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Fairey, Obama HOPE artist, threatens "baby"

Posted by Dan Wasserman April 14, 2009 12:15 PM

Shepard Fairey, creator of the Obama HOPE poster and other derivative designs, has been a party to several recent copyright disputes. The AP says he ripped off one of the their freelance photographer's work for the Obama poster. Fairey, in turn, has turned his lawyers on a Texas artist who mocked Fairey's OBEY stickers by adorning them with a mask. Background and links here.
But now, the graffiti-artist-turned-adman has staked a claim to the word "obey." In a bizarre case in Pittsburgh, Fairey's legal team has swooped down on a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, Larkin Werner, who had a small side business marketing kewpie dolls, dubbed Steelerbabies, who utter catchy pro-Steeler phrases on the doll's website, including "Obey Steelerbaby!" This was apparently too much for Fairey. He called in his legal SWAT team to threaten the website that was handling orders for Werner's babies. Details at the Pittsburgh City Paper.

Fairey's action against Werner is based on his assertion of a trademark of the word, "obey." Copyright and trademark lawyers question whether the claim would hold up since it would be hard to argue that consumers would confuse Werner's dolls with Fairey's products. Werner, without the financial resources for a legal battle, was forced to fold his operation and retire Steelerbaby. Says Werner, a partner in a graphic-design firm, "I didn't think I was ripping him off ... There is no graphic connection to [Fairey's artwork]. We don't even share the same market... [Fairey] has become sort of what he was rebelling against. He's ripped off political posters for a long time without attributing the source." (Thanks to reader PBW, Werner's brother, for the tip.)

The NY Post chimp cartoon

Posted by Dan Wasserman February 18, 2009 05:48 PM

There's a storm brewing over this morning's New York Post cartoon using the news item of the shot chimp to make a point about the stimulus package in Washington. Many readers see a reference to Obama's race and think the cartoon despicable. Details and a link to the cartoon are available at the Political Intelligence blog where a heated back and forth has raged in the comments since this morning.

I don't know the cartoonist, Sean Delonas, and haven't spoken with him, but I have a guess at what happened here. It seems highly unlikely that the intent of the drawing was to compare Barack Obama to the fallen chimp. The target was Congress and their authorship of the stimulus package, and he was probably referring to the well-worn cliche about "a bunch of monkeys could have done better than.... (whatever)." But that doesn't mean the Post and the cartoonist are off the hook.

Some images are so powerful and laden with historical baggage that journalists ought to recognize them right away as radioactive. The ape, in the context of depicting black people, is one of those images. Like the drunken Irishman, the hook-nosed Jew and the buck-toothed Asian, the black as monkey has had a long, ugly history in 19th and 20th century American cartoon iconography.

Why assume the cartoon was about Obama? The stimulus package is his signature legislative issue. (I know, I know - he didn't literally "write it" as the cartoon says, he just inspired it.) Put that together with the fact that he's the first black president and that his physical safety is a subject of worry. It's not a huge leap for readers to register the drawing as a disturbing racial slur.

Cartoonists should offend people intentionally, to make a point, not by mistake. A good editor would have waved Delonas off.

UPDATE 2/19 The New York Times City Room has an account of reactions to the cartoon from politicians, academics and employees of the Post. Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, gives his analysis on the site of the Poynter Institute, arguing the cartoon was a "misfire" and agreeing with me that an editor should have stepped in.

UPDATE 2/20 The New York Post has issued an apology (sort of) for the chimp cartoon.

Shepard Fairey: OBEY my lawyers

Posted by Dan Wasserman February 6, 2009 01:16 PM

pols_feature18.jpgWhat do you do if you're a street artist turned marketing phenom who uses other people's images when someone uses one of your designs? If you're Shepard Fairey, apparently, you call your lawyers.

Fairey, of Obama HOPE poster fame, is defending himself against charges he infringed on an Associated Press copyrighted photo in making the poster. He's also been criticized by artists for using others' work without attribution (see background here and here). His lawyers claim in the AP case that he is protected by fair use provisions of the copyright law.

