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On Wednesday we were invited down to London’s House Of Vans to join the OBEY crew in celebrating the launch of the Covert to Overt exhibition, marking the launch of renowned street artist Shepard Fairey’s latest book going by the same name.
Alongside previewing the exhibition, there was also several videos playing throughout the night which document various trips and exhibitions that are covered in Covert to Overt, as well as live screen printing on the night where you could customise a t-shirt using famous prints from OBEY’s rich archive.
On the night we were lucky enough to get some words with Jon Furlong, OBEY’s resident photographer who over the years has documented the various trips and artwork of Shepard Fairey. We spoke to Jon about his history with OBEY, the making of Covert to Overt and also what he feels has contributed to OBEY remaining relevant to this day. Read the full Jon Furlong interview below…
Hey Jon, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Well I grew up around photography, my dad was actually a videographer, so I grew up around cameras since I was a little kid. I picked it up here and there, I went to school like normal kid and took a photography class but nobody really took it seriously. It kinda came to me easily, I didn’t really have to try that hard. I grew up on film and through that knew all the backgrounds of photography, but I’m not a very technical photographer. I just see things differently I guess, I just look at the world in a different way.
What’s your history with Obey? How did you start working with Shepard and the brand?
I started at Obey at a point when I really needed a job, my friend worked in the international department, and he got me working in the warehouse which is where I started off. I started to show the guys there my portfolio, which was pretty ghetto at the time, and they were like okay cool… so I started shooting the clothing line for them, just normal fashion product stuff, then I got the opportunity to go to new York with Shepard in 2007 for his Gummo show, took a couple pictures and from there it just started to take off.
What was it about Obey that caught your attention?
It was more just working with the people involved, particularly from the clothing side of things. Then working with Shepard’s team, it was more of like a family unit. Obey clothing was really small when I started back in 2004, I didn’t even know who Shepard was at the time to tell you the truth! Everyone kept talking about him and I was like who is this guy? I finally met him and something that stood out was his work ethic, it was non-stop, the guy doesn’t stop working! Like when you’re out doing stuff with him it just makes you wanna work even harder you know? But yeah it’s basically just one big family, and that’s why I’ve stayed here this long!
The current streetwear market is highly saturated with new start ups popping up all the time. What do you think it is about Obey that has allowed it to remain relevant all this time?
We don’t try to hard. Everything comes very natural and we are wary that we don’t wanna over saturate. Say something like the bar logo, we don’t wanna push that out too much because it looses its value, we want everything to be unique and really tell a story.
The people behind the brand live what OBEY is and the brand is representative of what Shepard is. Our head mens designer Mike is so passionate and he tells a story with his work, what he’s doing translates in to the clothes. A lot of the designs come from Shepard’s graphics, his political stand point and charity awareness stuff, it all has a meaning behind it. Any brand can throw a graphic on a t-shirt and make up some bullshit story, but Obey is based around the lifestyle of those behind it.
Was it a conscious decision to focus your photography around art or was it more of a natural progression?
It was more of a natural progression, I originally wanted to be a war photographer, but my parents wouldn’t let me. This dude James Nachtwey inspired me, I always wanted to do what he was doing. To me photography has always been about capturing life, capturing a moment and that’s gonna stay there for the rest of time. I took that approach towards what Shepard does and how I document it, when shooting him at work I want it to be natural. I want to capture all the style behind what he does, not just the finished product, anyone can do that, but it’s the intricate things that tell more about the lifestyle and the technique he uses. That kind of photojournalist nature behind the images came easy to me. I didn’t really plan on any of this happening to me, I guess I got lucky.
Could you give us a brief overview on Covert to Overt…
Covert to Overt for Shepard is the past 6 years, from 2009 to 2015, and is a mixture of all his recent work and his transition of style. He used to do a lot of paste ups, where as now he’s moved on to doing massive murals, which he has hand stencilled, printed out and at 200 feet up he’s using these cut outs and is spray painting them. The book also covers his recent shows. I personally played a big role on the photography. With street artists they want their work documented as a lot of the time their work is going to get taken down or covered up or whatever. Some things may last but a lot of times they don’t, so I had a big role in capturing everything, being able to show the visual side of his paintings and artwork and hopefully telling a good story…
Is the book focused solely around the art or more about capturing moments?
It’s a combination of both. Shepard’s main focus is to show the artwork, but the photography comes natural and it’s not really thought about too much. People like to look at pictures but its mainly to get his message across and I was just happy that I was able to contribute in a way. Theres a bunch of other photographers that have shot stuff in the book from when the team have gone on other trips, like Martha Cooper for example. But yeah his main focus is to get his art and message across.
Obey has a long and rich history in both streetwear and street art, spanning 26 years. Why did you choose to focus the book around this period. Is there a specific reason?
It’s just Shepard’s newer work. I guess that would be more a question for Shepard on as to why he chose now, but in my thoughts its just that transition. As an artist you always have to push the envelope and you gotta be relevant, so you always have to get out there and do new inventive stuff.
Are there any particular moments that stand out during the making of Covert to Overt?
I mean every city has a different story, from the people we meet to the places we visit. Like I said earlier, at one point I didn’t know who Shepard was, and that’s the same for a lot of the artists I meet. I don’t know who the fuck they are but I just treat them as people. Don’t get me wrong it’s really cool to go on these trips and hang out with the crème de la crème of the street art world and a lot of people around me freak out, but luckily me not knowing I’m just like oh hey!
Some cities it does get wild though, like Copenhagen we did one mural that got destroyed the next day and there was a big controversial thing around it. The closing night of the party, I went to go get my bag because we were leaving and Shepard and my buddy Romeo got jumped by four guys, you never know what situation your gonna be in. At the same time that danger element is pretty cool, like we’ll be in a dangerous area or doing a piece in a shady neighbourhood, but a lot of the people there just respect artwork and they are appreciative of seeing the art up rather than hassling you.
But yeah overall ,meeting people and becoming friends with new people is rad.
Whats next for you and Obey?
I guess keep doing what I can with Shepard and Obey Clothing. I feel like I’m a lifer with the brand, I’m always gonna be involved with Obey Clothing, Obey giant, Shepard and those guys. I wouldn’t mind dabbling a bit more with other artists, it’s cool to be Shepard’s main partner, but theres always scope to branch out and it’s always good to evolve as an artist. I could do some natural geographic shit as well, like go in to the woods and shoot some bugs that would be fun, I’m just trying to have fun at the end of the day…
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