It's Official: Suing Over Graffiti Is Fashionable

Roberto Cavalli Horizontal - H 2014
Getty Images

Roberto Cavalli Horizontal - H 2014

As far as the exact moment when street art rose from renegade to mainstream, good arguments could be made for when the work of Keith Haring started selling at contemporary art auctions, or perhaps when Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for an Oscar. But the month of August 2014 is certainly going to go down in the annals of graffiti as well.

Following lawsuits filed this month by other street artists targeting Terry Gilliam's Zero Theorem, Sara Bareilles and apparel designer Coach, three street artists who created a mural in San Francisco’s Mission district are targeting Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli for copyright infringement and violations of the Lanham Act.

Jason Williams, Victor Chapa and Jeffrey Rubin — known as Revok, Reyes and Steel, respectively — say that in March, "Just Cavalli introduced a clothing and accessories collection in which every square inch of every piece (including clothing, bags, backpacks, and shoes) was adorned with graffiti art."

The designs have been derived from their mural without consent, they say.

"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," says the lawsuit filed in California on Monday. "Sometimes, Cavalli added what appears to be a signature, creating the false impression that Roberto Cavalli himself was the artist."

And there's more.

"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," adds the lawsuit.

The complaint contains pictures of the objectionable designs like this one:

We think the rash of graffiti-related lawsuits says something about intellectual property as much as it does about the artistic medium of street art. The plaintiffs in this case are among the street artists whose works are now exhibited in museums. But they also practice a form of art that is rooted in the counterculture. In recent years, there's been some backlash from the digital vanguard on perceived overprotection by rights-holders. But now some street artists are seemingly coming to the conclusion that intellectual property laws offer something of importance to them.

Using intellectual property as a sword is not a sell-out in their eyes. Rather, quite the opposite.

As the lawsuit puts it, "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. To anyone who recognizes their work, Plaintiffs are now wide open to charges of 'selling out.' ”

We doubt that film studios and major record companies will be adopting this argument or lining up street artists to be spokespeople. On the other hand, these lawsuits present an alternative argument for copyright and trademark maximalism premised on some form of moral rights imperative. It's a legal development that comes somewhat unexpectedly. A bit like graffiti, in fact.

Twitter: @eriqgardner