Street Artist Rights | Why Copying Ain’t Cool (Ft. Tinky Sonntag)
Oscar Wilde once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…”, I’d heard this umpteen times. I witnessed someone using it online when they were justifying mimicking an artists work and putting it up in their cafe. I thought it was a bull-shit quote from someone who knew nothing. Then, I looked it up.
Turns out, it was incomplete, and perhaps I’m not the only one who didn’t know the entire quote: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”
In its complete form, it’s definitely more on point. Sorry for doubting you, Oscar.
Imitation, copying and downright theft are rife in the street art world, and really all across the creative industries. Even at the birth of street art culture, advertising companies used to use graffiti murals as a backdrop for their commercials, paying no money or mind to the art they were using to capture their audience’s attention.
Unfortunately, not a lot has changed.
“Every Christmas Laurie looked forward to polishing his big red balls.”
Whether it’s a wannabe artist mimicking another artist, a creative agency stealing an artists concepts for their campaigns, or a retailer using images of artists work on their products without their permission, this crap goes on all the time!
When you strike gold, everyone wants a piece. But, please, people, imitation is not flattery. It’s stealing. It’s gross, lacking in authenticity, lacking in soul, and it is deeply painful for artists who put everything into their work.
One artist who has experienced this firsthand is Tinky Sonntag. Her hilarious installation street art pieces were an instant hit. She was embraced by street art lovers, the fine arts community, art collectors, and the mainstream. And when you’re doing so damn well, everyone wants some, and Tinky has had to fight off this BS from other artists, creative agencies, and innocent offenders who may not have realised their actions were offensive.
You can listen to Tinky talk about this and other, more fun topics on the podcast below, or read on for excerpts about artists rights and why copying and stealing crushes artists.
Even now, I can feel myself going red because it makes me really anxious. I absolutely hate it. I get really defensive and protective of what I’m doing.
Most of my artist friends have had copying in some form or another. I found a friend’s artwork on a greeting card in New Zealand, and he had no idea. That kind of thing.
“The icecream run was notorious for accidents. Unfortunately Gareth learnt the hard way that skiing off-piste did NOT mean skiing after a day at the bar.”
There was a more recent situation with a really well-known artist, too. He’s got a very big following, and he spotted his artwork on a rug or like a big carpet that was being promoted and sold. He was lucky in that he had a platform where he could really call it out and ask his followers to go for it, comment on there, like “Could you please comment and tell them why it’s not cool to do this?”
It happens all the time, and it’s basically an insult. I think people forget that.
There are situations where more than one person can have the same idea at the same time. I’m not the only miniature artist out there, there are people like Slinkachu. There are tonnes of them. I think the difference is I didn’t know about them before I started doing this. It wasn’t copying anyone. And the concept is different, anyway. I’m not saying that people can’t have the same idea at the same time, but directly copying is different.
It’s happened to me a couple of times. And this is the thing, it’s really hard to prove it. Especially when it’s a big corporation, for example, like an international brand, that might have a head office in Melbourne, and the design company is in Melbourne, and they know Melbourne and the street art scene here. Then they’ve kind of taken a similar concept and skewed it, maybe enough, but it’s all kind of using these tiny worlds to kind of make a joke. It’s like, “I know what you’ve done here,” but to prove that…
“The renovation team thought the site foreman’s OH&S rules were a total croc; until Ali decided to scale the scaffolding without a harness. It was a silly snap decision on her part.”
I did actually go down that road with them. And I had incredible support from the street art community and media, but they just denied it. It didn’t go anywhere.
It was a creative agency and, you know, it might’ve not been deliberate, but there were big similarities.
I’ve had a situation where has started doing something very similar and had been following pretty much everyone in Blender Studios except for me, so I know there was a connection.
“Jake had been waiting for his big break in roller derby. Finally, it happened.”
When I raised it with that person, they were apologetic, but they felt that what they were doing was slightly different to what I was doing. It was just the vessel that was different. It wasn’t anything else that was different.
I did go and see a lawyer about that because I’m sick to death of people like that. Like I said to that person, I’m not saying don’t be creative in the street. Knock yourself out, but come up with something that’s not a direct copy of what someone else is already doing, especially in Melbourne.
It’s a grey area. I think there’s a lot been written about these. The lawyer assured me that copyright was definitely broken in this instance. From what I’ve read, generally, if you create a work of street art, in particular, you’re the copyright owner of that work automatically.
Copyright does protect expressions of street art.
“It was always risky when Domikaze practised his sumo tactics in the sculpture park. It was never a good move.”
So I would say, a concept that I’ve led, which is to say, no one else has really done what I’m doing in Melbourne. So if someone then takes up that concept, then it is breaching copyright. This is according to the lawyer I went to see.
Apparently, the copyright protection is just automatic, as soon as your work goes up, whether it’s on a wall or an installation.
Speaking Up For Artists
I don’t know a lot of artists that are really cashed up and can afford to pursue this legally. It’s really tricky. And everyone probably has a different opinion about it. You can go to markets everywhere and see people’s artwork sold. And I know that there’s certainly copyright protection, but then the artist isn’t getting any commission.
Some people do resell photographs of artworks and then give that artist a side payment. There are people that do that, but I would say, mostly, they don’t.
I’ll always say something. If I see someone at a market, unfortunately, will have to hear a little bit from me.
I will do it in a nice way. Some people have just gone, “Whatever. I couldn’t give a shit.” And other people are like, “Oh gee, I didn’t know that I feel really bad.”
“It had been a shitty day for Roger; not the worst, but a solid number two. He was in a stinking mood and just needed to wipe it from his memory.”