We've all seen 'em around, on telephone poles and switcher boxes in big cities and small towns seemingly everywhere: the street art of Shepard Fairey. It all started back in the late 80s, when he and some friends from the Rhode Island School of Design created the now-iconic "Andre the Giant has a posse" stickers, which were distributed far and wide by devoted bands of skaters and aficionados. When the WWF threatened to sue Fairey and friends on behalf of the deceased wrestler, the now-famous "OBEY" stickers began to appear, featuring a more stylized version of the Giant's likeness without using his name. (The "obey" concept, along with Fairey's "This is Your God" line of images, were borrowed from a John Carpenter movie; watch a few minutes of this clip and you'll spot it. Perhaps not coincidentally, They Live also starred a WWF wrestler: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.)

To most fans, the Andre the Giant and John Carpenter lifts were nothing more than playful postmodernist reappropriation of pop culture imagery. But according to a new article on Fairey's work, as his fame began to grow and his work began to appear on tee-shirts and in art galleries, Fairey's wink-wink graphic in-jokes started moving into the territory of out-and-out plagiarism. Check out some side-by-side examples:

On the left is a still from a 1956 film version of George Orwell's 1984; on the right, an OBEY poster.

Is this kind of borrowing really so bad? Artist Mark Vallen makes a cogent case against it:

Fairey has developed a successful career through expropriating and recontextualizing the artworks of others, which in and of itself does not make for bad art. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein based his paintings on the world of American comic strips and advertising imagery, but one was always aware that Lichtenstein was taking his images from comic books; that was after all the point, to examine the blasé and artificial in modern American commercial culture. When Lichtenstein painted Look Mickey, a 1961 oil on canvas portrait of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, everyone was cognizant of the artist's source material - they were in on the joke. By contrast, Fairey simply filches artworks and hopes that no one notices - the joke is on you.

Here's a slightly more sinister example:
Fairey created the death-head "OBEY" image on the left, which was plagiarized from him by Wal-Mart for a line of tee-shirts. What Sam Walton's band of merry filchers didn't realize, however, was that Fairey had himself lifted the death-head logo -- from the Nazi Gestapo. (Pictured above at right: a badge from an SS uniform.)

While there are plenty more examples here, this one is my favorite for the way it transforms an innocuous source into something sinister:

Of course, not everyone agrees that Fairey's appropriations should be called plagiarism -- what do you think?