A Smear sticker in downtown LA last year (via flickr.com/johnwilliamsphd)

In what may be the most original tactic by a city to deter street artists and graffiti writers from using public space as free advertising, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is seeking a court injunction to bar street artist Cristian Gheorghiu from profiting from art bearing his telltale “tag.”

I’m not a fan of the state telling people what they can or cannot do in public but there’s no doubt that there has been a proliferation of street artists and graffiti writers with nothing on their minds but fame and fortune that are using public space as a way to “launch” their brand. My opinion is if these artists are simply using public space — that belongs to all of us — as a billboard to sell something, then they should have to pay for advertising like everyone else.

Does anyone remember the Shepard Fairey incident at the Houston and Bowery spot, where he was literally advertising his exhibition across town at the old Deitch Gallery space under the guise of a supposedly street art wall project. At the time, New York City’s buildings department said the mural violated zoning laws prohibiting advertising on the property.

The American Civil Liberties Union understandably calls the LA lawsuit an assault on artistic freedom. Let’s see how this turns out.

NOTE: Some people I’ve been talking to think that Smear is being targeted by the LA City Attny. because of stickers or other small works of street art but in reality it is because he was snagged as part of a quarter-mile-long tag by the LA river, which is mentioned in the LA Times article.

UPDATE: Smear was arrested Wednesday afternoon for a violation of a previous vandalism conviction, according to KTLA.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

17 replies on “Hitting Graffiti & Street Artists Where it Hurt$ [UPDATE: Smear Arrested]”

  1. public space belongs to all of us… so you have to pay? the whole point is empowering people to take back public space and actively curate their own personal aesthetic. printed stickers and photocopied wheatpastes may be as ugly and unoriginal as advertisements but at least their very presence is a statement

      1. So is street art only okay if you’re not making money off of it? That’s what the rule seems to suggest, but I don’t think it’s that true. Plenty of artists make use of the “brands” they’ve built on the street in successful gallery careers, I don’t think that should be outlawed.

      2. pay who? advertisers aren’t paying YOU for disrupting YOUR public space. putting shit up without paying money to do so is a rejection of the capitalist notion of property ownership. and if you’re really comparing a corporation to an artist than this marketing 2.0 bullshit has clearly worked

        1. They pay the city government, which sells permits for the space. I don’t agree with the system but that’s how it is done. And I don’t buy the idea that what Smear is doing is a reaction against capitalism. I think some artist, inc. are as big as small companies (Obey, for instance).

  2. Christian (Smear) creates Art. He’s never been in the advertising design game, as far as I know.

    The piece in the LA river was a giant roller tag “MTA”. Regardless of who actually did it, the city has filed an injunction against ALL members of the crew, MTA. This is written almost identically to a “gang injunction”, which prohibits the artists from holding any markers, sketchbooks, paint cans, caps, etc., Going out past 11pm, Going to certain places, talking to other members of the crew at ANY time and other complete violations of civil liberties without conviction. It is an open-air prison system in our own city. This “graffiti injunction” created legal precedent where they could then justify a direct action against Christian for being an artist in ALL context. If they create legal precedent against Christian, you will see cases against the more influential artists as well. Their purpose is to cast a dark cloud over legitimate business activities relating to graffiti and street art.

    The city is continuing to create more and more legal precedent in the face of a court system that can barely still afford to operate properly. Once the legal precedent is set high enough, I think we can expect to see them go after the MSK, Shepard Fairey, etc…

    I have first hand experience with the city’s attempts at oppressing and marginalizing legitimate artists and businesses that are related to Graffiti or street art. Carmen Trutanich is a bully. If you have the resources to stand up to a bully, they shrivel up and go away pretty quickly. Carmen Trutanich is looking to pad his results to justify re-election. He always goes for the low-hanging fruit to eat; Christian offers the perfect meal for heir appetite now.

    I’m not sure that your article does the best job of explaining the injustices here. Seems like you’re considering the artist on par with McDonald’s, Coke, or Wal-Mart. Christian has never violated my space in such an overtly commercial manner, and I’ve always enjoyed his work outside and inside.

