Shepard Fairey's OBEY, A Cross Platform Super Meme (of Angst)

Posted by Rob Campbell on October 1st, 2015

OBEY3Twenty three years after its original release, the John Carpenter movie They Live is still very popular with modern audiences for a myriad of different reasons. It has 1980’s WWF wrestling star Rowdy Roddy Piper discovering and disrupting an alien conspiracy to secretly rule planet Earth and covertly drain away its natural resources, and it contains one of the best and longest fight scenes in motion picture history.

But above and beyond all that, this film is a true cult classic not because it has aliens and great stage fights, but rather because it contains two very strong memes of ‘anti authority’, and ‘anti consumerism’.  It showcases a successful rebellion against the corporations led by a self aware slave.

OBEY2A meme is a sticky idea that transcends its original story vehicle, and these concepts manifested themselves in the art of Shepard Fairey, specifically in the word art themes OBEY, and CONSUME many years after the 1988 movie release date.. Borrowed by Fairey from the ideas and images that director John Carpenter had inserted into the plot of the film They Live, he cemented the rebellious memes forever in our minds by bringing them to life in the marketplace.

Shepard Fairey’s memetic art OBEY was taken directly from the movie They Live.   Almost immediately the demand for this sticky visual idea morphed into several different products (in many media platforms) including stickers, posters, skateboards and most notably clothing.  The OBEY Clothing company was formed in 2001 as the logical and most profitable conclusion of the iconic art concept.

The Movie They Live Inspires Revolution Against ‘The Man’

The movie They Live tells the story of John Nada, a down-on-his-luck construction worker, who comes to Los Angeles in 1988 looking for work. What he finds instead is the ultimate conspiracy as he puts on a special pair of sunglasses that strip away the illusion of reality and present the world as it really is. Aliens have infiltrated every level of our society and are controlling us with subliminal messages under advertising slogans in everyday signage.

Shepard Fairey’s OBEY Is a Sticky Cross Platform Meme

On the artist’s own website appears the quote, “Shepard Fairey steeps his ideology and iconography in self-empowerment. With biting sarcasm verging on reverse psychology, he goads viewers, using the imperative “obey,” to take heed of the propagandists out to bend the world to their agendas.”

Shepard Fairey wrote in 1990 about the OBEY Sticker – “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”

He went on to add,

OBEY5Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.

Shepard Fairey talks about how he first encountered the OBEY meme in the film They Live.

obey-bieberOn the question ‘What does “OBEY” mean in Shepard Fairey’s artwork? was well answered by Ry Beloin, Artist, who replied “Nothing, anymore. It used to be blunt satire of advertising tactics. What made Fairey’s work great at first was that he was making critical artwork that both exposed the methods of, and poked fun at, propaganda methods. It worked too well, and his own brand succeeded to the point that it became the very thing it was originally criticizing–that is, a thing that people will like and buy without even questioning why they like it or what it means. They just obey.” Written 16 Feb, 2015

This author agrees; when I see the OBEY clothing conscripted by hip hop music stars (Romeo?) grandstanding for cameras on the red carpet, or in photos of Justin Bieber backstage at rehearsals, its hard to believe the word art still taunts authority and inspires revolution.


 But The True OBEY Meme Lives On Around The World

This author postulates that the original message of rebellion against authority is still alive and impacting society.  We can see the proof in Bertha Nava Martinez mother of Julio Cesar Ramirez Nava wearing the OBEY hat. She consciously chose to wear the hat to speak to news reporters about the disappearance and suspected murder of her son by Mexican police.

This is what she said,

Bertha Nava Martínez: “For me, it was the most valuable thing in life, my son, but they took him away from me. Here I am, and I am going to fight until I breathe my last breath. I have said this to that corrupt president, that we are not going to stop, and I especially am going to stop him. Every day I am going to keep searching for these 43 boys, because in this moment no one knew that they were going to sacrifice three boys leaving, two gravely injured and 50 other people injured. No one knew that they were going to take away 43, but they took them. These deaths will not be in vain, people. If it is necessary to give up my life, here I am giving it up, and I will continue to give it up.”

I watched the clip on Democracy Now org ,


Below is a link to the entire story (with pictures of Bertha Nava Martinez)  in detail in the Mexican press.

As a media savvy meme watcher, I was simply astounded to see her wearing the OBEY hat at this moment in her life.  I screen-grabbed this picture from my computer, and wrote this blog post.  And now I’m still trying to understand what the word OBEY means to this woman?  Has she seen the movie They Live? or is she a Hip Hop fan? Both are improbable conclusions.  What’s more likely is that she’s responding to the art in its purest form, and is wearing the English word OBEY on her head as a symbol of her defiance against the agents of the Government of Mexico.