It turns out, however, that the activist art appropriator is a wee bit more sensitive when it is his images that are being "repurposed." An Austin, Texas, artist named Baxter Orr made a parody of Fairey's Andre the Giant design, adorning it with a SARS mask and the title "Protect Yourself." Last April, Fairey mobilized his legal team to send Orr a cease and desist order threatening legal action against him.

The Austin Chronicle has the details. They quote Orr:

"It's ridiculous for someone who built their empire on appropriating other people's images," he said. "Obey Giant has become like Tide and Coca-Cola."
A website called AnimalNewYork has posted what it says are excerpts of the cease and desist letter.

(Thanks to Out of Line commenter Max for the heads-up.)

Fair use vs. Fairey's use

Posted by Dan Wasserman February 5, 2009 08:39 AM

obamaphotoap__1233812248_1440.jpgShepard Fairey has made a habit of using other people's artwork without attribution. (see earlier blog post here) The practice has now attracted attention beyond the artistic community. The Associated Press wants credit and compensation for the Manny Garcia photograph that Fairey copied for his Obama HOPE poster. Fairey doesn't dispute that he used the photo, but his lawyer is claiming that "fair use" law protects Fairey from the need to pay or credit AP and its photographer.

2/5 Dan Kennedy at MediaNation gives his thoughts on the AP infringment claim. He cites the fair use exception for parody. I'm not sure the parody claim would work in the case of the Fairey Obama poster because I don't detect any ironic or parodic intent. This case seems closer to the Jeff Koons case decided in favor of the photographer who took the picture that Koons copied to make a sculpture. The case (Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992).) is summarized on the Stanford University Library website which offers a good primer on fair use law.

2/6 Dan Kennedy responds:

"Dan -- I probably wasn't as clear as I should have been. I did not write that Fairey was covered by the fair-use exception for parody. I wrote that he was covered by the fair-use exception for transformative works, and I used parody as an example. The Three Stooges case I mentioned specifically cites Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe montage as a transformative work that would be covered by fair use, and I think Fairey's Obama poster is very similar to that."

UPDATE 2/5 Matthew Reed Baker at Boston Daily describes the breathless reception for Fairey at the ICA opening and then defends Fairey's use of others' images. I think his argument hinges on the audience knowing Fairey's references, and many of them are so obscure that no average viewer would know that they weren't Fairey's creations.

UPDATE 2/6 Fairey threatened legal action against a Texas artist for parodying his Andre the Giant image.

How phony is Shepard Fairey?

Posted by Dan Wasserman February 2, 2009 03:49 PM

BARACK-hope-POSTER-1.jpgShepard Fairey is the artist who designed the now ubiquitous Obama HOPE poster, the semi-official iconic image of the candidate. A one-man show of his work opens Feb. 6 (members reception Feb. 4) at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Hailed as the poster boy of contemporary poster boys, and closely associated with the Obama victory, Fairey is riding a wave of positive publicity. But some observers say the self-described "street artist" is really a graphic pickpocket, helping himself to the work of others without credit.

Perhaps the most articulate and pointed critic is Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen who has posted an essay entitled, "Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey."

Vallen makes a strong case that Fairey appropriates, without attribution, the images and designs of other artists. He posts multiple examples, including art from the Czechoslvakian Prague Spring, art from the Industrial Workers of the World, Cuban poster art of the 60s and this example (left) directly copying the art nouveau drawing of Koloman Moser (1868-1918) (right).
Fairey seems at ease with his borrowing. In the 450-page catalog for the ICA show, he responds: "This guy Mark Vallen found every reference in every poster and every t-shirt that I've ever used. Out of hundreds of images, there's a dozen or so that were based on things from historical posters. First of all, I'm always assuming that these posters are known by people, so my referencing is not a big secret. These aren't obscure images... Usually I'm using an image as an intentional reference." But his art itself makes no mention of its sources or derivative nature, and, contrary to Fairley's assertions, much of the art he copies (like Moser's) is not famous enough to be well-known to most of his audience. Cartoonists often borrow images or characters from older creators. But when they insert Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote or Charles Schulz's Lucy in a drawing, they acknowledge the reference with a line like "Apologies to Charles Schulz."

