SAN FRANCISCO — The code word was “chill.” That’s what the crew with Shepard Fairey, the cult graphic artist known for his screen prints and stickers of the wrestler Andre the Giant, had been instructed to say if a police car rolled by as Mr. Fairey was wheat-pasting one recent night here, illegally tagging warehouse walls and empty billboards with his black-and-white images. Then Mr. Fairey and his helpers would know to make a run for it, to avoid yet another arrest.
But the law is not much of a deterrent for a self-styled populist culture jammer. Mr. Fairey had already spent nearly a week bombing the city’s streets. By midnight he and his crew of a half-dozen 20-something guys, most employees at Obey Giant, his company in Los Angeles, had finished prepping for another all-night run at the White Walls Gallery here, where Mr. Fairey’s solo show, “The Duality of Humanity,” runs through Saturday.
Dressed in torn jeans (Mr. Fairey) and hoodies (everybody), they packed up supplies — buckets of paste, scissors, rope, video camera — and gathered the art: 10-foot-long photocopies of Mr. Fairey’s work, neatly snipped in half. Then they piled into a rented minivan — “No one suspects a minivan,” said Derek Millner, the videographer — and went looking for real estate. They drove by one of Mr. Fairey’s Barack Obama posters, put up two nights before in a parking lot. It was already defaced — the “pe” in the slogan “Hope” had been torn off.
“Everything gets messed with,” Mr. Fairey said, using language more appropriate for a guerrilla graffitist. “It’s just the nature of street art. You can’t be too precious about it.”
Mr. Fairey, a boyish 38, occupies a rare position for an artist. A star in the world of street art for nearly two decades (the Andre stickers earned him an A on an assignment at the Rhode Island School of Design), he has parlayed his stark imagery and indie cred into a successful design and marketing company with corporate clients like Pepsi. His “Obey” images and slogans appear on T-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters, and he has created logos for the likes of Kobe Bryant.
This year Mr. Fairey has earned a new level of mainstream attention thanks to the much distributed and copied Obama poster, highly visible at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and, as a T-shirt or accessory, on a liberal body near you. The White Walls show, his third and largest there, sold out before it opened, with some pieces going for as much as $85,000. (On obeygiant.com, his prints go for $75; studio pieces are normally around $20,000.) He also has a new book, “E Pluribus Venom,” of work from his 2007 exhibition in New York, and in February the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston will host his first solo museum show, “Supply and Demand.”
Through it all he has continued scaling fences and clambering atop buildings to put up his purposefully simplistic, propagandistic images (his crew members serve as spotters and second hands). This despite changes in his health (he is diabetic, and wears an insulin drip under his shirt), family status — he is married with two young daughters — and the continued arrests. His 14th (or 15th, “if you count a brief detention in Japan,” he said, where he was asked to write a note of apology) came when he was wheat-pasting in an alley near the Denver convention center. Because the charge usually amounts to a misdemeanor, which is expunged after six months, Mr. Fairey typically pleads guilty and pays a fine.
“My time’s too valuable to go back to court and fight,” he said.
Still, Mr. Fairey draws scorn from underground artists who think he’s too marketable and critics who say he’s too watered-down. Reviewing “E Pluribus Venom” at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, Benjamin Genocchio wrote in The New York Times that “the imagery comes off as generic.” He added, “It’s Norman Rockwell crossed with the Dead Kennedys crossed with Communist-era propaganda.”
Andrew Michael Ford, the director of Ad Hoc Art, a Brooklyn gallery that specializes in pieces by street artists, said, “People will say he’s doing something that seems very commercial.” He noted that though he was a fan, Mr. Fairey seemed particularly ripe for criticism because he makes money from socially and politically charged work. “It doesn’t seem to match up in people’s minds,” Mr. Ford said.
Last year Mr. Fairey’s street art in New York was defaced by the Splasher, a paint-slinging detractor, and a pamphlet deploring the commercialization of the art world was distributed by an unknown group at a reception for “E Pluribus Venom.”
Mr. Fairey had printed his own money for that show — “Indiscriminate Capitalism,” it reads on one side, and “Never Bow to the System/Change the System/Or Create Your Own” on the other — and says that like many pop artists he has always toyed with ideas of commercialism, advertising and appropriation.
A child of the punk skateboard scene, Mr. Fairey said he considers the Sex Pistols role models. He’s also quick to give props to his contemporaries and predecessors, like the British artist Banksy, who wrote the foreword to an earlier book, and the Los Angeles artist Robbie Conal, who made his name with his own guerilla political posters in the 1980s.
Being called a sellout can hurt. Still, he’s not bitter. “I hated being under anyone’s thumb when I was younger and now I’m not, through my art,” he said in an earlier interview at the Obey headquarters in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles. As he signed 450 of his Billy Idol posters, he added, “This ability to make things creatively on my own terms that then found an audience and sold — I’ve sort of made my dream come true.”
And that means Mr. Fairey will continue to put his work where anyone can see it. “I don’t need to do street art anymore,” he said in San Francisco. “But I enjoy it. It’s not insidery. It’s an opportunity to ire or inspire. And it’s free.”
The first place he and his crew stopped that night was the South of Market neighborhood, an area well known to old-school graffiti artists. Mr. Fairey grabbed an armful of rope and slipped the folded-up halves of an Andre poster in his hoodie pocket. Within 30 seconds, without help, he had shimmied up the foot-wide metal frame of a billboard. A minute later he popped up on a roof, where he dropped down the rope so it could be attached to a paste bucket. He hoisted it up and another minute later popped up on an even higher roof, where he pasted the unsmiling Andre together with a long brush, stepping back to survey his handiwork occasionally. The whole thing took about 15 minutes.
Next they moved to an industrial area. Though a spotter noticed a potential risk nearby — was that a security guard? — a blank wall above a garage that was clearly visible from the freeway was too good to pass up. “Turn the lights off and keep the car running,” Mr. Fairey’s assistant, Dan Flores, instructed. A retractable ladder was raised on top of the minivan; Mr. Fairey climbed up and pasted “Fiend Rocker,” a menacing image of a Misfits-like skeleton in a leather jacket. It loomed as if it was meant to be there.
Just as he was finishing, a police cruiser slunk by. “Chill chill chill!” someone shouted, and the whole gang jumped in the car, which peeled off with its doors still open, on to the next spot.