As We See It

Has a Banksy prank turned into real legal trouble for Life Is Beautiful?

Life imitates art? Mr. Brainwash, aka Thierry Guetta, poses in front of his work at an exhibition in London in 2011.
AP Photo/Marta Ovod

There is a moment in the film Exit Through the Gift Shop when the movie’s bumbling, mutton-chopped protagonist levels the grand theory he’s been working toward at the viewer while lounging lackadaisically in a patio chair: “I came up with the idea that the whole movement of art was about brainwashing,” says French pseudo filmmaker/artist/thrift store owner Thierry Guetta. “So I was Mr. Brainwash.”

The film, directed by enigmatic street artist Banksy, goes on to show the newly dubbed Mr. Brainwash using the lessons absorbed from guerilla artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey to launch his own career. But rather than create original pieces, MBW rips off famous works of art, from Andy Warhol’s soup can to the Mona Lisa, altering them slightly and selling them off to collectors for absurdly big bucks. In one scene, Guetta glances at works created by an army of employees, rattling off prices without a second thought: $30,000, $20,000, $50,000. It’s astounding—and it would be infuriating if it didn’t feel clear by the end that the whole film was some awesome, elaborate Banksy prank.

The movie came out in 2010, and I hadn’t given Mr. Brainwash a thought since. In fact, I’d sort of assumed Guetta’s artist alter ego had retired since appearing in the movie, which more or less branded him an unoriginal fraud.

But last Sunday there he was, with TMZ reporting that Mr. Brainwash was suing Las Vegas’ own Life Is Beautiful Festival for using the phrase “Life Is Beautiful,” also the name of his show in Exit and a line he’s reportedly been working into his art for years and may have trademarked, as well as the festival’s paint-splashed heart logo, which he claims is derivative of an image he has trademarked. Life Is Beautiful declined to comment.

The irony of Mr. Brainwash suing anyone for trademark infringement is double-cream rich, given that he’s been taken to court three times by photographers for, essentially, stealing, repackaging and reselling their work. At least twice he and his corporation, It’s a Wonderful World Inc., have settled before a ruling could come down.

But perhaps the LIB lawsuit shouldn’t be so surprising. In Exit, Guetta takes up street art after seeing the massive profits and burgeoning fame it brought his compatriots. Perhaps he’s learned a new skill during his last few years in court—the art of the copyright infringement lawsuit.

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