How 'Piracy' Made One Artist Famous… Pre-Internet

from the it's-not-a-new-thing dept

Blenster points us to this fascinating post by Jonathan Akwue, in which he discusses how a piece of artwork he created a few decades ago actually became “famous,” because of a bootleg poster maker who made a ton of unauthorized posters that got around quickly. Here’s the image, which you may have seen (I definitely recall seeing it in the past, but had no idea of its background):

Akwue talks about the process that resulted in the creation of the poster (that’s him in front of it with his son above), and how he was even worried about the potential for bootleg copies of the poster. And, not surprisingly, he was upset when it first was bootlegged. But in retrospect he realizes that the bootlegger was much more efficient at getting his poster distributed and that helped him:

But something else happened. Among a certain set of people I became (almost) famous ? or at least my picture did. Stan?s distribution network was far more extensive than I could have imagined. As a result the image cropped up in all sorts of places, from inner-city street corners to suburban offices. A friend spotted it on TV hanging on the wall of an architect?s home in New York. My brother found a reproduction in a street market in Switzerland.

The bootlegged copies didn?t entirely kill the market for the legitimate ones either. As the unauthorized prints were unsigned, the limited edition of 500 was sold to those who were willing to pay extra for a signed copy.

In the end, he compares this to similar cases in the internet era, such as with Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep, and realizes that perhaps the bootlegging wasn’t so bad:

I only ever met Stan once, in a council flat in Greenwich that served as a base for his bootlegging operations. I have no idea what happened to him, or if he got his comeuppance in the end. But if I did meet him again I?m not sure what I?d say. Perhaps it should be ?Thanks?.

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Comments on “How 'Piracy' Made One Artist Famous… Pre-Internet”

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Another says:

Re: Re: Re:

Really? Judging a persons wealth by their choice of clothing? nice, I know well-to-do people that don’t care about clothes. Also, you can actually be successful without being “rich” and/or Famous, and have nice things and live a good life. You really just have greed melthing out your pores don’t you?

Anonymous Coward says:

The funny part of this story is that the “pirate” in this case had to put a fair bit of money on the table to make the reproductions. The only part he wasn’t going is paying the artist.

More over, because he was actually selling the things (and not giving them away) he was taking actual sales.

All this really proves is that the original artist had no clue how to market, and likely didn’t have a proper agent working to secure him good distribution. I would suspect if the poster is that widely distributed that he lost millions of dollars in order to make thousands selling the signed copies.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re:

>> the original artist had no clue how to market

Sometimes it appears that when copyright is criticized, the artists are attacked as well. To motivate this reply, let’s assume this was the intention behind the quote.

This artist could have probably reached out to the distributor to have made more money. [Maybe this is still possible to do.] It appears he didn’t.

However, not having learned to market well or generally not having access to certain information is a weakness many artists face. The person has spent time to master the artistic skill while forgoing the time to master the business skills. Since we don’t expect all business people to create their works, clean the floor, architect their offices, etc, we should make sure the artist have a reasonable mechanism for monetizing their works if such a mechanism exists, if a raw free market environment fails them.

Copyright as it exist is significantly problematic, but it doesn’t help to pretend the law is there solely to create harm.

Clamshell says:

Re: Re:

“He was taking actual sales”:


1. The “pirate” had an infinitely better distribution network, so it’s exceedingly unlikely that anybody buying from him had even HEARD of the other guy, or would have any way of finding him/getting the stuff from him. Can’t complain about how you’re “losing sales” from people in, let’s say, Bangladesh, if the folks in Bangladesh have never even heard of your stuff.

Before it became “famous” (whether via whatever “authorized” sources he’d put together, or via the much larger viral-buzz created by “piracy”), there WERE no sales, “potential” or otherwise, any more than their would have been if he’d just left the original poster hanging up in a locked closet somewhere, and nobody but him had ever seen it.

There’s NO SUCH THING AS “potential” sales, or “potential” customers for that matter:

Overcast (profile) says:

It’s pretty much this way with all content.

Art Museum.

How many things have you bought because you seen it/them or something similar in one of the above places?

How many CD’s have you bought where you never heard the group? Personally, it’s almost never for me.

How many movies you own that you didn’t see elsewhere first?

Art is a given, you ALWAYS see it ‘free’ before buying it, right? Even if it’s in a high priced gallery – it’s not like they have a cloth draped over it and you buy blind – you’d either have to be an idiot or very ‘adventurous’ to do that, huh?

Same with books – although textbooks/reference may be a bit different. But books for entertainment – I buy a series or an author that well – I’ve read before.

While some content you may never see or hear before buying, I bet 99% of the population has heard/seen what they are buying for free prior to purchase in 90% of cases..

Jonathan Akwue says:

A word from the artist

Thanks for covering my story. It seems to have provoked an interesting debate. I thought I’d point out a couple of details that seem to have been missed in the article and the comments.

In my original blog post on Urban Mashup, I made it clear that I was commissioned by a community centre in a deprived area of London to paint the piece. It was supposed to inspire the young people that attended the centre and I had agreed that proceeds from the sale of the posters would be used to fund a trip to Egypt for a group of them.

Although I?ve gone on to be reasonably successful at making money (despite what I?m wearing in the photograph!) and marketing, this picture was never about those things for me. I wanted the benefits to go to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds ? hence the uproar when the picture got bootlegged.

I?d also like to point out that in my original post I never claimed to be famous. I said that the effect of Stan?s piracy was to make the image almost famous on the streets of London and eventually other places further afield. The picture was very much a product of its time, and I?m always more surprised when someone says that they?ve seen it before than the other way around.

Either way, it remains the one piece of artwork that I?m most proud of, and I?m pleased to see that almost twenty years on, it still gets people talking.

Jonathan Akwue

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