This past spring, Miami street artist David Anasagasti’s work started popping up in Japan and South America. It was the type of global exposure that Anasagasti didn’t want: American Eagle Outfitters had built an international advertising campaign around his best-known, oldest image—half-squinting, drowsy eyeballs layered on top of one another. In the ads, young adult models wearing American Eagle clothes frolic in front of his art. One shot featured a model holding a spray paint can, grinning, with Anasagasti’s street mural prominent in the background. Additionally, American Eagle allegedly hired artists to recreate the eyeball painting on an eight-foot-tall panel outside a store in Medellin, Colombia.
Anasagasti, a burly, heavily tattooed, graffiti artist in his 30s who goes by “Ahol Sniffs Glue,” didn’t like being associated with the teen and young adult-oriented American Eagle. “Just imagine you’re doing something for 20 years, then all of a sudden, you’ve got people coming up to you saying, aren’t you that guy that American Eagle did this to?” said Gregg Shienbaum, whose art gallery represents Anasagasti and who is acting as his spokesman.
In July, Anasagasti hired a lawyer and filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit, accusing American Eagle of stealing his work and seeking monetary damages. If it sounds novel to apply copyright to graffiti art, that’s because it is: Lawyers who work in this area say it’s not clear anyone has ever tried this in court. Copyright law, as its name suggests, lays out the rules for when it’s okay to copy something. But does it extend to art that's on public walls?