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Banksy Has to Start Selling His Merch So Nobody Else Can

The famously anonymous global street artist's situation shows how hard it is for graffiti writers to avoid getting ripped off.

by Taylor Hosking
Oct 3 2019, 11:00am

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Famed British street artist Banksy opened his first store in South London on Tuesday, but not for the reasons you'd likely expect. The shop is an attempt to prevent a greeting card company from being able to take ownership of his name, which he's had trademarked since 2010. And the entire situation encapsulates, in a nutshell, what happens when companies try to profit off of graffiti's growing mainstream popularity.

About a year ago, an unnamed greeting card company opened a case to contest Banksy's trademark of his name, which, should they win, would allow them to sell images of his work. Apparently—as Banksy's legal adviser Mark Stephens explained to ITV News—since Banksy wasn't using his trademark to sell things to the public, U.K. law says "[the trademark] can be transferred to someone who will." Banksy wrote in a Tuesday statement that he thought the card sellers were "banking on the idea I won’t show up in court to defend myself.” (Which, honestly, is a solid guess on their part, considering Banksy's notorious secrecy about his identity.)

Banksy's response was to open the new store, which is basically a window shop where people can drop by to see items they will later be able to purchase online. The online store (currently under construction at GrossDomesticProduct.com) hasn't started selling anything yet, but its current display image of a broken-down flooded escalator seems to perfectly capture Banksy's dismay at being forced to play by capitalism's rules. As he said in a statement, he thinks the project is "possibly the least poetic reason to ever make some art."

Banksy might also be trolling us with the items he's selling, which he dubbed "impractical and offensive." They include police riot gear helmets that have been turned into disco balls; welcome mats made from life vests washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean; and other cryptic art, like a children's playset that invites kids to put migrant families in the back of a truck.

While Banksy's new store is one of the most high-profile examples of graffiti artists struggling to maintain ownership of their work, it's part of a growing trend as brands aim to commodify the increasingly mainstream art form. In 2015, Katy Perry went to the Met Gala wearing a Moschino dress with a mural by Brooklyn graffiti artist Joseph Tierney splashed across it without Tierney's consent. When Tierney sued Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott (who also walked the carpet with Perry while wearing the same stolen graphics), Scott's legal team tried to dismiss the case partly by alleging that graffiti shouldn't be copyrighted, because it's, in their words, “an unapologetic act of vandalism and trespass."

While that case was eventually settled outside of court, H&M used the same reasoning in 2018 to fight graffiti artist Jason Williams (aka Revok), who claimed the fashion megabrand unlawfully used his street art as a background in its ads. H&M eventually dropped the case, likely due to bad press. But graffiti is still a very tricky art forms to copyright and regulate, both because of the notion that it's already unlawful and because of how legally complex it can be for writers to fight back. (The estate of graffiti writer Dash Snow tried to sue McDonald's for using a knockoff of his tag to decorate its graffiti-themed locations in 2016. The suit was unsuccessful because the locations were outside the United States; McDonald's was later criticized for using more graffiti without artists' permission in promotional videos for its outposts in the Netherlands.)

Banksy's new store shows how unresolved the issue of trademarking graffiti art really is. While there's no telling what the future will look like as an art form that's historically anti-capitalist collides with industries that want to exploit it, right now, it kind of looks like Banksy hate-selling us artwork to buy some time.

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