Shepard Fairey boasts a criminal record that would impress many rappers.
The street artist has been arrested 15 times, accumulating some 25 nights in jail during the course of his career. He has faced lawsuits as both defendant -- when his artwork provoked accusations of "borrowing" copyrighted photographs -- and plaintiff, when he countered The Associated Press' lawsuit for misappropriation.
But above these legal tangles, Fairey is inarguably the picture of artistic success.
Creator of the iconic "HOPE" poster that became the unofficial emblem of President Obama's campaign, the Charleston, S.C., native has designed album covers for the The Smashing Pumpkins and Black Eyed Peas, and his work appears at The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and, beginning Oct. 18, The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Shore.
Such accomplishments beg the question: Why does Fairey continue to tag public property when he clearly can make a living from so much else?
"I'm a populist," he said. "It's never been about legal vs. illegal. It's about figuring out ways to share my work with as broad an audience as possible."
Fairey's Pittsburgh debut is all about his communal philosophy. He and his team of assistants scoured the city last week for buildings on which to install his murals, a preview to his upcoming exhibit that will feature 250 works spanning 20 years. The result is 10 locations, from the Strip District to Downtown, that now bear his signature, bold, trichromatic prints.
Yesterday afternoon, a paint-splattered Fairey put the finishing touches on a mural across the street from The Warhol Museum on the North Shore.
Perched on a ladder, he dipped a broom into a bucket of wallpaper paste and acrylic gel before scrubbing the mixture onto the brick facade and cohering squares of paper onto the building.
Slowly, the panels came together and formed images that, like much of his work, were imbued with political themes.
For instance, a new piece created to promote MoveOn.org's Power Up America campaign for a new energy economy featured red, white and blue windmills resting on a bed of stars, with "Clean Energy for America" emblazoned at the bottom.
Like the symbolic content of his images, the placement of these public art installations is also purposeful. The murals are meant to not only publicize his upcoming exhibit, but also to urge G-20 summit leaders to address climate change and adopt clean energy standards.
"As an artist, I'm not just interested in making pictures that look nice," Fairey said. "There's a much more significant desire to communicate and to use an arousing visual as an entry point to that communication."
"When the world's perfect," he smiles, "I'll start making pictures of things that just give me pleasure in the process of making them."
Although his political discontent might provide fodder for his countercultural art, which, among other topics, shows opposition to war in Iraq and corporate greed, he considers his personal world to be close to perfect already.
"I've been very fortunate with a few of my images to tap into something that has encouraged people to think, to look further into the content."
Today, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate sells prints, stickers and other merchandise on his OBEY Web site and oversees Studio Number One, a Los Angeles-based creative agency whose clients have included Google, the Guggenheim Museum, Red Bull and Saks Fifth Avenue.
That's a stark contrast to the early stages of his career, however.
"For the first 10 years, I was technically a complete failure," he said. "I was broke, and my parents told me that I should figure out something else to do."
But Fairey, who said he has always defined success by standards other than money, toiled on, eventually receiving critical recognition about a decade ago.
Today, it's evident that the artist -- who laughs upon discovering his glue-dappled pants are stuck to his chair -- still doesn't consider financial success to be the measure of his achievement.
"My goal is to make work that affects people and spread it around and to do things on my own terms. That's success," he said. "The financial side just helps facilitate my goal to have real substance."
And nothing defines success more to Fairey than his exhibit at The Warhol, where he cannot help but slip into someone's office to marvel at a neon print of Queen Elizabeth II hanging above the desk.
"I'm super, super excited about showing here. In a lot of ways, Warhol paved the way for me, so to be recognized as part of his lineage is a really profound validation for me."
Liyun Jin can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1410.