For years, graffiti has slowly been transitioning from a renegade act of defiance to a nearly mainstream form of art. Graffiti pieces are selling at contemporary art auctions, and the internet is making it easier for images to proliferate, allowing artists to make a name for themselves.
Of course, no transition this big comes without it’s share of hurdles, as demonstrated by several major lawsuits filed this month.
First, three graffiti artists targeted Terry Gilliam for violating the copyright they hold on a large scale Buenos Aires mural called Castillo by including the mural in his newest film, The Zero Theorem. Then Maya Hayuk took singer Sara Bareilles and Sony Music to task for using her Bowery Street mural to promote a concert tour. She’s also in a legal battle with Coach over an ad campaign.
Now, the three street artists behind a mural in the Mission district of San Fransisco are going after Roberto Cavalli, an Italian fashion designer who introduced a clothing and accessory collection in March which uses graffiti art as a primary motif.
The artists, Jason “Revok” Williams, Victor “Reyes” Chapa and Jeffrey “Steel” Rubin are suing the designer for copyright infringement and violations of the Lanham Act, on the allegation that Cavalli used designs based on their mural without their consent.
The text of the lawsuit, filed in California on Monday, is scathing: “If this literal misappropriation was not bad enough, Cavalli sometimes chose to do its own painting over that of the artists — superimposing the Just Cavalli name in spray-paint style as if were part of the original work. Sometimes, Cavalli added what appears to be a signature, creating the false impression that Roberto Cavalli himself was the artist.”
The lawsuit adds that, “To add insult to injury, much the work misappropriated by the Cavalli Defendants were Plaintiff’s stylized signatures from the Mural (literally, their names) — giving new meaning to the idea of appropriating an artist’s signature style,”
These lawsuits raise interesting debates about the shifting nature of intellectual property when it comes to street art, which is showing up in museums with increasing frequency. Though graffiti is rooted in counterculture, many artists don’t see protecting their intellectual property as selling out. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.
“In the digital age members of the general public have learned the hard way – by receiving cease and desist letters with payment demands from copyright holders,” says Ben Klosowski, Greenville intellectual property law attorney with Thrive IP®.“Now graffiti artists are drawing a parallel between content found on the internet and the artists’ graffiti found on public walls. If the artists can prove that they are the authors of the graffiti, that the graffiti is a ‘work of visual art’ and that it is ‘sufficiently permanent’, the artists will likely prevail under Copyright law.”
“Nothing is more antithetical to the outsider ‘street cred’ that is essential to graffiti artists … than association with European chic, luxury and glamour — of which Cavalli is the epitome,” says the Californa lawsuit. “To anyone who recognizes their work, Plaintiffs are now wide open to charges of ‘selling out.'”
If these lawsuits are any indication, filmmakers and designers will have to tread with a little more care when it comes to incorporating street art.