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Street Art, Advertising and Ethics

The relationship between art and advertising is long and convoluted. Artists develop new mediums, styles and techniques. These are then appropriated by advertising, prompting artists to push back and develop newer styles in response. These newly developed art forms are then also hijacked into advertising and the cycle continues again. When it comes to street art and advertising, Banksy captures the feelings of many artists from the movement:

“You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

This quote elucidates the feeling of many artists -- not just street artists -- and particularly highlights the original DIY, anti-advertising ethics of graffiti and street art. Big companies use street art as a promotional tool, appropriating street art for their own purposes and ignoring the social and communal origins of the street art movement. The appropriation of street art into advertising often comes at the detriment of the art and the communities where it emerges from. Using several examples from prominent names including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rimes, we examine the complicated relationship between Street Art and advertising.

Going back to the roots of the street art movement, artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Futura 2000 -- seen as the progenitors of mainstream graffiti and street art -- started painting in New York City in the late 1970’s, propelling the city to become an international center for the movement in subsequent years. These three artists painted on trains and in subway stations throughout the city, employing dramatically different styles and techniques to engage with different social issues, particularly focusing on anti-establishment, socially driven works that focused on the lives of the communities often ignored by the mainstream. They have since become an inspiration for artists all over the world. Their work has also been appropriated by many companies, incorporating their aesthetics for advertising purposes, but omitting the artists’ ethical ideals from public view.

By the early 2000s, graffiti had exploded around the world, evolving into an art form which many people outside graffiti communities had come to appreciate. The work of Basquiat, Haring and other “street artists” had transitioned from the street, to galleries and then museums. For some, graffiti remains a symbol of vandalism and urban decay. Corporate appropriation of street art, however, has begun to shift its aesthetics (not its ethics, meaning or history) into the mainstream, sparking a broader consumer interest in it -- in turn, pushing it further out of the underground and increasingly into a normalized public consumptive sphere.

With its growing mainstream acceptance, advertisers began searching for ways to appropriate street art aesthetics into campaigns to identify with, and target specific demographics to sell their products -- unfortunately this removes the art from the original anti-authoritarian, anti-advertising ethics and ideologies which birthed graffiti in the first place. One example of this is the appropriation of the artist Rime’s 2012 Detroit mural entitled “Vandal Eyes”. In 2015 the Italian fashion brand Moschino and their creative director Jeremy Scott debuted a new line that prominently featured images of Rime’s mural. Clothing with Rime’s “Vandal Eyes” were worn by Gigi Hadid, Katy Perry and the creative director himself. Rime sued the fashion brand for copyright infringement. In his suit the artist and his lawyers wrote: “nothing is more antithetical to the outside ‘street cred’ that is essential to graffiti artists than association with European chic, luxury and glamour -- of which Moschino is the epitome.” While Rime ultimately settled the lawsuit, this quote shows the line that artists, and particularly street artists, tred between originality and commercialism and how easy it is for large companies to think they can get away with using an artist’s work without their consent. Street artists want their work to be seen, but they don’t want to consumed only as a product or an aesthetic.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died in 1988, but there has been a recent resurgence of his artwork and the mainstream popularity of his work brings into focus how art is often thoughtlessly transformed into an aesthetic. In 2017 the Barbican in London -- amongst others -- hosted a retrospective of Basquiat’s work. In May of 2017 a painting by Basquiat sold for $110.5 million, making Basquiat one of only 10 artists whose work has sold for more than $100 million. Just a month before the sale, in April 2017, the makeup brand Urban Decay released a limited edition makeup collection using Basquiat’s art and aesthetics in their design and marketing of the product. A 2017 article from the online publication Bustle states that the artist’s work “was being brought back to life through the eight art-inspired products” This claim, linking the makeup brand specifically to the revitalization of the artist’s oeuvre, gets to the heart of how insidious advertising that uses street art can be. Basquiat was a Black American artist who created clandestine art that confronted mass consumerism, racism, police brutality, and the objectification and commodification of blackness in 1970s and ‘80s America. By removing his imagery from its context and messaging, and by celebrating Basquiat as a deracialized artist benefitting from Urban Decay’s attention, Urban Decay’s Basquiat line has denuded his art from its intent.

To top this all off, Urban Decay selected Ruby Rose, a white actress, as the face of the Basquiat line. While the company has drawn criticism for this decision, the choice of Rose as the face brings into glaring clarity another issue that can be created when advertising pulls irresponsibly from the art world and street art in particular. Choosing a white woman to market the product essentially maintains the erasure of the marginalized populations that Basquiat’s art represented, by removing them from the public eye and replacing them with a familiar and marketable figure. Rather than meaningful representation and acknowledgement of his work that confronts consumers with the same questions of unthinking consumerism and racialized violence that Basquiat sought to raise, Urban Decay has transposed his work into the very realm of mass consumption his art critiqued.

Basquiat and Rime are two of the lucky artists. Basquiat’s collection of work and the licensing rights are maintained by the artist’s estate. Rime had the funds to get far enough into the legal process to eventually come to a settlement. However, many graffiti and street artists working today do not enjoy the same status or privilege to go after advertisers that use their work illegally. Large corporate advertisers, middle-market, and high-fashion companies ranging from Vans to Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci have co-opted its aesthetics as central to design in some of their fashion lines. Similar to the Rime’s case cited above, H&M recently settled a lawsuit out-of-court, launched by Los Angeles-based artist Revok (Jason Williams) after they illegally used one of his Brooklyn murals as a backdrop in a 2018 ad campaign.

Italian designer Roberto Cavalli also came under fire when he illegally used and signed (de facto claiming creative ownership of the piece) a San Francisco mural by Steel, Reyes and Revok in designing his 2014 “Just Cavalli” line. In the spring of 2017, McDonalds worked with two of the top artists in the well-known Bushwick collective to create advertising for a new bagel-burger hybrid, but the social media marketing campaign included works from artists who did not consent, weren’t consulted and certainly weren’t paid to be part of the marketing campaign.

In contrast to the top-down nature of the examples above, street art in city branding and urban renewal in the last decade has largely been a bottom-up process, especially tied to the rising popularity of the photo-sharing app, Instagram, and the cultural tastes of emerging young, upwardly-mobile, creative urban professionals. Increasingly, these individuals are seeking street art districts and tours as recreation and tourism, and incorporating their passive consumption of street art and graffiti into their online personas.

Street art provides an online aesthetic of grit, independence, and alternative culturedness to the modern main streams, which is incidentally tied to gentrification and displacing precarious and marginalized populations. In cities including Amsterdam, Melbourne, Vancouver, New York, London, and Paris, street art documented and geotagged through Instagram user hashtags is most often located amid concentrations of boutique cafes, bars, and retailers. Recognizing street art’s potential to draw money to an area, city governments and business communities have exploited street art aesthetics and apparent cultural capital as central to revitalization projects and generating commercial activity, while, once again, ignoring street art history as anti-advertising, cultural criticism, and social activism.

Overall, opinion is divided as to whether street art can or should ethically comprise a component of marketing, advertising and urbanization, and this will not be resolved any time soon. As street art evolves and develops new forms nobody can predict what will happen in the future, but as consumers and citizens we should be aware that, while the worlds of fashion and corporate advertising present the most visible cases of misappropriating graffiti for profit, we as individuals are, ultimately, the engines pushing misappropriation of graffiti and street art and participating in it.


#streetart #graffiti #bansky #ethics #artmovement #ecomuseum #streetarteconomy #urbanart #urbanspace #streetartacademia

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