I understand that we live in a world of rampant sampling and remixing, but claiming to be hip or leftist is not an excuse for ripping off other creators. It's not even fundamentally a legal issue (though it may be that as well) -- it's respect for other artists. And the argument that the art is "transformative," so no nod to the original is necessary, is a weak one. In a similar context, photographers have lambasted Richard Prince who takes photos of others' photography and sells the derivative pictures as his own. Jim Krantz, whose photos Prince has appropriated, said: "My whole issue with this, truly, is attribution and recognition. It's an unusual thing to see an artist who doesn't create his own work, and I don't understand the frenzy around it. If I italicized 'Moby-Dick,' then would it be my book? I don't know. But I don't think so."

It's not a big surprise that Fairey is dismissive of this critique. His thinking is as cut-and-paste as his artwork. He inveighs against the depredations of consumer culture, but his design firm works on a "Want It!" campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue. He wants the street cred of a revolutionary artist extolling freedom fighters and quoting Noam Chomsky while doing "guerrilla" marketing campaigns for Netscape and Pepsi.

A street agitator or a self-promoting adman? Decide for yourself. The ICA show runs through August 16. It's appropriately titled, "Supply and Demand."

UPDATE 2/4 Here are a few more links that might be of interest. Fairey collaborator Jamie O'Shea comes to Fairey's defense against Vallen's criticism in an editorial posted on Supertouch. Brian Sherwin replies to O'Shea at And here's a New York Times article on Fairey's design work for Saks Fifth Avenue. Thanks to the commenters who passed these links along.

UPDATE 2/5 The Associated Press wants credit and compensation for the Manny Garcia photograph that Fairey copied for his Obama HOPE poster. Stayed tuned for further episodes of fair use vs. Fairey's use.

UPDATE 2/5 Matthew Reed Baker at Boston Daily describes the breathless reception for Fairey at the ICA opening and then defends Fairey's use of others' images. I think his argument hinges on the audience knowing Fairey's references, and many of them are so obscure that no average viewer would know that they weren't Fairey's creations.

Fans reenact Far Side cartoons

Posted by Dan Wasserman January 8, 2009 11:35 AM

847087275_7bc7ca8b94-1.jpgHave you been feeling deprived ever since Gary Larson stopped drawing The Far Side comic strip 14 years ago this week? Apparently you're not alone.

Fans of the wonderfully twisted and oft-imitated cartoon have started a Flickr site where they post reenactments of their favorite Far Side moments.

Some of the homages work better than others, but they all aspire to the spirit of the master. Liberal use of Photoshop is permitted but is no guarantee of the best results.

So far, no entries of one of my favorites: several geezers sitting on the porch of the Cartoonists Retirement Home with one of them proclaiming with arms stretched wide, "Oh, yeah? Well I once drew a nose THIS big!"3129252756_1f3208a6a4.jpg

For those craving the real thing, Andrews McMeel published The Complete Far Side in 2003 and sells it for $150.

Thanks to The Inquisitr for the link to the Flickr fan site.

He left his art in San Francisco

Posted by Dan Wasserman January 5, 2009 11:44 PM

ba-freeart03_ph2_0499614378.jpgBoston artist Bren Bataclan feels a responsibility to help people weather the economic recession. His stimulus program involves lifting people's spirits with random acts of art. Giving away his acrylic paintings of cartoon faces is something Bataclan has done for a number of years, but he recently expanded his largess to the streets and subway stations of San Francisco.

Since 2003, the Phillipines-born computer animator says he has given away over 400 free paintings in 20 cities and 20 countries. In return, he asks that the recipients make an effort to smile at strangers more often. He chronicles the response of the new art collectors at his Smile Boston Project website. The Globe profiled his graphic generosity in Boston in 2006.

