Kevin Shea Adams

Fine Artist and Muralist Fabian Williams is a Soldier in the 'Guerrilla War of Ideas'

Playboy Magazine, May / June Issue 2017

Williams’s work is not just commentary; it’s ammunition.

By Kevin Shea Adams
This story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of Playboy. 

Growing up in a military family in the town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Fabian Williams answered a different call of duty. Drawing, painting, designing and writing, he diverged from his military upbringing but maintained a soldier’s focus and determination. “I know what it’s like to take orders,” he says. “I didn’t call a bathroom a bathroom; I called it a latrine.”

Williams understands his work as a sort of military campaign against disinformation and the erosion of civil rights. “The time for doing bullshit is over,” he says. “There is no more time to do art for the sake of art.” This full embrace of art’s political dimension is refreshingly up-front. Williams’s work is not just commentary; it’s ammunition.

Case in point: His Race Card series, which gained him some early notoriety, began during his years as a toiler in the advertising world, where people of color were few and the

“If you can get someone who is opposed to your ideas to actually like what you are saying, it’s a victory.

as actionable objects that their owners could hold up in the face of racial fouls in the workplace—in Williams’s words, “a way to address some uncomfortable things in a playful manner.”

Having mostly left commercial work to pursue fine art, Williams can now be found painting murals on the streets or working in his Decatur, Georgia studio, where the news is always on in the background. Here, we zoom in on the impulses behind his public pieces and the surprising artistic savvy of our President.

How did your military upbringing play into your decision to become an artist? 

My stepfather was 82nd Airborne, and my father was in intelligence. Both of my brothers were in the military. Being an artist in my family, I am the black sheep. I’m the weird guy. Instead of shying away from it, my compromise was to do commercial work. That way, I would have a more direct approach to making a living. It seemed like it would make more sense. Thirteen years into it, I realized I am more of an artist than I am a designer or an illustrator. I had my own ideas and it became harder as it went along to interpret someone else’s ideas for a check. Meanwhile, I have kind of seen things coming. I didn’t know what else to do but to use my art to deal with it. I made a decision to dive in and luckily it worked out. I had to do something.

That urge led you to murals, among other things. What’s the attraction to public art?

The thing about doing public art is it gives you a chance to make an argument. It challenges people’s position in a way that social media can’t really do. People come to social media with certain mindsets; your guard is up a little.

You can’t block a mural.

Exactly. And the better the mural, the better the argument.

Getting into social media, it’s sort of self- selecting. How do you cross to the other side of the aisle to speak to the people who need to hear it and not preach to the choir? 

My goal isn’t to give depth to the people that already know what’s good, you know? I don’t need to talk to them like that. I am trying to reach the people that don’t agree with me—that may have a position that will be counterproductive to progressive ideology. “Progressive” to me is really like respecting someone else’s culture. To me, that’s progressive. I make arguments that appeal to people’s emotional approach to analyzing social and political issues. A lot of times, the things that I talk about in my work are not necessarily things that bring a lot of joy. But I try to make them in a way that is always beautiful, in its own way. If you can get someone who is opposed to your ideas to actually like what you are saying, it’s a victory. It’s kind of a pop-up sermon, even though I’m not religious. If you can get someone to feel something from your perspective, you’re in.

The internet is sort of where the war is being waged; it’s tricky using the same platform that people like Trump use. What would you recommend as the best arena to harness this energy?

We are already in a guerrilla war of ideas. Donald Trump has his agenda; ever since he started running, he had a PR campaign pushing his ideas. He has been very successful. He won the presidency because of his excellent PR, and I started to think about ways to communicate my ideas through my work. The time for doing bullshit is over. There is no more time to do art for the sake of art. We have been past that era for a good eight years now. The artist’s job is to make people feel the times. You have to communicate with audiences on a level where they understand what it feels like to be someone else. If you can do that it makes it harder for a person to do some bullshit that would affect someone else. We have lost that sort of urge to do that, and whenever that happens some bullshit follows. We are at the beginning of a dictatorship, to be honest.

Your work takes into consideration that art is communication, not just a thing of beauty, but how do you view art?

Art is all around us. We interface with it everyday, but we don’t necessarily call it art. When you watch the news or cable television and you see the commercials, those are artists that create the commercials. There are artists that come up with the copy or the campaign. Conceptual development is an artistic and creative approach. Everything is based in art. I even look at someone like Donald Trump as some sort of performance artist. He acts like an artist. I have a short attention span. I don’t like to dwell on things for too long. I have ADHD. But I would never try and put myself in a position of government because that’s not compatible with how it works. I was raised like a soldier. Soldiers take orders and things are streamlined based on the command. Things in that structure can’t be improvised the way he does it.


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