June 24th, 2009

An Atlanta-based “guerrilla artist” is facing charges for creating a hitch-hiking “monster” out of orange traffic barrels, which are presumed to be stolen. Want to give this guy a ride?

The soft-spoken and goatee’d artist, Joe Carnevale, has fans. Thousands of them. And they are putting pressure on a district attorney in Raleigh, N.C. to drop larceny charges. More than 3,000 people from as far away as Korea and Brazil have joined a Facebook group calling for his charges to be thrown out. His supporters are sympathetic, and together help form a type of cultural resistance to authority.

“It’s easy to see why it would be very hard to come down emotionally on the side of police on this one,” says Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University, in New York. “This wasn’t a ‘get us out of Iraq monster,’ it’s a hitchhiking monster, and it played on the irritation that most people feel when they see traffic barrels, which usually mean a traffic jam. One of the dangers of being a guerrilla artist is that you might get arrested. One of the dangers of being a prosecutor is that you occasionally have to prosecute people who are popular.”

The president of Hamlett Associates, owner of the barrels, has urged the city not to prosecute. The cost of the barrels ($385) has been redeemed by the fact that Hamlett Associates may now be the only such company to be known around the world. The head of the company even wants to use the barrel sculpture for promotion, saying, “I love the barrel monster. Guerrilla sculpture is rather rare in street art and is generally stolen and hoarded as fast as it’s produced. Played right, the city could have a new souvenir that sells like hotcakes on the Internet, but I’m sure they won’t be that smart.”

Probably the most famous guerrilla artist, known at Banksy, is anonymous in this “age of celebrity.” He makes artwork with social commentary, looking for human interaction, while other artists happily cash in. Known for his graffiti work, artist Banksy has intrigued audiences with his art and identity since he began stenciling (and vandalizing) public property in the early ’90s. (No official image of the guy even exists, but there are a few theories as to his identity.) His work has been produced on walls in London, Brighton, Bristol and even on the West Bank barrier separating the Israelis and Palestinians. His works have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and he has dozens of celebrity collectors including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera.

Known for installing his own work surreptitiously in museums, Banksy recently helped mount a surprise exhibit in his hometown– Banksy vs. Bristol Museum. The exhibit is supposed to be Banksy’s way of thanking Bristol for giving his street art its first canvas.

Another favorite (and famous) guerrilla artist has seen more copyright infringement that almost any other artist! Shepard Fairey, a street artist famous for his red, white, and blue “Hope” posters of President Barack Obama, was arrested and accused of tagging property with graffiti this last January. He was arrested on his way to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston for the opening of his first solo exhibition, “Supply and Demand.”

According to the museum, he had spent the previous two weeks in the city installing the exhibition and creating outdoor art. Those works included a 6 meter by 15 meter banner on the side of city hall. Fairey had been arrested numerous times for painting on buildings and other private property without permission. Such is the life of a graffitti artist.

His famed image of Obama has been sold on millions of stickers, T-shirts, and posters, and was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington before Obama’s inauguration this last January. There are 373,000 Google hits for the words “Fairey Obama”.

According to the Associated Press, the image is the subject of a copyright dispute between them and Fairey. The artist argues that his use of the AP photo is protected by “fair use”, which allows exceptions to copyright laws based on (among other factors) how much of the original is used, what the new work is used for, and how the original is affected by the new work.