Shepard Fairey on art, skateboarding and the culture of change in Charleston, S.C. | Arts & entertainment

Shepard Fairey left Charleston, South Carolina, after high school, but the artist still pops up in his hometown, even when he’s thousands of miles away. He appears at College Lodge, a dormitory at the College of Charleston. Outside Groucho’s Deli, a corner sandwich shop. And across from the Daily, a coffeehouse that sells honey lavender lattes and feta toast.

“Three murals are still up — two on King, one on Calhoun,” Shepard said of the public artworks he created for a 2014 show at the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, six years after he designed the campaign-defining “Hope” poster of Barack Obama. “There still aren’t a ton of murals in Charleston because of the historical preservation, but I think the appreciation for street art is growing.”

In Charleston, a city known for its regal architecture and staid statues, his comparatively audacious pieces make some dissonant noise. As a kid, Shepard favored punk rock and skateboarding over the more genteel pastimes of the South. He and his friends would skate in an abandoned pool in Ansonborough, a neighborhood that predates the Revolutionary War. “It was like a teenage playground wasteland,” he said. “You could paint graffiti on the walls of the pool, and no one cared.”

The city demolished the pool in the 1990s. By this time, Shepard had departed Charleston to study art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. The year he returned to paint the murals for the Halsey show, lawmakers banned skateboarding on busy downtown sidewalks and streets, including King and Calhoun. Three years later, Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission opened the $4.8 million SK8 Charleston on a wedge of land between Interstate 26 and the Ashley River. Shepard, who lives and works in Southern California, the birthplace of skateboarding, describes the skate park as one of the best in the South. “Anybody going to Charleston who is like I was as a teen now has a great legal spot for skateboarding,” he said.

Shepard returns to Charleston several times a year to visit his parents, who still reside there. During these trips, he has noticed how much Charleston is evolving, as are his perceptions of the city he once rebelled against. “Charleston’s history is fused into everything, but the way it’s mutating with contemporary influences is really fascinating,” he said. “I can look at what’s great from the past and is worth carrying forward and also see where it needs to move to in the future.”

In early January, I spoke with Shepard about growing up in one of the country’s most lauded destinations. (To wit: Charleston has earned the top spot in Travel and Leisure’s best U.S. cities list for nine consecutive years.) He shared his favorite places, both then and now. We chatted for an hour until he politely excused himself to move his car to avoid a parking ticket. “I hope you enjoy Charleston,” he said with genuine hospitality, a testament to his Southern roots.

I spotted my first Shepard mural on the way to Redux Contemporary Art Center. I was strolling along King Street, eyes forward, when red-and-black images flared up in my peripheral vision. At the entrance to the cul-de-sac containing his mural, a No Outlet street sign and a utility pole doubled as canvases for his stickers. (A tip to identifying his creations: Look for the star framing the Obey face, which is based on the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker, his breakout design from his RISD days.)

Redux is a fairy godmother to up-and-coming artists. “Visitors to Charleston who want to see some cool emerging art should check out what Redux is up to,” Shepard said. When I dropped by last month, Redux was up to the surreal riffs of Doug McAbee, a South Carolina artist whose universe is populated by saucer-eyed narwhals and spry skeletons. On Feb. 4, “Studio Union: An Art Junction” opened with pieces by artists who share a creative space in North Charleston, an arrangement similar to Redux’s honeycomb of studios.

Artists inhabit 40 workspaces tucked behind the main gallery, and the public is welcome to view — and purchase — the works hanging outside their studios. Depending on the artist’s level of engagement, you can strike up a conversation about, say, metal-leafed photography or their dog. The center offers classes, too. On Sundays, figure drawing. Once a month, wine and watercolors, a combination that could unleash the creative juices — or cause a sodden mess.

The Halsey Institute produces exhibits that highlight artists on the rise or, in Shepard’s case, who have risen. “We focus on emerging, midcareer and oddly overlooked voices in contemporary art,” said Lizz Biswell, associate director. “We want to be a good spot for adventurous contemporary artists in the Southeast.”

When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, Dyani White Hawk was wrapping up a virtual gallery talk about her show, “Hear Her.” “It’s great to see a non-White female artist doing progressive work at what I think is the best art space in Charleston,” Shepard said of the Native American artist from Wisconsin, with whom he and four others collaborated on a voting rights mural in Milwaukee in 2020.

After the screen went dark, I joined Lizz in a room dominated by Dyani’s photos of Native American women confronting misconceptions about their roles in society. For Shepard’s 2014 show with Jasper Johns, she said he presented original pieces for the gallery on top of the murals, which required a slew of permits, plus more than nine months of “active work.” “It was a reintroduction to his hometown,” she said.

On Broad Street, the city’s Gallery Row, the artwork leans toward the paint-what-you-see variety, such as street scenes bathed in golden light and Lowcountry landscapes swishing with marsh grasses. However, the conventions are loosening up. “Everything was geared toward tourists when I was younger, so a lot of paintings were of the famous architecture, ducks and flowers. There was really no avant-garde art,” Shepard said. “But that’s changed a good bit.” For proof, he dispatched me to the George Gallery and Corrigan Gallery.

George Gallery owner Anne Siegfried represents nearly two dozen abstract artists, including Charleston’s “it” couple, William Halsey and Corrie McCallum. (The contemporary art institute bears his name.) The gallery boasts a direct pipeline to their trove of abstract expressionist paintings and prints. “I am getting them straight from the estate, from their family,” Anne said while we stood in a room dedicated to the renegades.

