Though it’s often referred to as "biting" or just plain "stealing," re-appropriation has now become an integral part of streetwear’s unique aesthetic. From Supreme and Stussy to A Bathing Ape and Fuct, almost every brand in the genre has reinterpreted iconic imagery and given it a whole new meaning—a meaning that resonates much better among urban youth.
But even to this day, a lot of critics disregard this art form as a lazy practice, insisting a designer can’t really own a piece if the foundation of the design is based on someone else’s work, be it film, music, or product logos. However, as highlighted in an article published by the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, there’s a much deeper meaning to re-appropriation in streetwear. It isn’t about riding the coattails of familiar images; it’s about providing commentary on socioeconomic issues, as well as the gap between billion-dollar companies and the people they’re selling a dream to.
The article, titled Cease and Desist: Issues of Cultural Reappropriation in Urban Street Design, was written by Kevin Lyons, a prolific graphic designer who had worked on several pieces for SSUR and Supreme during the 1990s. In the piece, Lyons interviews Eric Haze of Haze Graphics, Joseph Melendez of Union, Russ Karablin of SSUR, and James Jebbia of Supreme—all of whom have had experience with re-appropration, as well as the cultural, legal, and moral questions it brings up.
There’s some really choice quotes in the Q&A that are still relevant in today’s landscape. One of the most interesting points is how the concept of ownership is blurry in these instances, especially when it comes to giant brands accusing under-the-radar brands of stealing.
"I believe it is hard to judge ownership in the case of a big shoe company that actively pursues legal suits against small, cutting-edge companies while, at the same time, it sends video cameras to New York City playgrounds to observe how kids wear clothes and rock styles," Jebbia said.
It's an interesting look back considering the article was published in 1996, 17 years before Supreme filed a lawsuit against Leah McSweeney and her Married to the Mob brand. Do you remember why they went after her? Well, Supreme and co. claimed that McSweeney's "Supreme Bitch" graphic was an infringement on their iconic box logo. However, Supreme's box logo was explicitly based off of conceptual artist Barber Kruger's work. In retrospect, there's perhaps some contradictions among Supreme's sentiments. But people and their ideals change. Maybe after it became a streetwear giant, it understood why those billion-dollar companies had so many issues with their work being re-appropriated.
You can check out the full 1996 interview, shared by Gwarizm, below.