What’s Yours is Mine: H&M’s Recent Use of Brooklyn Street Art
Graffiti and street art is meant to be seen. You may not even be looking for it, but it vies for your attention along your route. Overhead or underfoot, it often serves as a personal expression, a response to politics or even as part of a social statement.
Last month, street artist Jason “Revok” Williams and the art community responded to H&M’s newly released sportswear advertisement in which Revok’s Brooklyn-located artwork serves as the unexpected backdrop. H&M filed a federal lawsuit as an answer to Revok’s cease-and-desist letter that, if passed, would declare street art and unsanctioned art as unprotected under copyright laws. However, backlash from the creative community online prompted H&M to issue an apology and announce plans to drop the lawsuit.
Reading about this, I was taken aback by H&M’s immediate decision to file a lawsuit. In an age where transparency is paramount, it can be irreparably damaging for brands to behave in immoral ways.
At the same time, I was reminded about the strength of community in the creative industry. The quick reaction and assembly of artists on social media demonstrates our presence and the impact we can have on businesses where inappropriate use of our work is concerned.
Ownership of creative intellectual property continues to be hotly debated. Compared to my graffiti artist peers, my notebook sketches are seemingly more protected from appropriation. But this may not always be the case. Though these pieces can be found nestled in public spaces, my feeling is that cultural relevance and creative IP remain attached.
Despite being a deeply entranced part of the culture in many major cities, non-commissioned graffiti remains a gray area. However, there are shifts toward a consciousness of street art in industries such as real estate. In fact, 21 artists responsible for the “5 Pointz” murals on a collection of Queens, NY factory buildings were recently awarded $6.7 million by a federal judge when their artwork was demolished. Events like this foreshadow federal protection of street art as the norm.
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It has emerged on Twitter that H&M may have filed a complaint for a declaratory judgement that their use of graffiti-style artwork in a recent campaign does not constitute 'unfair competition or negligence'. If successful, the lawsuit would essentially rule that any and all illegal artwork, whether it be graffiti or street-art, can be used by brands and corporations to their own end without the obligation to give any payment to the artists, or even obtain their permission. The lawsuit has come as a result of a legal dispute between H&M and US street artist Jason Williams, who uses the tag REVOK, after H&M featured an image of graffiti in a recent marketing campaign that Williams claimed to have created. The campaign involved a photo shoot and video filming session at a handball court in Brooklyn, New York, where REVOK's work can be seen in the shot. Williams, who allegedly demanded compensation and was denied, threatened litigation against H&M, accusing them of copyright infringement #boycotthm #boycotthandm
Hypothetically, had H&M’s lawsuit passed, street art could have become a source for work used in advertising and merchandise without proper commission structures in place for artists. Although standards for street art may not be concrete, the understanding to pay for goods and services is universal and I have to assume H&M has the means to commission Revok for his work. The brand’s recent actions set a worrying tone and suggest a standard of large companies using their scale to silence smaller artists. Which, as a result, could cause artists and designers to retreat from partnerships with large brands or to alter their approach to street art.
Events like this rise and fall in our creative sightline. We know that relationships between branding, creativity and advertising will continue to evolve. This is evident at a time when the emotional connections between brands and consumers is linked to their desirability and behaviour.
Iconic brands, like H&M, should be seen as a leaders and pacemakers. We need to be able to rely on these giants to not only model exemplary consumer relationships, but also to champion partnerships in the creative community. Not simply because their resources allow for it. Rather, as a way to unveil and demonstrate the potential of where brand can go when working with the creative industry as true, respected and equal partners.