Lese Corrigan, who opened her gallery nearly 17 years ago, supports local arts, including such distinguished citizens of Charleston’s art world as Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. “She would have the flower ladies on Broad and Meeting sit for her and she would pay them the same amount they would have made selling flowers,” she said of the Charleston Renaissance artist. I asked Lese if she would add Shepard to her coterie. “I’d love to have somebody like Shepard,” she said. “I don’t know if it would be a good fit, but I wouldn’t turn it down.”

“You just missed Bill Murray,” the bartender informed his friends drinking and playing Connect Four at Harold’s Cabin, the restaurant the actor co-owns. A collective groan rose from their table.

When the waitress stopped by to check on our meal — tomato soup, roasted vegetables and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale for me; burger, hand-cut fries and kombucha beer for my friend — I asked her if what I had overhead were true. She nodded her head apologetically and said the staff is not allowed to tip off diners to Murray’s presence. Then, like a movie flashback in which the protagonist puts together the clues from previous scenes, I realized that I had seen the actor. He was the small, slightly curved man in a brown sport coat, baggy pants and a fisherman’s hat standing at the upstairs bar. I had dismissed him as a local eccentric, which I guess he is.

Shepard had mentioned the Murray connection, along with other captivating details about the establishment, which reopened in September after an 18-month closure because of the pandemic. It occupied a former corner store, for instance, and had “a super cool vibe” — e.g., record player with a stack of vinyl, two-story painting of a rabbit, board games. Souvenirs for sale sum up the dining experience. In Murray’s deadpan style, the T-shirts read: “On the corner of President & Congress. Where nothing happens.”

At Leon’s Poultry & Oyster Shop, dinner guests waiting for a table congregated outside the former auto-body shop while servers delivered heaping plates of oysters, shrimp and hush puppies on the other side of the potted plants. I gave the host my cellphone number and told him I could be reached at the neighbor’s, Little Jack’s Tavern.

The bar next door felt like a speakeasy that had come clean. The bartender, who wore a crisp white button-down with a thin black tie, handed me a drink menu. Following Shepard’s guidance — “see what their specialties are” — I ordered Jack’s rum Old-Fashioned, a twist on an oldie. A half-hour later, Leon’s texted that my table was ready. The message arrived just in time: My glass had run dry.

Charleston’s dress code is unapologetically preppy. To look the part, Shepard sent me to M. Dumas and Sons, the clothier of latter-day Bunnies and Biffs. “They probably still have Duck Head pants from the ’80s in the backroom somewhere,” he said of the retailer, which opened in 1917 as a uniform shop for the service industry. “It’s like khaki isn’t just one color. There’s olive drab khaki, there’s darker-brown khaki, there’s lighter-brown khaki.” I discovered a few more shades to add to his color wheel: sand, buckskin and “lymestone.”

Shepard, whose creative endeavors include the Obey streetwear brand, is more apt to shop for clothes at the Record Stop than a conventional menswear store. “They have really well-curated vinyl and music collectibles, and a really great selection of music T-shirts,” he said of the three-year-old store.

When I swung by on a Friday afternoon, two guys with wild hair and Hawaiian shirts were discussing Van Halen’s oeuvre. A woman in a Cher T-shirt was hoisting her find in the air like a trophy. “This is very rare because of the accent,” the superfan said of the album that came out during the years when Cher spelled her name with an accent aigu. Along one wall, a rack held shirts for such bands and musicians as the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and David Bowie. More tees — the Cramps, the Misfits, Minor Threat — hung from the ceiling like concert merch high on helium.

On King Street, a main shopping thoroughfare, the stores thinned out as I traveled south to the bottom of the peninsula. The street deposited me by the defensive sea wall and promenade where the harbor tickles Charleston’s feet. “Walk on the Battery,” Shepard recommended. “Toward sunset is great, but it’s good all day, every day.” I followed the palmetto-lined section from White Point Garden to Waterfront Park, where a sign informed visitors that wading on the first two steps of the pineapple fountain was permitted. I demurred because it was sock — not foot-soaking — weather.

A day trip to Edisto Island, where Shepard’s family owns a beach house, required a rental car and an eye on the skies: A wintry mix was hitting parts of the East Coast. After the heavy rains subsided, I set out for the hour-long drive down the coast. Shepard’s description of Edisto played in my head like the Calm app.

“As far as a real meditative place, Edisto is my place for that. It’s you and nature. You can look in a certain direction and you won’t see a house or another human,” he said. “When I’m there, I float in the creek and it’s very restorative.”

At Edisto Beach, the sand was the texture and hue of nutmeg. I nudged stranded jellyfish back into the surf and watched pelicans scan the waves for lunch. I greeted a few people, the wind snatching my hellos and sending them out to sea. I drove over to Botany Bay Plantation, a 4,630-acre nature reserve, and followed a trail through marshland to Driftwood Beach. A dad with two children scrambled over sun-bleached trees felled by hurricanes and erosion. A photographer stood on the edge of the waves, the sea foam accumulating around her boots and the legs of her tripod. A silver light shot through the clouds. For a brief moment, the scene transformed into a black-and-white still life. Then the sky changed, and the color returned.

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