Sad But True – Plagiarism in Heavy Metal Art has quickly become one of my regular stops while browsing around for recent doings and transpirings in the world of extreme music. This, because what Sad But True does is shine a light on examples of artists who have been commissioned to provide album cover art or merch designs and where they’ve cut and pasted various portions of previously existing art and using it without crediting the original artist. As someone with limited knowledge of art, the artistic process, the art world and art scene, it’s interesting and compelling to see how stuff gets recycled, from where art is borrowed and how prevalent the issue is.
The blog master, who wishes to remain anonymous, because they're a working artist who has created album covers for a variety of extreme metal bands, does an excellent job of pointing out why new metal artwork might not seem so new with comparison pics and explanations that even the laypeople amongst us who can’t draw a straight line with a ruler can understand.
The blog master does not hesitate to call any of this stuff out. So in the above, where yours truly uses words like “cut and paste,” “recycled” and “borrowed,” this individual will unequivocally use “stolen” and “ripped off.” They're quite adamant about stolen art and plagiarism, as you’d expect anyone working in the field to be, which is why I figured an interview about the blog and person behind it was in order.
Originally, this was designed to be a more balanced piece. The initial goal was to also interview some of the artist called out since the blog went live a year ago in order to open a discussion on both sides of the issue. However, no one contacted to participate responded to interview requests, let alone to defend themselves or refute the blog. Still, it was felt that what’s being said and unearthed on Sad But True is interesting and important enough – if you lack convincing of this, check out the post regarding Pestilence’s latest album here – to warrant attention. The band ended up retracting the artwork. So, after some back-and-forth and having to do some convincing of my own, the blog owner and I connected and discussed the origins of the blog, the problem of art plagiarism and in what ways ripping off art is different than ripping off music.
What was your original motivation for the blog?
It really kind of started a couple years ago; actually, I’d say it’s about five years at this point. There used to be a blog called MetalBandArt.com; it was a metal art blog and they had a feature on these about a guy named Justin Osbourne. He also goes by the name Slasher Design. And at the time he was doing a lot of heavy metal album covers and other stuff. He was pretty popular and I assume he was competitively priced, but I don’t have any concrete knowledge of that. It seemed like he was the golden boy of that industry for a while. This blog found out that he was full blown cutting and pasting his artwork from other artists. Most of his source material was pulp ‘70s and ‘80s horror movie posters. He’d take the bare bones and clip it out and most of the time he would paint over it digitally and sometimes he’d take it without any edits at all. It started off as a little exposé by this blog and it ended up turning into people doing their own detective work and finding all these examples and posting them on the comments section. It got to be crazy. Basically, his entire breadth of work was lifted from somewhere. That just angered me so much. I mean, I know this stuff happens all the time, but I guess a part of me was angry because I feel, from the artist’s point of view, how it feels to have someone steal my art. I’ve had my art lifted before and also, a little on the pettier side, I was angry because he wasn’t even really doing the art but was amassing lots of clients; really good clients that much better artists would love to work with.
To give you an example, he did a lot work with Fright Rags, which does horror movie shirts and stuff, and I owned one of their shirts that this guy designed. It was a Phantasm t-shirt and it was awesome, or I thought it was awesome. What the original artist in the ‘70s did was awesome and I was just so mad and felt ripped off. I spent $20 on the shirt from the site thinking it was a cool rendition of the Tall Man from the Phantasm movies and this guy didn’t do it. I felt like I supported a fraud. So, that kind of rotted in my belly a bit and affected how I felt about this type of art lifting. To make a long story short, the guy came out and said, ‘Whoops, I’m sorry’ and that was it. The whole thing kind of faded, got let go and blew over and he still works for movie companies and does all kind of stuff. I don’t really support witch hunts, but it bothered me how there was no comeuppance. Nothing happened to him professionally; his reputation was tarnished with people who care, but a lot of people simply just didn’t care. One thing that came out of this discussion was there are a lot of people who don’t care how the artwork is made. It’s like, “If it looks good, it’s good enough for me.” And I had a problem with that too. I started to get this feeling of ‘Where are the ethics in heavy metal art?’
I’m guessing that wasn’t something a lot people were aware of?
It got me thinking even more, not just about where the ethics are, but also why it's happening in the first place on such a scale, because it was clear that he wasn't the only one. My theory is that since the music industry isn't exactly loaded with money these days, especially a niche industry like heavy metal, people must be flocking to those types of artists because they are too good to turn down, price-wise. This isn't necessarily a fact or anything, it's just how I rationalize it in my head. It's sort of disgusting to me that someone can take full pieces of art from a legend like Frank Frazetta, digitally paint over little bits here and there, maybe alter some colors, stuff like that and be able to get away with it. I mean, it is literally stealing the strokes of someone more talented in order to make yourself look better. I saw this huge discrepancy between side A: an artist like this guy, faking and churning it back out and charging a band for it, and side B: someone busting their ass to make brand new art, working with bands they want to work with and work in an industry that they want to work in and having to charge so much more money and being undercut by a guy like this.
And that gave the blog direction?
