How close is too close: Painting and Stealing

The Hype World saw quite a bit of ruckus last week between two artists: Jason Freeny and KAWS. You can read all about it here:

  via Highsnobiety
via Highsnobiety

I can understand why KAWS left these comments below Freenys image.

He is afraid people will think this is an official collaboration and he tries to protect his brand. Especially after Freeny stepped on KAWS toes before, releasing a set of dissecting Legos in the exact same colour ways as KAWS did his companions.

Yet, Freenys work is all about dissecting famous characters, so KAWS could be just flattered that Freeny picked the Companion after dissecting other famous shapes like the Koons Balloon Dog, Barbie or the Lego people.

Here is my review of the original KAWS dissected toy:

With leaving these emotional comments KAWS opened himself up to a bigger conversation about the validity of his OWN work: How can somebody like him who HIMSELF appropriated famous works of other people, be mad at Jason Freeny for doing the same? KAWS jumped off the Mickey Mouse shape as much as Freeny does remixing the Companion!

This leads me to more questions about where the line should be drawn between riffing off an idea or artwork and just flat out stealing something that isn’t yours to take.

And how valid can you be as an artist if you are just stealing other peoples ideas and style?

The Graffiti world has very clear rules when it comes to this issue: If you steal someones style you are deemed a “Biter”.


To Bite: To copy another writer’s style. This is considered a no-no and is looked down upon, even though writers often borrow imagery from cartoons and comics.

– Graffiti.Org


Yet, most creative people started out riffing off other peoples work and later develop their own style. Closing off your mind from what came before really hinders innovation and progress. Plus: If you just LOVE painting Stormtroopers, why should you be forbidden to do so?


“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

– Jim Jarmusch


Being it Hip Hop sampling hits of the 70ties, Pop Art riffing off everyday brands or Street Artists aping the style of their contemporaries, it can be hard to draw the line between just stealing somebody else’s hard work and creating something new out of something old!


Tell the truth, James Brown was old
‘Til Eric and Ra came out with “I Got Soul”
Rap brings back old R&B
And if we would not, people could’ve forgot

– Stetsasonic “Talking all that jazz”


Let’s discuss some of the big examples of appropriation to maybe get closer to the truth:

1907 – “The Fountain” by Duchamp

This piece caused massive outrage at the time but works for me because Duchamp was the first acknowledging that mundane objects can be viewed as art, and that art is dependent on the context. He didn’t even sculpt it but bought it in a shop.

So yes, it’s a regular pissoir designed by someone else. But signing it and putting it into an art show totally catches the viewer off guard, hence turning it into an art piss ehhh PIECE! 

1964 – “Brillo Box” by Andy Warhol

Personally I feel this is an updated version of Duchamps fountain: Warhol, being a commercial illustrator, highlights the beauty of a common object.

This time Warhol didn’t just put the original box, but recreated the item faithfully himself. Still, it’s not his design and he bootlegs the original packaging.


“With his Brillo boxes there is a degree of removal from actual boxes and they become an object that is not really a box. In a sense they are an illusion of a box and that places them in the realm of art.”

– Claes Oldenburg


The same effect can be achieved by changing the dimensions or the presentation. Other artworks in this ilk that come to mind are Hirsts overblown dissected anatomical figures ( clear inspiration to KAWS and Freeny btw ) and Koons suspended basket balls. 

 copyright Jeff Koons
copyright Jeff Koons

I do get people who hate such art. It’s just a basket ball, right?

I personally love it because I feel shaking up the presentation and context reveals a side of an object that has been hidden to the viewer and now triggers a different emotional response. 

Saying that, I am a Designer and have been loving objects my whole life: Being it vintage Star Wars toys, sneakers or Apple iPhones! 

For me a mundane, mass produced object can be art because in the end of the day a painted canvas is a designed object as much as an iPhone is.

Even the Mc Donalds uniform can become something of high value and status if re-appropriated by the right person: Hate Jeremy Scott as much as you want… mashing up McDonalds with Chanel is genius!

