Artist Shepard Fairey unveils his portrait of Barack Obama before it was installed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington on January 17, 2009. The portrait that came to symbolize the historic campaign of Obama made its permanent home at the National Portrait Gallery. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. Embassy in Berlin, in coordination with the JFK Library Foundation, commissioned a new portrait of the former president to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin that famously affirmed democratic values.
“When I was looking for inspiration for the ‘Hope’ poster for Obama, I looked at a lot of different political images but one of the most compelling was JFK’s 1960 campaign poster,” said Shepard Fairey, the artist, on Boston Public Radio Thursday. “He’s looking, sort of, above the viewer off into the distance with a sense of vision. I wanted to convey something like that. … One of the images that inspired me to create the ‘Hope’ poster is now something that I’m depicting in my style, and it’s an honor to do it.”
Fairey will unveil the new work at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on June 26. He says he has great admiration for the Kennedys, a family he got closer to when the “Hope” poster catapulted his work to international fame.
“I’ve become friends with many of them and admired their activism and their sense of social responsibility over the years,” Fairey said.
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The “Hope” image resonated widely, in part, Fairey believes, the portrait projected gravitas and legitimacy — “I will give myself some credit,” he said. Those were important traits for a younger, less experienced candidate to convey.
“The main reason it had impact is because Obama himself had an impact,” Fairey said. “Sometimes the the complexity of an individual, the feelings that they conjure in someone, needs something not as complex to become a symbol, to become the icon, the thing that can be transmitted quickly.”
He also attributes his success to luck and the timing of the “early viral internet age.”
“I disseminated it both physically with prints and stickers but also had a free download that was a high-res PDF that could be printed out by anyone,” he said.
For Fairey, it took persistence and putting out art that aligned with his values to eventually bring about the career he has now. He unveiled a 75-foot-tall Muhammad Ali mural earlier this year at the YMCA where Ali trained growing up, based off an image taken the day that Ali was indicted for defying the Vietnam War draft. It’s a mural that honors his courage and strength of convictions. Another mural, displayed at the New England Aquarium, depicts the endangered right whales.
“I’m really lucky to be in the position, at this point in my career, to be able to choose things that really align with my philosophy. I, for years, worked as a graphic designer, as a screen printer, doing things that I needed to do that paid the bills.”
His new work will continue to show his philosophy. The Director of Art in Embassies — a friend of Fairey’s childhood art teacher — had reached out to him to see he’d be interested in creating a piece of work to the theme of diplomacy for democracy. “I think that it’s more essential than ever for democracy to, you know, to be protected and nourished,” said Fairey.
The artist said that Kennedy illustrated practical and symbolic ways of maintaining democracy. “I think he understood the power of words,” said Fairey. “I included some handwritten bits of the speech into collage in my painting. But the significance of him actually going there, giving the speech in person … making sure that it would connect emotionally … I think that’s a big part of his genius.”
For Fairey, the bigger picture comes down to continuing to put out a hopeful message and a will to maintain democracy.
“I consider myself a patriot, meaning that I want to be proud of the country — and I am, often, proud of the country,” he said. “But being proud is about our country living up to its ideals, manifesting in its own behavior, [and] its best ideas.”