Subtle Unexplained Advertising And Hype- Phenomenology – A Street Art Study

26 Mar

My brother recently told me about the acclaimed documentary about street art, its beginnings and greatest practitioners called Exit

Banksy, the director and internationally acclaimed street artists work

Through Gift Shop. It is a super interesting documentary with some wacky characters (one in particular called Thierry Guetta who later becomes Mr Brainwash) whos lives revolve around creating art and sticking it up and stencil painting it around cities on walls, billboards, signs, curbs and so on. You have probably seen street art around your city, it is a form of vandalism but also an art medium, it’s not about graffiting a name in spray paint on a bus shelter as such, its more like plastering the artists brand around by means of their signature images and style to make day to day city life that little bit more interesting. Some of these artworks are amazing and come to life usually secretly in the dead of night.

Exit Through Gift Shop really intrigued me because it goes to show how repetition subconsciously makes people aware and curious about what this image or message means.

Fairey's famous Obama campaign poster

You have probably seen the Shepard Fairey street art OBEY or more than likely you have seen his campaign poster for President Obama.

Phenomenology: Faireys’ explanation of the OBEY campaign on his website is so good and makes so much sense that I have had to quote the entire lot here:

“The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.

The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. 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.

Have you seen stickers and posters of this around? Fairey's Obey Giant

Many 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.

Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.

Shepard Fairey, 1990”

Hype: The documentary also shows that if something is hyped and marketed enough, no matter how terrible it is, you can make it popular.  The basic premise of the film is that an eccentric video camera obsessed French/American, Thierry Guetta, begins to film street artists and their secret midnight workings. He builds a collection of thousands of video tapes that he didn’t plan to do anything with but they have all of the worlds most acclaimed street artists and their secrets on there (Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader and later Guetta himself as Mr Brainwash). Eventually his tapes get turned into this documentary by the secretive Banksy, arguably the worlds best street artist. Banksy off the cuff suggested to Guetta that he become a street artist himself since he knew the secrets. This leads to Guetta putting the financial security of his family on the line and he invests thousands upfront to become Mr Brainwash. He calls himself Mr Brainwash because street arts branding repetition is all about brainwashing in a way.

Mr Brainwash Street Art

He plasters Los Angeles with posters hyping himself up to promote a physical art show rather than traditional street art and employs people to do the art work for him. His art is terrible yet due to the hype he has created through plastering the city with his name and building credibility with quotes from his famous friends, he commands top dollar for “his art”.

That is what hype, visual bombardment and “brainwashing” can do. Create interest and credibility. Sometimes no talent or quality is needed. Turns out he even was commissioned to create Madonnas greatest hits CD art. Guetta turns out to be a great marketer and creative brain… even if he does have “elves” doing his creative work which is a direct copy of Andy Warhols style.

I think you really need to see the documentary to get the full picture. You owe it to yourself so get a cup of coffee and a comfy chair to enjoy this funny look into the world of street art, crazy french men and how hype and phenomenology makes society tick.

Click here to watch part 1 of 8 on Youtube (sorry I can’t get the embedded html to work)

Note to self: Put photos of myself up all around town with no explanation. See me on the news.


Shepard Fairey:

Mr Brainwash (aka Thierry Guetta):


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