Shepard Fairey helps expand reach of Open Source with new Philly murals

 Shepard Fairey prepares to put the finising touches on his mural at the Friends Center at 15th and Race streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Shepard Fairey prepares to put the finising touches on his mural at the Friends Center at 15th and Race streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

What does America’s most prominent street artist have in common with the co-founder of the world’s most popular cell phone operating system?

They both use principles of open source.

Shepard Fairey is painting murals on walls in Philadelphia this week, at the invitation of the Mural Arts Program. While in town, the guy known for his Andre the Giant Has a Posse sticker campaign, the OBEY clothing line, and the infamous Barack Obama “Hope” campaign poster met with the co-founder of Android, Rich Miner.

Miner developed the open-source, cell-phone operating system that offers its code to anyone, free of charge, who wants to make mobile phone apps. From the stage of the Fillmore in Philadelphia, Miner said he and Fairey both found success by making something, then giving it away.

“Build something beautiful that engages people, get an audience for it, help an audience spread it — in his case sticking up stickers and then letting other people get those stickers to stick them up,” said Miner. “That’s the same thing we preach to startups that want to do something social. That’s how Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.”

Rather than establish what would have been a prophetic business model in 1989 while attending Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey’s initial impulse to make stickers and give them away was more along the lines of art school whimsy; he just wanted people to look up.

“An image in public space that was unexpected, was making people curious,” said Fairey of the Andre and Giant campaign. “The responses were fascinating. It was like a Rorschach test of people’s personalities.”

Since then, Fairey has found success in many realms, both commercial and artistic. This week he was in Philadelphia painting on the back wall of the Friends Center at 15th and Race streets. The mural is a heroic portrait of Amira Mohamed, a young woman who was recently released from prison. She is now studying architecture and works for the Mural Arts Program.

The mural is part of the Mural Arts Program citywide public art festival, Open Source, featuring several murals on the theme of criminal justice. Next week, a second Fairey mural — a portrait of James Anderson, a formerly incarcerated man who now works for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in Los Angeles — will go up at 11th and Callowhill.

Fairey’s graphics related to criminal justice are also available as free downloadable files for printing stickers and silkscreening. That’s what makes this an open-source project.

“Making sure that what I’m doing has a component that is free and viral, not commodified, ” said Fairey. “Of course, I have to do things to pay for all my projects, but one of the great things about having some success as an artist is, things that are conceptually meaningful that I want to transmit, people can have easy access to them.”

The six graphics available for free download at Fairey’s website feature statistics stating that America has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, and prisoners who participate in art programs are half as likely to re-enter prison after release.

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