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Re:Public - Aaron Harvey, Proposition 8 and Branding Equality


Branding Equality & Taking It to the Street:
An Interview with Aaron Harvey & His Work in the Anti-Prop 8 Movement

Since the crushing passage of LGBT rights activists and their allies have been protesting the vote that could invalidate some 18,000 marriages. If street artists have indeed played a seminal role in this year's election -- think Shepard Fairey & Obama -- they have yet to raise their voices in the anti-Prop 8 campaign... well, that was until this past weekend.

Released on Friday, November 13 via Towleroad, Obey Giant and the anti-Prop 8 campaign's Join the Impact website, a new Fairey poster called Defend Equality was already part of every major protest the following day at marriage equality rallies across the country.

Defend Equality is a striking graphic that is informed, like many of Fairey's works, by early Soviet design, American social realism and imagery associated with the labor movement. Dominated by a clenched fist, the poster shies away from the words "gay" or "marriage" in order to promote the fight against Prop 8 as a universal human rights issue.

What people may not realize is that Fairey's image was heavily inspired by designer Aaron Harvey. I caught up with Aaron online to discuss his image and the role street art plays in his work.

Why did Towleroad mention that you influenced Fairey's Defend Equality image? What exactly was your involvement?

F.A.I.R. and Join the Impact approached Shepard Fairey and asked him to do an original piece for the upcoming rallies. They were looking for something salient and universal. They had shown him a design that they really liked, my poster, and he said something to the effect of: "it's amazing as is, here's my take on it." So, it was an interesting collaboration of sorts, especially because he, along with people like Sam Flores and Urban Medium, influence me.

Tell me about the design?

When I first heard about Prop 8 I knew the uphill battle would be to get people energized to vote. There seemed to be a feeling that California voters wouldn't pass a proposition that eliminated rights from anyone. And given the Democratic wave sweeping the country, many people seemed apathetic in advocating and telling friends and family that to organize against Prop 8, they assumed they outnumbered the ballot's supporters. I wanted a visual image that reminded people it wasn't just about gay rights, it was about everyone's rights -- and we need to defend those rights at all costs. Once rights are taken away from one group of people, what's stopping you from being next?

I fiddled with a few ideas. A wedding cake split down the middle and something with an 8 and the 'no' symbol. They were all ok, but weren't a quick read. Or they just kind of sat on the page. I landed on a design that was certainly not new, but was new this go around -- a raised fist of solidarity, with a twist: this fist also had a wedding band on it. The color scheme was also deliberate. The official "No on 8" campaign was using a green check in their campaign which I felt was a visual oxymoron. I knew red needed to be part of the design.

When I showed it to friends and colleagues some of them said "Oooh that's kind of angry, how are you going to persuade people sitting on the fence with that?" Well, for me, it wasn't about persuading the other side. It was about my side, and getting my side to realize there was something they needed to get up and defend! It didn't mean being angry, but it meant being determined and forceful.

I had put the design out for the public at the end of August or early September and it got around pretty well. I got a few hundred hits a day to the PDF. I saw it emerge occasionally on Flickr or YouTube which I always enjoyed. Part of my thinking on the piece was you could look out into a sea of people and see all these signs of upraised fists. Alone it may not seem to say unity, but when the design is used by many people at a rally it becomes visually interactive. I always thought it would be interesting, but unless I printed them and handed them out myself, that wasn't going to happen. It was quite surreal to see Shepard's "Defend Equality" design all over the country on Saturday!

Can you tell me a little about your background?

I have always been influenced by street art and, living in Los Angeles, it's hard not to be! In college I made stickers that were meant to be put up on light posts and windows, and in my professional work I have used street art techniques in advertising. But I haven't really gone out and created something just for art's sake. I guess part of my process is art, no matter how great it looks, needs a purpose -- otherwise it's just decoration. But in the last two years or so I have really considered creating something of my own, and I think the Defend Equality poster is sort of the early exploration of that.

Have you ever created street art? How do you think your designs function different in the public sphere (like protests) versus the more private experience of looking at a magazine or even a Flickr set? Or is there a difference?

Art created for hanging on the wall, or any place you can linger and take it in can be much more detailed or, on the other hand, vague. Most street art has to have a very immediate style. It needs to be a quick read. It's very succinct.

I think that's what it has in common with advertising and why the two influence each other, much to the chagrin of some street artists. My creative director was a graffiti artist, I know people who do a lot of stickers and wheat-pastes, but they all have found ways to incorporate their street art into the rest of their lives and vice-versa. I don't think it's selling out to make a living from your art as long as you're true to your beliefs.

For images from various November 14 Prop 8 protests images visit the "No on 8" Flickr pool here. For high-res versions of the Fairey & Harvey images visit the Join the Impact National Fliers page and the Defend Equality site.

Aaron Harvey