Updated: Apr 20, 2020
This past weekend MUSACK and Subliminal Projects hosted a “Mr. Sparkle” themed art show, which paid homage to a character Homer Simpson portrayed on The Simpsons. The show featured a slew of artists, perhaps most notably Shepard Fairey, creating special pieces using the Mr. Sparkle character. This show brought to mind the recent rise of “Pop-Culture Art,” an art movement built entirely around the use of images in popular culture, primarily cartoons. From illustration to murals to sculpture, there’s a lot of artists using popular and recognizable imagery in their art and while a lot of it is really cool, it brings to mind an ethical question. Is it ok to be using someone else’s imagery to build your own art career? Cartoons are art and an artist created them, so is it cool for someone to get really good at replicating that artist’s work and make a career out of it? I don’t have an answer to this by any means but I want to break down the ways these popular images are being used and discuss why they’re popular but why they may or may not be ethical.
The way I see it, Pop-Culture Art uses its imagery in three ways; a tool, a subject, or a straight up copy. So let’s start out talking about artists who use popular imagery as a tool, and what I mean by this is they’re certainly using a recognizable image or character but it’s not the focal point and there’s a high level of originality still being used. HAROW (Instagram: @Har0w) is an artist who I’ve been following for a long time who began as a graffiti writer but his large scale illustrations of superheroes and characters from popular shows like Dragonball Z and Naruto brought him into the eye of the fine art world. These illustrations are more than just replicas of popular characters but deviant, tatted up versions laid over walls of original graffiti, basically just injecting a level of badass into already badass images. Jason Freeny (Instagram: Gummifetus) is another artist who creatively and originally uses popular images in his work by dissecting toys of popular characters and creating detailed skeletons and organs within them. These anatomy studies of popular toys, like the lego man, take something that seems every day and simple and makes it a delicate dissection, adding life and reality to them. This is the art that I think, as far as ethics are concerned, is totally ok. These guys are borrowing images but they’re adding to them, there’s a level of originality. Harow adds delicate and detailed tattoos that are not only beautiful in their own right but fit the characters totally and he lays them over top of elegant font work that, again, fits well with the character. Freeny is cutting open popular characters who we may never even think of as having a detailed anatomy and giving that to them. It’s more than just a copying of a cartoon and I can behind that.
Next is the guys who are using popular imagery as a subject and this is where things can get a little dicey for me. The work is cool, no doubt, but it’s here where the ethical questions really start to rise up. THUMBS (Instagram: @Thumbs1) is an artist who does a lot of crossover work with popular cartoons, illustrations featuring things like the Simpsons characters as the characters from Bob’s Burgers or Bojack Horseman as a My Little Pony. These images are really well done and the crossovers are pretty seamless in style and color. Jerkface (Instagram: Incarceratedjerkfaces) is a muralist who’s had work featured all over the country and it’s work made up of patterns with popular cartoons stacked on top of one another, usually missing their eyes. The shape, transparency, and lack of eyes certainly bares some level of originality, but at its core the imagery is largely unchanged from the original. So the question becomes is it ok to use someone else’s imagery in your own work? The Simpsons is a show that both of these artists have used imagery from so let’s use that as an example. The Simpsons were created by cartoonist Matt Groening and the show has been on for almost 30 years so using Groening’s original imagery in your own work builds in the recognizability without any effort. And this isn’t like the Mr. Sparkle show where already popular artists are using an image in one piece, no, these artists are building entire careers around using someone else’s original imagery. So, yeah the work is neat, but is it ok for these dudes to be making careers off of this? I’m not sure but it’s certainly fun to look at.
Finally, we’ve got the straight up copies and this is where I’ve got to step up and say it’s not cool. This is more of a rant than anything but it started when I saw popular recording artist Billie Eilish at the iheartradio music awards wearing a shirt and shorts with Sailor Moon, another popular cartoon character, printed on them. This drew me in and upon some further research I found out they were by up and coming artist SlumpyKev (Instagram: @slumpykev), an up and comer in this new DIY high fashion era. I think a lot of people are out here creating cool clothing with just a screen printing rig in their garage but my problem with Kev is that nothing is original at all, he’s just printing cartoons on clothes. THUMBS and Jerkface are at least adding, subtracting, and crossing over elements when they make work with these characters but this dude recently released a series of beanies with Courage the Cowardly Dog on them and the image is one of the first that comes up if you google Courage the Cowardly Dog. Like what did he do? John Dilworth created the character AND that particular image, all this dude did is put it on a hat. So why’s that cool? Is he paying for licensing? I don’t get it.
I think a lot of us got into art by drawing our favorite cartoons when we were little and that’s awesome but we grew from that. Now, all of a sudden, people are creating careers in art by drawing our favorite cartoons. Now obviously for a lot of the artists mentioned in this article that’s a big oversimplification and there’s a lot of merit and creativity in their craft. But at the same time for a lot of these people rising to prominence it’s not. There’s a big nostalgia factor to seeing a shirt or mural or sculpture with images from your favorite cartoons on it but we’ve got to think is that really original? Is it ethical for someone to make a career using other people’s imagery? I think this is a conversation we should have because I certainly don’t want to say it’s wrong, i love a lot of this work, pretty much every artist mentioned in this article I actively follow and enjoy but a part of me always thinks that this might not be cool and I want to talk about it. What do you think?