If you write your name on a wall is that wall now yours?
Is street art becomes part of how property developers market up-and-coming areas its role as a gentrifying marker is becoming clearer. In the UK what were centrally located but economically depressed areas like Hoxton, Shoreditch, Peckham and Brixton have become reasonably wealthy areas over the last 20 years in part due to their eminence as key sites of street art and culture. Of course once rises in the price of rent and property are the norm it’s not long before the little independent shops and bars and the artistic community as a whole start to be squeezed by landlords looking to make the most revenues. Having been covered extensively in a variety of media on all platforms for a number of years this is hardly new news. However the stories of how communities are resisting these changes has in general received much less press. One site of resistance and a fascinating story centres around the question of who owns street art? The property owners on whose wall the piece appears? The artist? Or the community?
An urban legend suggests that a property owner who destroyed a piece of graffiti had to pay the artist in question a significant amount in damages. As a story this hits a number of sensationalist buttons: property rights; misunderstood artists; liberal panic; conservative panic; and of course the excitement that you might also be sitting on a gold mine. If Banksy has done nothing else he has given the general public the idea that ‘those scribbles on the wall’, if sold correctly, might be your ticket to the good life.
If only it was clear who street art belongs to.
For some years this question has held a fascination for art loving legal educator Dr. Enrico Bonadio. A senior lecturer in law at The City Law School,Dr. Bonadio regularly lectures, publishes and advises in the field of intellectual property law. His current research focus is on the copyright protection of unconventional forms of expression, including graffiti and street art. He recently co-edited the book Non-Conventional Copyright – Do New and Atypical Works Deserve Protection? (Edward Elgar 2018) and is currently editing the book Copyright in Street Art and Graffiti – A Country-by-Country Legal Analysis (CUP, forthcoming 2019).
Speaking with Dr. Bonadio, Trebuchet wanted to discuss how ownership relates to the street and art, the history of his work in this area and if the urban story was true, how communities can make it work for them.
Dr. Bonadio: I see that there is a big gap within the subculture of artists, a knowledge gap, about the legal tools that could be used. Because sometimes copyright is perceived as a faraway, very capitalistic instrument that is just used by big greedy corporations. It’s not. It could be friendly to also the younger artists, even teenagers. I want to humanise copyright. [laughs]
My background is a bit of a mixture. For many years I have been an intellectual property lawyer, copyright; law firms, especially IP litigation. I teach copyright law and intellectual property. At the other end I’m also a street art and graffiti aficionado. [laughs] I try to marry these two passions: copyright law and graffiti art.
I was living at the beginning in Shoreditch so I was exposed continuously to beautiful art on the street and I was wondering, this is really art; could it be protected even if it is illegal, even if it is in the public eye, even where the artist might not be interested in protecting it, might not be even aware there are legal tools to protect it with?
So I started being passionate about this. I wanted to start getting the opinions of these artists; that’s why I started interviewing them, mostly graffiti writers and street artists. I am interested in both subcultures. The picture that I got from talking to them is quite varied of course, very different opinions, very different perspectives; some with interest in protecting their works, others they don’t really care. What I do think is there is an increase in interest in getting knowledge about what can be done to protect art to actually taking action. The mission of my research is to increase knowledge amongst this collective of artists about the legal tools they could use. If they effectively use it is another matter.