighted the significance of Keith Haring as ‘a subversive, militant Pop icon’. The American artist used his apparently infantile and comic images of stick men and barking dogs to engage with challenging political themes as he campaigned tirelessly for social justice and the freedom of the individual.
Imbued with the street culture of 1980s’ New York, Haring’s paintings often expressed the dominant concerns of the Cold War, such as the threat of nuclear war, the preponderance of mass media and the dangers of rampant capitalism. The artist-activist was also an outspoken critic of racism, homophobia, drug use and ecocide. Towards the end of the 1980s Haring’s output became increasingly fixated on the theme of AIDS, before he sadly succumbed to the disease in 1990 at only 31 years of age.
From his subway sketches to his mural on the Berlin Wall, Haring frequently used the public space to deliver his messages. His energetic and humorous style and commitment to the democratisation of art continue to inspire new generations of politically-active street artists.
Images: © Keith Haring Foundation
On 13 August 1961 construction started on the Berlin Wall, tearing apart the German capital. For the next 28 years, the Wall would be a symbol of Soviet oppression and a literal representation of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between East and West.
With the rise of the graffiti art movement in the 1980s, the West Berlin side of the Wall became a Mecca for street artists. Keith Haring, the New York artist credited with bridging the gap between the street and the gallery, was invited by the Director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to paint on the Wall during a visit to Europe in 1986. On 23 October Haring began work on his 350-foot mural, intended to symbolise the solidarity of the divided peoples of Berlin.
In Haring’s words: ‘I decided on a subject, which is a continuous interlocking chain of human figures, who are connected at their hands and their feet – the chain obviously representing the unity of people as against the idea of the wall. I paint this in the colors of the German flag – black, red and yellow.’
Read more about Haring’s Berlin Wall Mural in the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art.
Image: Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi, 1986. Copyright Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc. Courtesy Keith Haring Foundation