In the ephemeral world of street art, respect is hard to earn. Between graffiti taggers, neighborhood vigilantes, and out-of-touch city governments that make little differentiation between fine art and vandalism, it's no wonder practitioners can get sensitive about their craft.
So when a local enthusiast broke the code of the streets by appropriating the work of several such artists for a corporate entity without providing credit or compensation, he earned himself a digital beatdown.
"It all happened in a matter of minutes," Austin Kaase says, regarding the hateful messages that flooded his Instagram account two weeks ago after he was fingered as the culprit in art jacking he claims he unwittingly committed. "[They were saying] that I was a thief, that I was a criminal — basically comparing me to the worst type of people. It's just something I didn't really get. I didn't seek out to hurt anybody."
Despite underground cachet, copyright law against unauthorized reproduction protects public art. But even as street art migrates from its illicit roots to cooperative sponsorships by local and international governments, it's still a self-regulated subculture where artists take it upon themselves to police their turf and dole out punishments. As the once-subversive art form rises in popularity, the next wave of legitimacy could very well be corporate appropriation by proxy.
The case of the copied street art started when a new luxury apartment complex, BOHO4W, sprang up in Old Fourth Ward. The development itself exemplifies the lifestyle of the new millennial bourgeoisie, lurking behind faux bohemianism. But nothing is bohemian about the rental rates at the 276-unit development; one- and two-bedroom units range from $1,240-$2,370 monthly. The complex is owned by Cincinnati-based North American Properties, the same developer that owns and manages Atlanta's mixed-use bastion of urban suburbanism, Atlantic Station.
In an attempt to add some local authenticity to BOHO4W's interior walls, NAP contracted with a third-party design firm. That's how Kaase, a graphic designer and grad student, got involved. As a favor to his fiancée, a designer for the firm contracted by NAP, he took photos of the murals and printed it out using an architectural plotter.
"This is something I do as a hobby," says Kaase, who photographs street art in his spare time to preserve it, but also says he has printed reproductions in the past to hang in his house. "It's nothing I've ever sold before. It's nothing I even sell now."
The photographic collage he created is made up of a number of different murals from around the city that feature the work of several well-known Atlanta artists, including Peter Ferrari, Trek Matthews, Sam Parker, and Molly Rose Freeman. Freeman got wind of the unauthorized reproduction when a friend texted her. By then, word had circulated on social media with links to a BOHO4W Instagram post in which the apartment complex unwittingly outed itself.
"Bringing new energy to the spin studio with a wild new wall art!" read the original post from BOHO4W's account. The attached photo of the exercise room showed a wall covered in the collage's explosion of color and nature scenes.
Though it's probably the first time Freeman's work has been characterized as "wild new wall art," she's been a full-time practicing artist since moving to Atlanta in 2012. "Atlanta's one of the only places where I can make a living as a muralist because of the appreciation [for public art]," Freeman says.
But even Freeman admits she isn't clear on the laws regulating public art and murals.
"I think this became an issue because it was kind of this legal gray area," she says. "It's public art, but is that owned by the individual? Or, if it's in the public space then is it fair game to photograph and appropriate?"
Atlanta-based lawyer Jamie Woodard, who practices intellectual property law for the firm Wellborn, Wallace & Woodard, says street art and murals are copyright protected by virtue of their creation. And any derivative copy of such original works is an infringement.
Fighting legal battles can present a challenge for street artists and muralists. Most lawyers won't take such cases on a contingency basis, Woodard adds. Policing violators is also a problem because "in most cases, it's only by happenstance that you find out that somebody has taken a photograph and is displaying a photo of the street art," Woodward says.
Upon getting wind of the controversy, NAP removed the reproduction from BOHO4W. In an email to Creative Loafing, a spokesperson for NAP stated that the developer would "prefer to keep the name of our outside consultants private." Meanwhile, Kaase, who says he deleted his Instagram account after receiving "hate mail," hopes he won't be portrayed as the villain.
"It's definitely [been] eye-opening," he says. "And that's because I've never had to think about copyright law or anything like that. I've never had to even think of the legal ramifications or the ethical grounds of reproduction because I've never sold it."
In an emailed response to the outburst online, Kaase offered an apology "to those who may have misunderstood my intention," he wrote. He says from now on, he'll appreciate public art from a distance when biking through intown neighborhoods, but characterizes the local art community's outraged response as "controlling" and "strange," considering the sense of autonomy street art represents.
Freeman believes that making a commodity out of public art without compensating artists is contrary to the spirit in which it was created, but says there's nothing to gain from playing the "blame game" or disparaging Kaase. "I hate that phrase 'teachable moment,' it's so cheesy," she says. "But I think that he just needs to be educated, just like a lot of other people."