Mike the Mad Biologist Has a Posse, but He Is Not 7'4" 520lb

This is not the Mad Biologist

Or how the Boston Phoenix proves they missed the point of Shepard Fairey's work (Fairey made the iconic Obama poster). I'll get to that in a moment, but Sunday, I went to the ICA in Boston to see the Shepard Fairey exhibit. For me, it was a blast from the past: I was in Providence when the whole Andre the Giant thing started (I still have a sticker from that time). It was also funny to watch (discretely) a middle-aged--to be generous--docent explain to similarly aged visitors about Andre having a posse. Ironic proto-skaterpunk anarchism wasn't really crossing the generational divide too successfully.

But that's not what this post is about. As you might know, Shepard Fairey was arrested on the way to the opening night exhibit on outstanding vandalism charges.

In response, the Boston Phoenix, a corporate sponsor of the Fairey exhibit, fired a scathing broadside against the Boston Police Department (who very well might have done this to embarrass Mayor Menino), as well as the inhabitants of Back Bay. This is where the editorial went off the rails (italics mine):

The Back Bay Association is firmly against anything new, such as the strikingly handsome Apple building on Boylston Street. The group has little respect for free speech and free expression, regularly campaigning to keep news boxes off even commercial streets. Their group mentality is similar to the one that used to call for books written by the likes of James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg to be banned in Boston. Rooted in a gated-community mentality, they would be better off living in a sun-belt suburb.

Keep this in mind. Now, this from Fairey's "Obey Manifesto" (italics mine):

The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker's persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.

It is odd that a sponsor would critique people for trying to make public spaces less commercial (and, to its credit, Back Bay has a lot of regulations which try to prevent the neighborhood from being turned into a giant billboard). After all, the Apple Store, where form is definitely not following function, is a four-story, see-through Apple advertisement. No commodification there.

And, of course, newspaper boxes--and the Boston Phoenix is a commercial newspaper--are also a commercial use of a public space. I guess it makes it easier to rationalize inconsistency when you drape your business model in the First Amendment.

Oh well. At least they used their money to bring some interesting art to Boston....

More like this

Fairey is a hack. Andre Roussimoff, who died at the age of 46 due to the complications from the condition that made him a "giant," didn't deserve to have his image used in that way. Namely, to serve some spoiled white jerk sensibility about "culture jamming" or "fighting the power" or whatever infantile pose this appropriation is allegedly serving. Fairey's usual method: ape the aesthetics of, or simply reproduce images from, political propaganda art and give it some ironical subtext that critiques consumerist mass culture or some other pseudo-transgressive baloney. Fairey's work is 'dogs playing poker' for professional class, smug, pretentious white readers of alternative weeklies. He stumbled into striking gold by applying the style to a photo of Obama. But that doesn't mean that the rest of his crap is worthwhile.

Boston maintains a proud tradition of criminalizing unauthorized public art...

I've always enjoyed Fairey's work. I guess I'm just the sort of professional class, smug, pretentious white reader of alternative weeklies that enjoys the less than worthwhile. How might I discern the worthwhile from the rest given my obvious disabilities?

By Craig Pennington (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

funny, I went to college with shep... it's pretty funny to remember what it was he got arrested for at the time.

for a project he had blown and andre the giant face up and pasted it on top of a billboard for "buddy" cianci (who was running for mayor at the time,) replacing the face.

the first time he did it, no one actually noticed for about a week. he had gotten the scale right and it fit in. however, someone did eventually notice, and a new replacement billboard was put in place. he then proceeded to do it again. (claiming that he hadn't had time to take pictures of it for class yet...) this time they were waiting for him. he got something like 100 hours of community service for it.

colugo takes it too seriously... seriously, I haven't seen words like that since my last crit. (a standing joke in college was that in order to graduate you had to be able to use the words "juxtaposition", "dichotomy", and "negative-space" in a grammatically correct sentence without cracking a smile.)


"funny, I went to college with shep..."

Then do you remember what the Department of Penis Studies was?

(I'm not impuging Peter's veracity by the way. Just curious if anyone else remembers this era...)

Glad you caught that bit of hypocrisy. I read the article on Shep and found it just a tad blustery for my liking, but didn't take the time to sort it out.

I've always been torn about the graffiti artists who make it big, but I think that being torn is maybe the right way to feel about it. It forces a person to consider what is and isn't art, and what is and isn't vandalism, and how we should treat our public spaces.

oddly, no. I don't. I can remember a lot that might have that name be applied to it, but not specifically. I would tend to guess freshman foundation drawing classes as we tended to have more male models than female, or at least my section first semester did. second semester and my short time in the illustration department tended to be a bit more evenly split.

on the other hand, I was a RISD faculty brat my whole life, and that did tend to color my view of the school.

Hypocritically or not, I think the Phoenix does have a bit of a point -- although the newsbox issue is exactly the sort of thing Fairey was protesting with the Obey campaign, it's still something of an issue of press freedom and acceptable use of public space. Believe me, the Back Bay pinheads really don't make the distinction -- their approach to any changes in their "historic" district (can a neighborhood less than a century and a half old really be considered "historic"?) isn't that much different from right-wingers who whine about "judicial activism". Let's be clear -- to big-money NIMBYs, it all looks like dogshit on the bottom of their shoes no matter what the message.

Brian X

(can a neighborhood less than a century and a half old really be considered "historic"?)

Short answer.


(longer answer, "I don't know about that particular neighborhood though...")


The Department of Penis Studies was what the Semiotics Department was called.

Brian X,

Yes, it is historic (hell, most cities in the U.S. are younger than Back Bay). Also, its architecture is pretty unique, and is worth preserving (related to this, the Art Deco district in Miami is considered historic and is about half the age of Back Bay).

Sure, people in Back Bay (I'm one of them, by the way) want the neighborhood to look a certain way--so do most people in most neighborhoods. But if your commercial model--and that is what we're talking about--relies on making neighborhoods ugly, then maybe the problem is the business model.