15 images: Artist mocks surveillance, wealth with – and without – billionaire’s blessing

A Fairey mural mocking consumerism and power was posted on a vacant building on Gratiot.
A Fairey mural mocking consumerism and power was posted on a vacant building on Gratiot. All photos by Steve Neavling.

Is the joke on billionaire Dan Gilbert?

The unapologetic capitalist with one of the most invasive private surveillance systems ever installed in a downtown area had been courting Los Angeles artist and anti-mass consumer Shepard Fairey for more than a year to stencil his trademark murals on buildings, billboards, canvases and a water tower in downtown Detroit.

It was an odd choice because Fairey’s art has become a symbol of anti-consumerism and defiance against authority, Big Brother and mass culture.

Fairey's 185-mural – his largest yet – on the Compuware building.
Fairey’s 185-mural – his largest yet – on the Compuware building.

While Fairey was in Detroit last week, Gilbert gave the artist space to post his largest-ever mural – a 184-foot-tall piece with his signature, scowling image of Andre the Giant emblazoned in the center. With Gilbert’s permission, Fairey also posted the cartooned image of the former wrestler on a water tower overlooking Woodward.

Close-up of an Obey mural.
Close-up of an Obey mural.

Fairey’s Andre the Giant image, which often accompanies the word “Obey,” is satire inspired by his reading of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984.” The work challenged the authority of the rich, powerful and political. Other Fairey work approved by Gilbert poked fun at consumerism, wealth and obedience.

As expected, Fairey, who has been arrested 17 times for posting his work on private and public buildings without permission, affixed his murals to buildings outside of downtown Detroit, which he pledged to do after arriving. Now Detroit police are investigating as part of Mayor Mike Duggan’s aggressive crackdown on graffiti that caused a big embarrassment for the administration last year when it began fining building owners for murals painted with permission.

Andre the Giant image beside a surveillance camera at the Eastern Market.
Andre the Giant image beside a surveillance camera at the Eastern Market.

One mural of the scowling Andre the Giant was posted next to a surveillance camera at the Eastern Market. Others were posted on abandoned buildings on Jefferson, Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan Avenue, and the images challenged people to question authority and do their own thing.

One of Fairey’s earlier, most popular works includes an image that reads, “You are under surveillance.”

A Fairey mural on a vacant building on Jefferson.
A Fairey mural on a vacant building on Jefferson.

Gilbert, who has shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to commission work from street artists, has also been virulently anti-graffiti. In June, he led an unusually aggressive campaign to capture three Gross Pointe teenagers who spray-painted two downtown buildings. The girls were arrested and humiliated, and Gilbert called them “degenerates who don’t ‘get it’ (and) crawl out of their deep dark holes and try to ruin it for the rest of us who take pride in and deeply care about our city.”

But does Gilbert “get” Fairey’s work?

Some of Fairey’s work is on display at the Library Street Collective in downtown Detroit. The gallery showing will run through Aug. 15.

Fairey's work is on display at the Library Street Collective.
Fairey’s work is on display at the Library Street Collective.

Fairey may be best known for his iconic, inspiring “Hope” image of Obama, which has become one of the most memorable campaign images in recent U.S. history.

But Fairey isn’t a big fan of the president anymore, and that’s because of the mass surveillance of Americans.

“Obama has had a really tough time, but there have been a lot of things that he’s compromised on that I never would have expected,” Fairey told Esquire magazine. “I mean, drones and domestic spying are the last things I would have thought [he’d support].”

Here are other Fairey murals posted in Detroit – with and without permission – while he was here in May:

A Fairey mural on a vacant building on Gratiot.
A Fairey mural on a vacant building on Gratiot.
Gilbet gave Fairey permission to post his iconic Andre the Giant image on a water tower overlooking Woodward.
Gilbet gave Fairey permission to post his iconic Andre the Giant image on a water tower overlooking Woodward.
Iconic Andre the Giant image posted without permission on the neglected Wurlitzer building in downtown.
Iconic Andre the Giant image posted without permission on the neglected Wurlitzer building in downtown.
A Fairey mural at Gilbert's art-alley known as The Belt.
A Fairey mural at Gilbert’s art-alley known as The Belt.
A Fairey mural posted on the CPA Building on Michigan Avenue across from the Michigan Central Station.
A Fairey mural posted on the vacant CPA Building on Michigan Avenue across from the Michigan Central Station.
A Fairey image on Woodward.
A Fairey image on Woodward.
A mural along Dan Gilbert's art alley known as The Belt.
A mural along Dan Gilbert’s art alley known as “The Belt.”
Part of a mural in downtown Detroit.
Part of a mural in downtown Detroit.
Obey mural on the Imagination Station next to the Michigan Central Station.
Obey mural on the Imagination Station next to the Michigan Central Station.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.