When designer Vince Camuto rolled out their Spring 2017 campaign the words “Bushwick Beats” and “Wild Graffiti. Hot Moves. Cool Styles,” were broadcast on New York taxi screens, at Macy’s and across social media.
Little did four Brooklyn graffiti writers know that this “Wild Graffiti” was, in fact, their work.
Between April 2015 and April 2016 Joseph Tierney, Cary Patraglia, Spencer Valdez and Keith Rowland painted elaborate murals on the streets of Bushwick featuring the artist’s pseudonyms. Now their work is the subject of a lawsuit in which the artists charge that the Camuto ad campaign had no business using their work to sell shoes and clothing without their permission — and without paying them.
“Very upset and angry” is how their lawyer Jeffrey Gluck described the artists’ reaction to the campaign. The suit claims that the designer “enjoyed substantial revenue and profits” from the unauthorized use of the artist’s work.
In other words, someone, the suit claims, is making money from that art, and it isn’t the artists who created it.
Welcome to Bushwick, 2017.
Keith Rowland, better known as “Reme”, had painted a mural on Morgan Avenue between Grattan and Thames streets in April 2015. The piece is one of several splattered across the corrugated iron that runs along the side of a building on the block. The work, like many of Rowland’s other pieces, uses bright colors and features the dripping eyes that have become his signature. In the top right-hand corner of the mural is the hashtag #Reme821 through which Rowland is accessible on social media. It was not as if Rowland had made himself anonymous; some artists even add their phone numbers.
So why did the brand not reach out and ask permission? The artists had proven themselves willing to partner with brands in collaborations for which they are recognized and paid for their work. One of the more well-known artists in this case, Joseph Tierney has worked with Adidas and VRY WRM.
Since legal graffiti has become more prominent so has the effort made by such artists to turn graffiti writing into a money-making career. Artists are now able to sell pieces of their work through their websites, using their Instagram accounts as a portfolio for potential clients who have commissioned graffiti writers such as Tierney, Patraglia, Valdez and Rowland to paint on buildings, foyers, and bars.
In fact, the plaintiffs have been a part of the New York graffiti scene for some time, Tierney since he was a teenager — graduating from throw ups and tags to the more elaborate, technically advanced murals seen in the Camuto ad. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island, Tierney has the most established “brand” of the plaintiffs. He balances gallery showings worldwide with commercial work and street murals, curating much of his work and other artists work on his blog Jersey Joe Art. Tierney has created a carefully manicured name for himself and as part of the MSK crew he could be considered part of graffiti writing’s elite in the United States.
The Vince Camuto campaign, the suit charges, was essentially trying to co-opt the brand these artists had created for themselves, piggybacking off the “authenticity” of their work. The campaign, the suit goes on to charge, “intentionally obscured and/or altered the copyright management information contained in the murals.” Letters of the murals were cut off or obscured in the campaign material, disguising the full pseudonym. Turning to the protection of the law might seem a surprising move for an art form whose beginnings were in and of themselves illegal. Yet increasingly artists are lawyering up and defending themselves against corporations who look to exploit their work because of its public availability.
Which begs the question: when art occupies a wall, who owns that art, and that wall? With the exception of something you may spy out the subway window between stations, most graffiti in New York is now done legally. This echoes a movement that’s been seen across the world to allow legal spaces for graffiti writers to work. In Vienna, for instance, as is often seen in Eastern European cities, there are guidelines listed on a government website directing graffiti writers to legal walls.
Dr. Ronald Kramer, a professor at the University of Auckland and author of The Rise of Legal Graffiti Writing in New York and Beyond, says the United States is beginning to understand the commercial value and potential of graffiti writing. But New York is still catching up to the rest of the world. “You go to New York and there’s none of that,” he said. “All the walls are on lock down and certain artists have permission slips to it or someone organizes it and manages the wall.”
Tierney aka “Rime”, Patraglia aka “Host18” and Valdez aka “Taboo” in late April 2016 painted murals along Boerum Street on a wall already populated with other works. The block is largely abandoned warehouses or construction sites, a prime site of blank canvases for a graffiti writer. These works along with Rowland’s piece have been officially registered with the Copyright Office, an uncommon and seemingly extreme move by the artists to protect their work. It is an essential step, however, for the artists to take before they’re able to begin legal action of copyright infringement.