    LA Taco has great coverage on the SMEAR case and the graffiti injunction against MTA. You should check it out.

    1. Thanks for chiming in and you bring up some excellent points, but I do see a few gray areas starting to manifest. I do think there should be a distinction between individuals that are using public space for expression and companies that abuse public space to sell us stuff. The only problem is that as street artists and graffiti writers become more successful and prosperous some are beginning to act more like corporations while declaring their rights to public space as individuals. I guess during a time when corporations have been declared to be individuals, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

      I agree that a legal precedent would be scary for other legitimate businesses related to street art and graffiti, and that is something I would not like to see.

      1. One example which is more pronounced than with Smear might be KAWS. Is KAWS a brand or an artist or both or what? If he put up some new stickers tomorrow, would that be a continuation of his graffiti career or advertising for OriginalFake clothing. Also, he began his mainstream career by inserting his work into advertisements without permission, but since then he has made advertisements for people like Kanye West.

        Definitely, artists/designers/whatever are using the streets to launch indoor careers and it can sometimes be hard to tell what an artist’s true intention’s are. And regardless of those intentions, even what might to me might be blatant advertising for some gallery show is better than a gray wall for some random passerby.

  3. If people like Christian are helping raise the aesthetic standards for outdoor ads, then I support them, no matter their intentions. I’d rather see a Smear poster, or May Day mural walking down the street than some ad promoting high fructose corn syrup disguised as orange juice.

      1. The “aesthetic standard” i’m referring to is not only what’s puts forth visually (which is difficult to debate anyway) but what’s put forth from a content perspective as well. what’s being advertised? corn syrup or an arty clothing brand? these things are case-by-case, and highly subjective. but for now, i’ll take an art brand over a paid assault on my health and/or intelligence any day.

  4. Some will even ostensibly have a message, but it will often be an insincere one, used as a Trojan horse to conceal their true commercial agenda. Personally I’d rather see an advert than that type of street art, because at least the advert isn’t trying to insult my intelligence by pretending to be something it’s not.

    It goes both ways though, and sometimes adverts pretend to be street art. Even street art aficionados find it difficult to tell the difference sometimes. The two things are becoming increasingly fused. Then there’s the issue of overt corporate sponsorship, which has resulted in some distasteful scenarios.

    The public arena has become like an arms race, with cynical and ever more insidious forms of stealth marketing competing against the individual’s need to maintain their own intellectual self defence.

  5. Sorry to hear about his arrest. I wonder if that sticker with his own face on it might have given the cops a clue?

  6. It’s ironic, these distinctions between the camps, that of the ‘graffiti artist’ and the corn-syrup wielding corporation because they BOTH are impositions on my psyche. Fairey’s method has been perhaps anti-establishment but it has not been anti-capitalist…and his ‘enemies’ are not any different in the way they force their visual doctrine on me as I walk around my neighborhood. The difference may be in ideology, but so what? Is it not an undermining of my freedom to just go about my business? Really, is it any different from being interrupted by someone wanting to give you a religious pamphlet?

    So yeah, I think there ought to be a price to pay for that—if for no reason than to justify the expense that any person/establishment with a wall has incurred to clean up and restore a sense of one’s own brand on one’s own private property.

  7. “but there’s no doubt that there has been a proliferation of street artists and graffiti writers with nothing on their minds but fame and fortune that are using public space as a way to “launch” their brand”

    How could you guys miss this Gem of info here. Maybe its me but the whole reason most of us “graffiti writers” started painting was for fame and I’m sure it wasn’t there intention when they started but if fortune came with it then that’s just a bonus. Writing your name as many as large and as much as possible is all about fame. We each have our idea of it, some for the public, some for other “graffiti writers” or both, but the same principle applied fame.Truly love the insight sometimes from this blog your clear vision of graffiti always enlightens. Also using public space to launch their brand, wow another eye opener here. Isn’t graffiti’s origins and premise based on this concept. Whats changed is that the world actually cares enough to maybe buy the brand or art in the end. This isnt the “graffiti writers” fault that his agenda is now in line with being capitalized. Believe me 40 years into this we will be here when you guys want to buy or not, we don’t care either way. Ask any writer and im sure they will say the same.

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