Review: Off the Record #04, Commercialization of Graffiti and Street Art

“The reason we painted the first mural [as A’Shop] was to show what graffiti kids could do,” said artist, entrepreneur, and A’Shop founder Fluke at last week’s edition of Off the Record, Fresh Paint’s panel discussion series on contemporary issues in graffiti and street art. The night’s talk, titled “Commercialization of Graffiti and Street Art,” featured Fluke along with New York native (and occasional Montrealer) QB NYC aka Turtle Caps, and was moderated by Mike O’Brien. The conversation last about two hours and focused on themes of street cred, selling out, and how to make a living through art.
commercialization OTR

According to the A’Shop website, Fluke’s career took off when A’Shop, a collective of “pioneers of the [graffiti] movement” came together in 2009 as a “creative resources and solutions” firm, who produce “large-scale murals, live performances, décor, canvas art and custom design work for both commercial and private clients.” Fluke himself started doing graf at the age of 9 and says he always saw the process of getting up as “a business transaction”: it was a matter of finding the spots with the best return, the most visibility, and the least likeliness to be buffed. Back in the day, he says, graffiti was about gaining recognition. If you were offered an art contract, someone was into what you were doing—and that was a good thing. The market now, however, is oversaturated; many artists get work simply based on their CV or who they know, rather than individual talent.

At this point in the discussion, QB chimed in to agree with Fluke: “A lot of my commissions come from the fact that they want a guy from New York,” he said. Bridging the gap between the two cities isn’t always easy it seems. QB hails from the Queens borough in the Big Apple, and currently spends about half the year in Montreal. (Guess which season? Hint: he’s here now and there’s no snow on the ground.)  QB’s career dates back to the founding of the now-defunct graffiti mecca 5Pointz, originally called the Fun Factory, a spot that he and a few friends got permission to paint on from an ex-FBI agent and owner of a small business called Graffiti Terminators. Getting the project going was tough at first, QB says, since most graf writers in New York at the time scorned legal walls. In fact, it wasn’t until well-known writer SPI came down and did a piece in clear view of the elevated 7 train that the scene took notice. Since then, the building’s exterior exploded in a riot of colors and styles. Though the building’s owners, the Wolkoff family, had the site whitewashed last fall in preparation for demolition, 5Pointz continues to be a reminder of the movement’s historical shift from vandalism to profit.

So, what does it mean to sell out? With generous audience contribution, the conversation posited several ways of approaching the question. Perhaps no one said it better, however, than QB himself when he explained, “I’ve grown out of the graf—[you hit] a certain point in your life where you have to branch out.” Selling out may mean different things for each artist and each city, but Fluke and QB concur on one thing: as an artist, you have to keep creating and progressing within one’s work. Here at Fresh Paint, we couldn’t agree more.

A collaboration between QB NYC ( and Futur Lasor Now is currently viewable at Fresh Paint ($2 entry, Wednesday-Sunday 12pm-8pm). Please feel free to visit Fluke and friends over at  

Under Pressure is still fighting for artists’ rights/ Under Pressure lutte toujours pour les droits des artistes

(Le français ensuite)

Sterling Downey is Montréal graffiti’s biggest name and biggest advocate both in the subculture and in the mainstream. It’s therefore pretty unsurprising that, when Chevrolet Canada’s “Mixed and Mastered” ad campaign for the 2012 Sonic used the work of 26 Under Pressure graffiti artists without their permission, Sterling went ape shit.

What sets Sterling apart from the graffiti scene at large—other than the fact that he’s running for municipal office—is that he advocates for a type of solidarity not often found in graf circles: solidarity within the subculture as whole, not just between individual artists and crews. For this reason, Sterling decided to take on Chevrolet Canada along with their advertising firm MacLaren McCann and Cossette, even though he knew it wouldn’t benefit him or UP. He says, “When I picked this fight, I was picking it to defend the artists, not the festival. The festival stood to gain nothing financially from this—and it was never about that.”

Relying on his background in marketing, Sterling decided two things before acting: 1) UP needed to document every instance Chevrolet and Cossette used these artists’ work without letting them know he was on to them and 2) UP was going to tackle Chevrolet on the festival’s terms: on the web and on the streets. He took screenshots, gathered catalogs from across Canada, and made sure everything was dated and time-stamped. Soon after Chevrolet’s commercials hit the Canadian airwaves, Under Pressure launched a full-blown counter-campaign: graffiti went up, videos went viral, and social media exploded.

The reaction was immediate and predictable: Chevrolet pulled all the ads, tried to ignore the mounting protest, and finally chose to deal with it outside of court in a settlement with individual artists rather than as a collective. (Hey, TATS CRU, remember this?) The total sum remains undisclosed, and Sterling—quoted in 2011 as saying that he wanted to “set a legal precedent”—has been silenced on the issue. He is no longer privy to information passing between the artists, lawyers, and companies. It’s for this reason he won’t let it go.