Copyright is a federal law, which means even though the artists are Brooklyn-based and the Camuto Group is based in Connecticut, the fact that the case has been filed in California is of little to no significance. The law states that copyright protections support “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” While some may argue that graffiti isn’t protected under copyright, which largely stems from its origins as vandalism, the law doesn’t distinguish between works of art done in a studio or out in the street.
Graffiti differs from street art, more often associated with typography, the art of words. It is often about creative people showing their own flair by writing their name in a way that is unique to them. A crackdown on subway graffiti writing in the late 1980s and the subsequent train scrubbing that removed all graffiti from the trains, at great expense to the state of New York, led artists to begin to document their work for fear it would not last. “What’s happened in the increasingly digital age, and I think this does speak to copyright, for most graffiti writers and street artists the final image is the final piece now,” Kramer said. It is more common now for people to view graffiti or street art through a photograph of the piece than by walking past it on the street.
There has been a spate of high profile cases in the last few years that have seen brands such as McDonalds, Urban Outfitters and American Eagle dragged into court over claims of copyright infringement from street artists. Corporations should be well aware of the risks associated and the precedents set by such cases. Those not settled out of court have ruled in favor of the artist at great cost to the corporation. In a case decided in 2003, Andreas v. Volkswagen, the artist Brian Andreas was awarded $570,000 or 10% of the profit generated by the sale of the Audi TT coupe during the period that a commercial aired featuring his art. The jury decided and it was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals that this profit was attributable to Audi’s infringing use of the artist’s work. Irina Tarsis, the founder and director of the Center for Art Law based in Brooklyn, says she has seen an increase in artists using the legal system to go after corporations.
This isn’t the first time one of the plaintiffs, Tierney, has turned to the law for protection. In 2015 Tierney sued Italian designer Moschino for the use of one of his murals, “vandal eyes”, in the designer’s collection. It was incorporated into the graphic print on one of the signature dresses that Katy Perry later wore to the MET Gala, further increasing the profile of Tierney’s case. The case was settled out of court.
Public acceptance of works as seen throughout Bushwick largely grew because the public like seeing art they can relate to, and while many graffiti writers are more talented than their street artist counterparts, they aren’t as widely accepted. They get fewer paid opportunities as the “street art” style artists because their work is seen as more commercially viable. The negative connotations and competition that revolve around graffiti culture hurt people’s perception of the art form. Yet walk through the streets of Bushwick on a weekend and you’ll see people dotted along these large expanses of color filled walls. Jumping, posing and interacting with the art. It is part of what made them attractive to designers like Vince Camuto who see these works as a window into youth culture, a way to add cache or “cool” to their product.
These murals by themselves don’t generate an income for the artists. They don’t earn anything from millennials sharing pictures of themselves in front of the art works. So are they entitled to money Vince Camuto made doing just that? Is a photograph you take of the Brooklyn Bridge not your property? So what makes this different?
There are ideas of authenticity that circulate amongst the graffiti community and being associated with the commercial can be seen as tactless and potentially lethal to a writer’s reputation. “It drags the artists unwillingly into that sellout zone,” said Kramer. “People would see you as a commercial artist and if that’s too obvious, it’s too crass, it becomes a problem for your kind of name in this world.”
Gluck, who says the artists are not free to comment in a pending case, is alleging his clients sustained significant “reputational damage and diminishment of the value of their work,” from the Camuto campaign.
For its part, Vince Camuto did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The video and still imagery from the campaign have since been removed and all signs of the campaign has been erased from the brand’s social media accounts. But given the artworks integral connection to the campaign how does this translate to how much of the profits the artists who painted those walls are entitled to?
The case is JOSEPH TIERNEY, P/K/A “RIME,” an individual; CARY PATRAGLIA, P/K/A “HOST18,” an individual; SPENCER VALDEZ, P/K/A “TABOO,” an individual; KEITH ROWLAND, P/K/A “REME,” an individual; Plaintiffs v. CAMUTO CONSULTING INC., D/B/A CAMUTO GROUP, Defendants. Case 2:17-cv-04936.
Follow Tess Orrick on Twitter @tess_orrick