Although their work is very different, Keith Haring and Shepard Fairey have much in common. Both are “graffiti-adjacent” street artists who have created iconic works, have a strong and easily recognizable style, and share(d) a philosophy that art is for everyone and that it can be used to create change.

 

Fairey wrote the foreword to Haring’s journals when they were published in 2010, and Haring’s work has a special resonance for him. He graciously agreed to make a piece for the Adobe x Keith Haring project.

 

We recently spoke to Fairey about Keith Haring, about art making, and about the new Adobe x Keith Haring digital brush set now freely available to all.

Create: To start, we love the art.

 

Shepard Fairey: I’m really happy with it. I loved Haring, and I knew that if I could find the right reference that I could do something strong with it. I'm proud of it.

 

Create: Talk a little bit about where you come from, and what made you what you are today, and where you draw inspiration from.

 

Fairey: I grew up in South Carolina, where there wasn't a lot of progressive art. Luckily, I got into skateboarding and punk rock when I was 14 years old. And there was a lot of art that went with those cultures that had both a political point of view and sort of an edge to it. And that opened my eyes…to a much broader definition of art, and art about social ideas. Then when I left South Carolina and went to California for a year of art boarding school, I met a lot of people who had different perspectives on art and saw some LA street art that was very impactful…. Really, graffiti hit me when I went to college at the Rhode Island School of Design. We took a trip into New York City, and there was graffiti everywhere. And I just fell in love with an art form that wasn’t about elitist institutions. It was even not about recognition for the individual, who they really were. It was sort of living through an avatar.

 

Graffiti made me feel like I could have something that I was inspired by. It was an outlet that wasn’t so academic — even though I didn’t do traditional graffiti, it was very inspiring for me philosophically. I also got into a lot of the Russian constructivist design from the teens and the ’20s — such good graphic design. That was a big influence for me. Also Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artists. And Barbara Kruger, who used the juxtaposition of strong typography with found imagery…subverting the original intention of the image, usually. Her writing and her use of the red bars and white type was devised from advertising, but used in a very different, socially pointed way. And it also had a connection to the aesthetics of both advertising and so-called propaganda.

Fairey used the new Keith Haring–inspired brushes to create this portrait of Haring.

Create: What is your history with Keith Haring’s work?

 

Fairey: I think like anybody who was involved in art and who happened to connect with other artists, you might not remember the first time you saw the radiant baby or the dog DJ-ing, or any of the other Keith Haring icons. But then it just feels like it’s popping up everywhere. And I liked Keith's visual language because it was so instantly recognizable…. I knew that he was adjacent to the downtown New York graffiti culture — but doing his own thing — and that he had done stuff in the subways and that he had the pop shop. Of course I knew he had clothing, because I saw people wearing it. He had an intentional mission to make his work accessible. 

© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

All of those things factored into what I was doing as an artist because it was more democratic, what his approach was. It was also this hybrid of street and gallery, and there was social commentary in a lot of it. So even though my style is very different, the philosophical underpinnings are very similar. My confidence in moving where I wanted to go, making my own t-shirts and things like that, that was legitimized by the trail that Keith had blazed.

 

Create: That element of “art is for everybody” I think resonates with your world a little bit — the notion of getting it out into the streets, as opposed to in museums.

 

Fairey: Absolutely. I didn't read Keith’s journals until later, but I knew even from the early ’90s that he had made prints that he gave away at Central Park, and participated in the rallies protesting nuclear proliferation. Once he started to sell paintings, he saw that as a way to fund things that he could give away and continue to make his work accessible with objects people could buy cheaply — pins, t-shirts, posters…. This is exactly in the sweet spot of my belief system. That art should not just be for privileged people; it should be for everyone. And Keith has the quote “The public has a right to art.” The idea of locking away art for only people with money seemed morally wrong to him. And it does to me, too.

But the need to make everything analog at that time limited the reach, compared with what you can achieve digitally now. Imagine how ubiquitous Keith’s pictograms would be with today’s technology. So many of the things he made had an immediate digestibility, were made to go viral, yet still had a little bit of latitude for individual interpretation. It's really the perfect kind of art for inviting people into a conversation. 

Work by Shepard Fairey. 

Create: I know that the idea of art as a vehicle for activism and positive change is a big part of your philosophy.