“They think it’s just a bunch of kids doing graffiti, and they’re just going to take it and no one’s ever going to say anything because they’re offering visibility. But in their world, they understand intellectual properties and copyrights . . . everything’s under contract.”—and under lock and key. Two years and multiple lawsuits later, the controversy seems to have been pushed under the rug, but where’s our happy ending? This may have been “the biggest [settlement] in North America when it comes to graffiti copyrights,” but what’s to stop Chevy—or any other major corporation—from using the work of graf and street artists again? What rights do these artists have under Canadian law, and how do they access those rights? Sterling and I agree on two things: these questions are relevant now more than ever, and it’s up to Under Pressure to answer them.

Now is the time to have this conversation. Under Pressure and the Fresh Paint Gallery are currently looking to put together a panel and/or workshop to educate our local artists. If you or someone you know has experience with copyright law and the value of intellectual property, contact us here. Graffiti and public art may still be alive in the streets of MTL, but it won’t survive long without legal protection.




Sterling Downey est à la fois le plus grand nom du graffiti montréalais et le plus grand défenseur de ce mouvement et de sa sous-culture. Il n’est donc pas surprenant que lorsque ” Mixed and Mastered”, la campagne publicitaire de Chevrolet Canada pour la Sonic 2012 a utilisé le travail de 26 artistes du festival Under Pressure sans leurs permissions, Sterling est monté au créneau en écrivant ape shit.

Ce qui distingue Sterling en dehors de la scène graffiti -hormis le fait qu’il est candidat à l’élection municipale- est qu’il prône une solidarité que l’on ne trouve pas souvent dans les milieux du graffiti : une solidarité au sein de l’ensemble de la sous-culture, mais pas seulement entre artistes ou collectifs. C’est pour cette raison que Sterling a décidé d’attaquer Chevrolet Canada ainsi que ses agences de publicité MacLaren McCann et Cossette, même s’il savait qu’il n’en retirerait aucuns bénéfices : «Quand j’ai choisi ce combat, je l’ai choisis pour défendre les artistes, pas le festival. Le festival n’en gagnerait rien financièrement- et il n’en a jamais été question ».

S’appuyant sur son expérience dans le marketing, Sterling a décidé deux choses avant d’agir : 1) Il était nécessaire de se documenter sur chaque cas où Chevrolet et Cossette ont utilisé le travail de ces artistes sans les consulter et 2) Il allait s’attaquer à Chevrolet par les termes même du festival : sur le web et dans la rue. Il a pris des captures d’écran, a rassemblé des catalogues des quatre coins du Canada, et s’est assuré que tout était daté et horodaté. Peu de temps après que les publicités de Chevrolet soient ​​sur les ondes canadiennes, Under Pressure lança une contre-campagne : le graffiti devient de plus en plus populaire, les vidéos devinrent virales, et les médias sociaux explosèrent.

La réaction fut immédiate et prévisible : Chevrolet retira toutes ses publicités, essaya d’ignorer la montée de la protestation mais finalement choisit de la traiter en dehors du tribunal par un règlement à l’amiable avec chaque artistes plutôt qu’avec le collectif.  (Hey, TATS CRU, remember this?). Le montant total des préjudices resta confidentiel, et Sterling -cité en 2011 disait qu’il voulait « créer un précédent juridique »- a été réduit au silence sur la question. Il n’est plus au courant des informations passant entre les artistes, les avocats et les entreprises. C’est pour cette raison qu’il ne laissera pas tomber.

«Ils pensent que c’est juste une bande de gamins qui font des graffitis, qu’ils vont tout accepter et que personne ne dira rien parce qu’ils offrent de la visibilité. Mais dans leur monde, ils comprennent la propriété intellectuelle et les droits d’auteur . . . tout est sous contrat. » Deux ans et plusieurs procès plus tard, la controverse semble avoir été mise sous le tapis, mais où est notre fin heureuse ? Cela aurait pu être “le plus grand cas de droits d’auteur sur des œuvres graffitis d’Amérique du Nord,” mais qu’en est-il d’arrêter Chevy -ou tout autre grandes compagnies – qui utilise à nouveau le travail d’artistes graffiti et d’artistes de rue? Quels sont les droits de ces artistes en vertu de la loi canadienne, et comment peuvent-ils y accéder? Sterling et moi sommes d’accord sur deux choses : ces questions sont pertinentes aujourd’hui plus que jamais, et c’est à Under Pressure d’y répondre.

Il est maintenant temps d’avoir cette conversation. Under Pressure et Fresh Paint Gallery sont en train de mettre en place un groupe et/ou un atelier pour sensibiliser nos artistes locaux. Si vous, ou connaissez quelqu’un qui a de l’expérience avec la question des droits d’auteur et de la valeur de la propriété intellectuelle, contactez-nous ici. Le graffiti et l’art public peut encore vivre dans les rues de Montréal, mais il ne survivra pas longtemps sans protection juridique.


Written by Kelly O’Brien, traduit par Floriane Casula.