 Moschino by Jeremy Scott
Moschino by Jeremy Scott

The third powerful way to trigger an emotional response that turns an object into art is by creating hype! 

When I visited the first show of Banksy in London 2002 I didn’t buy any of his artwork as the rats stencilled on plain white canvas looked cheap to me. Of cause my emotional response today would be totally different.

 But only because I know for how much they are going these days!

So unfortunately you can’t deny that there is a connection how you value an art object based on the strength of the brand the artist created for himself!

Hence KAWS getting emotional about Freeny messing with his toys makes sense to me: KAWS is very keen to transcend the Street Art label and Freeny doing his own dissected Companion variation is diluting KAWS brand vision.

Talking about brands: I bet Blek Le Rat ain’t that happy about Banksy either, as it was Blek that established the stencil look first.  For me this is similar to MySpace succumbing to Facebook: One might have been first, but the latter just was at the right time at the right place!

Now this stencil style will forever be associated with Banksy, although you could argue that Banksy “bit” Le Rats style…

  via Mail on Sunday
via Mail on Sunday

You just can’t stop people remixing and referencing work. I am sure Da Vinci would be pissed at Koons for putting his design on LV bags, yet I find it hilariously naff. Especially putting the name of the painter on the item in bold letters like they were some kind of Rock Star! 

But would people pay the same amount if this was just a bootleg bag you found at your local pound store? I highly doubt it. And that’s why creating a strong brand as an artist matters so much!

Another classic example: Supreme creating their logo in the style of Barbara Kruger.

Yes, she is entitled to be pissed off about it, but for Supreme using her style makes total sense: Bold, loud and in your face! Plus the art connection elevates the feel of the label by association and makes it more premium.

In return you could argue Supreme gave back by making her work relevant to a new generation of art fans again…

Supreme going all the way applying this boldness to household items from tooth picks all the way to hammers harks back to Duchamp and Warhol, setting ordinary items in a new context to create something fresh! But is it art? Maybe?

You can read my thoughts about Supreme here!

Last but not least let’s talk BAPE Sta: A clear rip off of the Nike Air Force 1 silhouette by Japanese Streetwear label A Bathing Ape. A loophole in the patents prevented Nike from shutting down BAPES version of their shoe. BAPE owner NIGO went on to revolutionise the sneaker game by using materials and colour-ways that NIKE would have never touched at the time, and now we have sneakers in crazy colours from every mayor brand out there! Thanks for stealing, NIGO…

So I guess the question is: Are you creating something new and exciting, or are you just trying to wrap a turd in expensive cloth to bandwagon off it’s perceived value? This is, of cause, totally a matter of personal taste!

I have a bigger issue with Street Art when it comes to riffing off the same thing again and again. How many Amy Winehouses wheat-pasted on the walls do we need? How many mash ups of Ziggy Stardust are acceptable? I am not pointing fingers, I am just asking the question.

Artwork clockwise: Mr.Brainwash, Pure Evil, Rugman, James Cochran ( picked because they came up first in Googles search results, not because I want to point my finger at these artists specifically )

The question is: What is your ambition as an artist? Do want to do something fresh or just gain notoriety? Is it about craftsmanship and quality control or just going All City and get featured on all the hype blogs? Is it about doing something new or just selling out your print run?

Again the answer could be: All of the above! Although NIGO created a cool new concept, being able to use the classic AF1 shape helped making his shoe look so good. KAWS adding his trademark XX eyes to massive franchises like Peanuts and Spongebob makes his art instantly accessible to a mainstream audience.  

I have been accused myself for ripping off other peoples work by painting over vintage records covers. I personally see it as adding something new and changing the context.

 A Solaris100 Masterpiece
A Solaris100 Masterpiece

Check out more of my art here!

It’s impossible to come up with a general answer to this debate. For me the gut feeling tells me what’s hot and what’s not. And let me just leave it at that.

This article is not about pointing fingers and saying who’s right. It’s more about engaging in a discussion, so please leave YOUR opinion in the comments!

Peace and Love to all… Solaris over and out!