Animated horror of 1982 Lebanon war

Posted by Dan Wasserman January 3, 2009 04:06 PM

waltz-with-bashir-001-433.jpg"Waltz with Bashir", an animated movie about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon has opened in New York and is due to debut in Boston on Friday, January 16.

Written and directed by Ari Folman, a soldier in the Israeli army during the invasion, the film focuses on the memories of Israeli soldiers who were in Beirut when Christian militiamen massacred 3,000 Palestinian civilians. Folman has lost his memories of the war and seeks out other veterans to interview in order to piece together their collective story and contemplate their ethical culpability in the massacre.

Writing in the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls the film "astonishing" and "exemplary" and suggests it is to film animation what Art Spiegelman's "Maus" was to graphic novels -- the expansion of a popular genre into a "profound and original vehicle for the contemplation" of horror.

The Globe's reviewer, Saul Austerlitz, places the movie in the context of Israel's other films that grapple with its military history. "Bashir", he writes, " deliberately turns away from top-down depictions of heroic Zionist generals single-handedly winning battles...The film is a waltz, not only with former Lebanese prime minister Bashir Gemayel, whose assassination prompted the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, but with memory."

The film's website has extensive clips that suggest the harrowing narrative of the film. The Times review has a video clip of Folman explaining how he achieved the animation effects he wanted.

Update 1/5 The National Society of Film Critics 2009 Awards surprised the movie industry and picked "Waltz With Bashir" as the year's best film.

(1/3 23:59 Correction to review quote: Bashir Gemayel was president-elect of Lebanon at the time of his assassination, not prime minister.)

Obama's rejected logos

Posted by Dan Wasserman December 18, 2008 11:39 AM

obama-08-logo-12.jpgSol Sender headed up the design team that developed the ubiquitous Obama campaign logo showing a blue O rising over a red and white horizon. In a recent interview, he explained the process of narrowing the graphic possibilities down from an initial 15 designs and arriving at the final selection. He shows the logos that didn't make the cut, including one that tried to strike a populist tone with cartoon-like speech balloons. There is also a more detailed video interview of Sender, who had never worked on a political campaign before, on the website of VSA Partners, where he now works as a strategist. Thanks to Drawn! for the heads up.

Kevin Garnett's spine illustrated

Posted by Dan Wasserman November 22, 2008 07:48 AM

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for the basketball fanatic who appreciates both quirky prose and knockout graphics? Look no further. “The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac” (Bloomsbury, $23) is your pick and roll. Written by the bloggers from FreeDarko, and designed and illustrated by Jacob Weinstein, the offbeat almanac runs, jumps and shoots through the modern NBA with abandon.

The graphics are sharp, innovative and powerful. The caricatures are dead-on. The authors have put up a rich website with slideshow, including a graphic analyzing the makeup of Kevin Garnett's spinal column (Backbone of a True Soul, slide #9).

Reviewing the book for the New York Times Tommy Craggs writes, " is likely the only sports almanac in existence that features a manifesto (“In rejecting the old N.B.A., we seek not to spite our forebears but to silence those who proclaim the league’s decrepitude”); cooks up winkingly abstruse statistics like “cancer effect” (e.g. Stephon Marbury and the Knicks); provides an etymology of the hoop slang “swag” (it derives from “swagger” and was popularized by Arenas when, after sinking a game-winner, he declared, “My swag was phenomenal!”); and name-drops Amiri Baraka, Martin Buber and Chris “Birdman” Andersen." (Thanks to Drawn! for the tipoff.)

MIT student describes Logan art arrest

Posted by Dan Wasserman November 12, 2008 08:55 PM

mit.jpgOn September 21, 2007, MIT student Star Simpson was arrested at Logan airport for wearing a sweatshirt with blinking LEDs, a battery and a circuit board on the front. The case took almost a year to be resolved, and on the advice of lawyers, Simpson kept mum on her experience. She has now decided to speak out and wrote her version of events for Make magazine, a quarterly publication catering to the do-it-yourself techies. The magazine is subscription-only, but a Simpson video interview with Boing-Boing TV last month contained the basics of her account.

