Miami Artist AholSniffsGlue Sues American Eagle Outfitters for Intellectual Property Infringement
AholSniffsGlue is one of the Magic City's quintessential street artists who is widely known for his trademark droopy eyes that keep watch over Wynwood at NW 27th Street and for more than a decade have peered down on I-95 traffic outside of the Margulies Collection.
So when American Eagle Outfitters descended on Wynwood earlier this year to package its 2014 spring break advertising with a distinct urban vibe, it became besotted by the local artist's attention-grabbing imagery.
The company, which earned more than $3 billion last year, boasts 1,000-plus stores around the world, and ships to customers in 81 countries, began using Ahol's work on its webpage, social media sites, billboards, and in-store displays as part of a sweeping international blitz to shape its brand identity and sell its product.
The problem, according to a lawsuit filed by Ahol, is that American Eagle never sought the artist's authorization or compensated him for plastering his work on its ads.
Last week, Ahol, whose real name is David Anasagasti, sued the retail giant in the U.S. District Court of New York for unlawful infringement of his intellectual property, in what could prove a landmark case for the rights of artists.
The Manhattan firm of Kushnirsky Gerber PLLC, the same outfit that represented Miami's Borscht Corporation when the NBA threatened an injunction against the local organization's screening of The Adventures of Chris Bosh in the Multiverse, is representing Ahol in his copyright complaint.
Wynwood, which has become world-renowned as an outdoor museum for its collection of murals created by locals and some of the international art scene's top talents, attracts photographers and filmmakers who visit the area daily to shoot the wildly popular artworks. For the most part, these photographers ask permission beforehand and credit the creators of the murals, as well as pay them a licensing fee.
But that's not always the case, as reflected by Ahol's suit, which alleges that representatives of the retailer set up shop in Miami's artsy district with a production crew of creative types and models to organize a campaign intended to appeal to the young adult audience the company targets -- but without crediting or compensating the artist.
One of the images American Eagle used on billboards depicts a male model wearing shorts and a patterned shirt while leapfrogging a fire hydrant in front of Ahol's mural on NW 27th Street titled Ocean Grown, commissioned by Ocean Grown Glass Gallery. The image, the suit alleges, was plastered everywhere from a billboard at Houston Street and Broadway in New York City to in-store displays worldwide, the company's Facebook page, Instagram, YouTube, and in storefronts from Colombia to Japan.
American Eagle also posed a model in front of the same mural holding a blue spray paint can, implying that its Justin Bieber clone had created the artwork.
During a store opening in Medellín, Colombia, American Eagle allegedly went as far as hiring three local graffiti artists to re-create another of Ahol's works on an eight-foot wooden panel, layering the company's logo over the iconic eyeballs for added impact.
Ironically, the three men, wearing American Eagle T-shirts, later posed over their replication while the company's webpage declares, "No Super Models. No Retouching."
Gregg Shienbaum, who has represented Ahol at his eponymous Wynwood gallery for the past two years, expressed little surprise that those at American Eagle would feel like they had hit pay dirt when encountering his artist's imagery.
"Ahol is not only one of our town's most iconic artists, but he is also a beloved Miami personality who is well respected for the integrity and soul with which he represents the 305 and many charitable endeavors," Shienbaum said. "People from all over the world who visit Wynwood see his mural on 27th Street, then come to the gallery to see his works. I have serious collectors from France, a TV producer from Los Angeles, and a businessman mentioned on Forbes' list of the world's wealthiest people who have seen that mural and been inspired by it to come in and buy one of Ahol's iconic works."
Asked about Ahol's lawsuit, however, the dealer offered no comment other than he is eager to see how the case evolves.
Ahol himself also refused to comment while the case is in litigation. His suit, however, claims that American Eagle has damaged his reputation through its commercially wanton appropriation of his works.
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Others in the Miami art community have been more vocal, such as Babacar M'Bow, the recently appointed director of North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). M'bow called Ahol's case an example of "corporate plundering" and said the suit could become a milestone copyright infringement case.
"This should be very worrisome to Miami's citizens," M'Bow said. "American Eagle has acted crassly and, not unlike their logo, swooped down on a respected Miami artist with predatory intent, and this is a case that merits an institutional response.
"This case rises in the midst of the tremendous efforts by Gloria Estefan, her group, and the City of Miami, which are deploying their resources to save the works at the Miami [Marine Stadium]. If this case reveals itself as presented in the brief, we are facing the biggest copyright and moral rights infringements in the art history of the city. We hope reason will prevail so Miami artists can live with the fruits of their creativity.
"One of our fall series is planned to explore these issues of protection and promotion of local artists, their rights, and role in the city as Miami emerges as a 21st-century global cultural center," said M'Bow, who added that he is planning a symposium including art historians, scholars, and legal experts to explore Ahol's case.
Books IIII Bischof, co-owner of downtown Miami's Primary Projects Space and pioneer of the Primary Flight initiative that turned Wynwood into a street-art nerve center when the neighborhood was still a blighted area, agrees that Ahol's plight with American Eagle is a cause for community concern.
"I think this is a real fucking shame. It would have been simple for American Eagle to conduct some due diligence and research the artist behind the work rather than jacking it for an ad campaign," Bischof said.
"If American Eagle was truly interested in becoming authentic by affiliating its product with a street artist and tapping into a creative vein, they should have approached Ahol for permission and compensated him for his work. And if he didn't want to work with them for whatever reason, they could go fuck themselves and find someone else."
American Eagle Outfitters' spokespeople did not respond to messages Cultist left seeking comment for this story.
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