Graffiti art that graces city walls stands resolutely apart from other forms of art: it can’t be purchased, owned and moved into a gallery or private home like a canvased painting (usually). As part of a city’s public landscape, graffiti art belongs to everybody and nobody – just like the streets they adorn. But, many images sketched along the walls of neighborhoods, such as Miami’s Wynwood area, are original creations, conceived by some of the world’s most prominent artists like Shepard Fairey, Retna, Anthony Lister – and locals like Ahol Sniffs Glue. Although the paintings are for public pleasure, it is clear they do belong to someone, for they are signed with claim of their originator. Having an elementary understanding of American copyright laws, unspoken street laws and, well, basic decency, it is common sense that reproducing one of these works to promote a private enterprise without asking the artist (its true owner) for permission is just wrong.
So how is it that a corporate giant, who one assumes has intelligent people running its advertising campaigns, didn’t exhibit such common sense? Last March, American Eagle Outfitters came to Wynwood to shoot a campaign for their summer clothing line. The teen atelier took photographs of models along the world-famous art-filled concrete landscape.
But the company went too far. They took one particular mural – “Ocean Glass” by local Cuban-American street artist Ahol Sniffs Glue – and used it to promote their brand, without consulting him first. Ahol’s characteristic sleepy eyeball design was used in advertisements on the company’s website, social media pages, billboards, and store displays. Moreover, the clothing conglomerate hired “artists” to “recreate” Ahol’s mural on an eight-foot store display in Medellin, Colombia. The imitators marked a sloppy reproduction of “Ocean Glass” with the corporation’s signature black eagle, claiming ownership over Ahol’s optic, azure design.
So, Ahol Sniffs Glue, a.k.a David Anasagasti, is now suing American Eagle Outfitters for copyright infringement, and rightly so. By splashing their label across the artist’s signature work, AEO has “essentially incorporated Mr. Anasagasti’s artwork into [their] own brand identity,” the lawsuit alleges. The suit seeks not only monetary compensation for the works that have been used, but also a permanent injunction that would prohibit the company from using photos or likenesses of the work in the future. To corporations like American Eagle Outfitters, perhaps it will set a precedent and ensure that artists like Ahol Sniffs Glue are protected from this kind of inexcusable theft.
(All images: Courtesy of the author)
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