Simpson, who was oblivious to the likely reaction to her apparel in an airport, now concedes that others might have had reason to be alarmed. But she stands by her assertion that the authorities, once they realized she was no threat, should not have dragged a baseless case through the courts and upended her life for nearly 12 months. She writes in Make: "I'm disturbed by the idea that, with one hysterical phone call, the state can be set in motion to relentlessly persecute anyone. Especially in a town full of tech hobbyists. Also the State of Massachusetts seemed unable to stop persecuting me, no matter what the facts were, once the wheels were set in motion. I don't like what this means about the future."'s Josh Glenn was on the story early in his Brainiac blog and saw the incident as a clash between the "wearable art" practictioners of the "maker" culture and the security forces primed to detect any suspicious activity at an airport targeted on 9/11.

2008's best campaign button?

Posted by Dan Wasserman November 3, 2008 02:07 PM

button-1.jpgSteven Heller, teacher at the School of Visual Arts and contributor to The New York Times, reviewed this election's campaign buttons for their graphic effectiveness. He also provides a quick look at the campaign button's history, including a description of the turning point in 1952 when,

"...a paradigm shift in design took place, said Larry Bird, curator in the division of politics and reform at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Campaigns began using buttons to brand their candidates. “The Ike Age begins because someone went out of his way to make simple buttons that said, ‘Ike’ or ‘I Like Ike,’ ” he said. “It was the beginning of the politics of personality.”

Heller picked this GOP button as the season's winner. I'd say it's clever, arresting and certainly the least orthodox of the contenders (shown in a slideshow here), but it probably ought to lose points for the negative effect that the pandering selection of Palin has had on the McCain campaign.

Barack O'Lanterns

Posted by Dan Wasserman October 31, 2008 09:16 AM


As a transformative political figure, Barack Obama has captured the imagination of many artists, both professional and amateur. He's inspired paintings, songs, videos, posters, t-shirts and now ... pumpkins.

The range of artistic adulation for the nominee was noted in a post by Steven Heller on the New York Times blog, Campaign Stops. He includes links to many sites selling or sharing Obama images. The most novel is a link to, a site designed to encourage and chronicle the Halloween creation of Obama-inspired pumpkin carvings. The site's gallery includes many designs that are repetitive and a few that are original. Regardless, it looks like more fun than just putting up a yard sign.

Calif. GOP denounces racist graphic

Posted by Dan Wasserman October 16, 2008 02:22 PM

The California Republican party has denounced a racist graphic distributed in a newsletter by a local GOP women's group in the San Bernadino area. The graphic is apparently making its way around the internet and depicts Barack Obama's face on a mock food stamp coupon surrounded by watermelon, fried chicken and ribs.


The first to complain was an African-American member of the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Sheila Raines, who told the The Press Enterprise newspaper, "This is what keeps African-Americans from joining the Republican Party. I'm really hurt. I cried for 45 minutes."

The club's president, Diane Fedele, who distributed the image, claimed, "I didn't see it the way that it's being taken. I never connected. It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else." She also told the Enterprise she wasn't trying to link Obama and food stamps, although her introductory text to the illustration connects the two: "Obama talks about all those presidents that got their names on bills. If elected, what bill would he be on????? Food Stamps, what else!"

I'd be tempted to dismiss the incident as a know-nothing local party hack picking up and circulating isolated racist trash, but this garbage echoes stuff that commenters attempt to post on this blog with alarming frequency. There are a lot of scared, scary racial paranoids out there.

Thanks to Talking Points Memo for the tip.

UPDATE:10/21 Apparently this graphic was the work of a liberal blogger who thought he was satirizing right-wing atitudes toward Obama. The Press Enterprise has the story and quotes from the blogger, identified only as "Tim".

Dan Wasserman has been cartooning for the Globe editorial page since 1985. He has published two collections of drawings, "We've Been Framed" (Faber & Faber, 1987) and "Paper Cuts" (Ivan R. Dee, 1995). His cartoons are widely reprinted and are syndicated internationally by Tribune Media Services. He draws more quickly than he types.