Run DMC, Transformed? A street artist claims fair use

Is Thierry Guetta (AKA Mr. Brainwash) for real? Only real legal persons can be sued… Like Shephard Fairey, Guetta has thrown off the cloaks of anonymity typically worn by street artists and has exposed himself to claims of copyright infringement. Street art is based on the use of popular images from the cultural mainstream, but when fame and success are part of the picture, the use of others’ images just might not be fair.

As argued by Rosie Gray at BlackBook, “[N]ow that street artists are becoming mainstream and having gallery shows (like Mr. Brainwash, who according to Exit Through the Gift Shop burst onto the scene in 2008 with a massive show in L.A.), their appropriation of pop culture images could get them in trouble. “

Guetta became well-known for his participation in Exit Through the Gift Shop. However, the truth of his identity has been heavily debated. The whole film stirred up controversy surrounding anonymity in street art, and the blurring line between fact and fiction in documentaries.

The New York Times reported in April 2010 that, “Mr. Guetta did not respond to a request for comment [as to whether or not the film was a hoax] — though he does seem to exist and to be as idiosyncratic as he is in the film.” This blog also explored the issue in January when, ironically enough, a filmmaker involved with the film sued for lack of attribution.

The truths and practices of street art are now called into question again. Glen Friedman, an LA-based photographer, has brought a lawsuit against Guetta for copyright infringement. Guetta allegedly used one of Friedman’s photographs, a 1985 image of Run DMC, as the basis for a number of his works which were distributed through different channels.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Friedman’s attorney, Douglas Linde, said in an interview that Guetta is a ‘blatant plagiarist.’ The artist’s lawyer, Alan Gutman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”

An article in The Art Newspaper discusses these claims in the context of the history of appropriation art and fair use. “The ease with which photographs can be copied was seized upon in the mid-1970s by the Pictures Generation—a group of US artists including Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince—who borrowed from television, films, magazines and popular art forms.”

So is this really ‘blatant plagiarism’, or is this an example of the ever-elusive Fair Use? A trial date is set for later this year.

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