 

Fairey: It's a generous, tender part of people that encourages them to create and share, because you have to make yourself vulnerable to do that. So, to me, that’s a natural coupling with trying to do things to create good in the world and to look out for people who are facing injustice. And Keith did anti-nuclear-proliferation stuff, stuff against the crack epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, stuff against apartheid in South Africa. Then he made graphics for those things that could be reproduced and shared. The democratization was a really big part. It wasn’t that he just did a painting about AIDS and put it in a gallery, and that crowd saw it and somebody rich bought it. He was making sure that stuff got out to the public. These digital tools that allow people to make things efficiently, and share them efficiently, and also have them ready for mechanical reproduction on objects in the real world: it’s all helping to facilitate the kind of things that are important to me and were important to Keith Haring.

 

Create: Adobe made these brushes that are based on all the tools that Haring would use, extending these traditionally analog tools into the digital space and enabling even more people to use them. Does that say anything to you about how technology becomes a tool of artistic expression, and the value of that?

 

Fairey: An amazing thing about technology is that if you use it the right way, it can allow you to experiment and work through ideas very efficiently. The really cool thing about the Haring brush set is it allows people to experiment with mark-making. In my work, I found an amazing benefit in going back and forth between analog and digital. The ability to experiment digitally and then see how you can bring a technique, whether it’s mark-making or overall picture aesthetic, back into the real world is very exciting. With Keith, he did all these things in the real world, and Adobe has been able to figure out how to re-create the feel of a lot of these tools in such a beautifully genuine way. Looking at the tutorial and seeing the marks and the level of sophistication with the controls — it really does allow somebody to make sophisticated marks that are in that realm. But because it’s them making the marks and not Keith, it has that X factor of whatever they’re bringing to it…. Each person brings their own fingerprint to their art. The way that people are going to use these Haring tools, it’s always going to look different than what Haring would have done. It's always going to look like them, but it gives them a much more sophisticated digital palette to work with.

Create with brushes inspired by Keith Haring.

Draw a line for positive change with chalk, markers, spray paint and more.

Create: Can we talk a little bit about the picture you picked and why it resonated with you, Paulo Fridman’s photo?

 

Fairey: I knew I wanted the image I worked from to have dramatic lighting, so I could amplify the drama of that lighting in my execution of the illustration—because, one, I think having strong black and white in the image is a way of connecting to Haring’s aesthetic.... And I love doing portraits of people where I'm reducing what I think is superfluous and focusing in on what I think gives them their essence. And Keith with his glasses, his jacket, the t-shirt of his own graphic — and I love that image of the three-eyed face — it was all going to work for a distillation of the iconic essence of Keith if done right.

 

When I work on these illustrations, I’m playing around with the lighting in Photoshop. And then when I feel like I have it right, I do an analog illustration and I scan it. And then I work again with it in Illustrator and potentially Photoshop to add textures and things, and play around with the color. But the way I did this illustration is a perfect example of that back and forth between digital and analog that I think Keith would have loved. I’m sure he would have been somebody to embrace this way of working, and it’s the way most designers work these days.

Create: I love the Grace Jones pin too. I love the way it manifested in some of the details.

 

Fairey: It’s so cool that Keith had painted Grace Jones’s leather jacket, had painted her naked, and was a fan of her music. And there he is wearing the pin — that image of Grace Jones is so iconic. Anybody that knows Keith’s history will recognize that. If they know that he worked with her, that's a nice little nod.

 

Create: What advice would you like to give young designers who are starting their careers?

 

Fairey: I think the main advice I give is that it’s important to find a way to make the clients happy, but also infuse your own voice, something that sets you apart and makes you the only person that can provide that. There are a lot of different designers that work in different ways. For example, somebody like Stefan Sagmeister to me is an amazing chameleon where not all of his projects look alike, but the novelty of the solution is almost his style. It’s becoming his signature.

 

I think having something that only you can provide, whether that's aesthetically or conceptually, is extremely important. I always loved what art and design teachers taught me in high school and college, which is that everyone in art thinks they’re going to be a trailblazer and do something no one has ever seen before. Why should they learn any of the rules first? But really, you only know how to break the rules right when you’ve learned them first. I say learn all the principles of good design, and then push into uncharted territory that you can call your own.

Keith Haring, 1983, photograph by Paulo Fridman. © Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

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© Keith Haring Foundation