That just bothered me so much and on so many levels and once the jealousy whittled away and it became less and less about not getting clients and all that and more and more about what’s right and wrong and maybe there are a lot of young designers who just don’t get it or understand. They think everything on Google is free and all there for the taking if they can search it and find it and that’s just simply not true; whether you believe in my blog or not. There are things like copyright, there are stock photo places you can take from, there are things like everything before 1923 being in the public domain and people don’t understand that. I thought that maybe I could make a blog that made an attempt at finding examples of art that was lifted, whether maliciously or ignorantly, and show examples of it. It wasn’t started to be a hit list thing and it wasn’t started to ruin artists’ careers. Even though sometimes I admit I get really angry when I see the blatant examples of it, it’s not meant to drag people down. It’s meant to show young artists, some of whom are frankly incredibly amateur, that what they’re doing is wrong. And if even one person looks at the blog and goes, “Shit, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been finding Frank Frazetta paintings and cutting out an arm and a leg to get all that musculature that I can’t paint, and pasting it into my work. I realise I’ve been doing it all wrong and I need to start working on that.” There’s a little bit of entitlement there where people feel that they’ve been working hard and that they deserve to be making money and work with some of the bigger name bands, but they really haven’t worked hard; they’ve just stolen someone else’s art. Those are the people that I will probably never get through to and will steal art no matter what.
As for yourself, what’s your artistic background?
I started in 2007 working for death metal bands and that kind of kicked it off from there. Once I realised how much fun I had doing those first album covers, I just kind of kept at it; bugging bands, writing to whoever I could find, setting up gigs, talking to people on forums…that kind of thing. For the past eleven years, I’ve worked with both indie and major label bands. Before that and currently, I work in the video game industry. I worked on Triple-A games and now I’m working more on casual games, hoping to spend more time with family. But I just finished two album covers for two independent bands, so I’m still actively working in the industry, but I’m not really taking on any new work right now, except for a few merch designs. It’s always been a personal passion.
When you first started the blog, how did you go about finding content? Was it a matter of knowing art well enough and being able to find it yourself?
A little bit. There are two methods. Originally, I had friends who are also professionals in the industry – one of them is actually incredibly popular – and he’s got sort of a photographic memory and he would send me examples. He was the one who actually sent me examples by Orion Landau, who does a lot of stuff for Relapse, and I thought, ‘Someone’s got to put these on a blog or somewhere in a permanent location that people could refer back to.’ That’s where it started. After that, I started paying more attention to album covers from some of these artists and I was able to start noticing patterns and how they created their art. For those that don't draw on their own very much, you can tell they just go straight to Google for a lot of their design. Here’s an example: the last Vintersorg album. I had it up on the blog and took it down when I realised that one of the photos used in it was from a public stock photo site because I thought it undermined the blog's message a little bit. But all I did was type ‘snowy mountains’ and ‘snowy tree’ into Google and the photos on the cover were the first things that came up. And even though that artist is someone who is popular – he’s done stuff from Slayer and Soulfly – it was clear to me that he was the type of artist to take a lot of shortcuts in the name of speed. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with using photos and doing digital manipulation on a professional level. Plenty of designers do this. But they do it ethically – meaning they either take the pictures themselves or ensure that they are paying a royalty to use it. There are certainly some sites that offer free stock photos, but not all stock photo sites are rights free and do expect you to pay for the license to use them. The approach for art creation is just totally different when you are doing it this way. It’s not being approached as doing a pencil drawing, then painting or digital painting or whatever. People start by going on Google and taking pictures from there. If they were a little more professional or ethical about it, they would alter the photo dramatically or use it as reference.
Isn’t using reference points a common artistic method?
Of course. All artists should use reference, but there’s a difference between using reference where you’ve printed a picture up and have it taped to the edge of your monitor or have it open in another window in a program, and directly stealing the actual pixels or actual strokes or the actual photo. There’s a huge difference. In fact, there’s even tracing, which is fine and accepted in the industry. Comic book artists do it all the time. I’ll give you an example: Neil Adams, a comic book artist who drew Batman in the ‘70s would trace things all the time and say his job wasn’t to reinvent the wheel. So, if he needed a car in the background and he had a decent picture of a car, he would trace it. The difference is that when you looked at the art work, it was unquestionably Neil Adams because he had enough drawing skill and knowledge to make it his own even though, underneath, he’s tracing over a car. It still looked like his art and he’s inserting his own ability into it. When you’re just lassoing, cutting and pasting into Photoshop and there’s no referencing there and only the direct use of the art or photo, it’s way different.
What have reactions to the blog been like and how long before it caught steam with people, art folks and otherwise?
There have been a few examples. There was a Pestilence album cover last year where I called out the artist – who is notorious for cutting and pasting, by the way, but people keep on hiring him, probably because he’s cheap – and it went all the way up the chain. The band approved it, so did the label, shared it on social media and it wasn’t long before people noticed it was being lifted from other artists and artwork. There was stuff in there taken from a concept from a sci-fi TV show called Fallen Skies that’s on a major network. I mean, that’s unethical, but also really stupid. A major TV network has deep pockets and if they want, they could sue that guy into the ground and crush him, even if he’s in another country. I think he’s in Brazil or something like that. When it came out, it was a big deal because they’d already paid for it, promoted it, then had to take it down, say they were sorry, make new artwork with a different artist. All that is a lot of time and money. When that happened it spread the blog around a lot more. But I post a lot of stuff and I’m not discriminating. I’m not only trying to get the big bands. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little band with 500 likes on Facebook; if they’re lazy, I’ll still post it if I find it.
The post about the Pestilence album was how I found the blog, but before that were there different reactions from artists, musicians, etc.?
The first time the blog got linked was through Metalsucks. I don’t need to say much about their comments section, but at first I was frustrated because what was happening is that if someone liked a band, they wouldn’t speak ill of that band and they’d defend them. That frustrated me greatly because I felt like people weren’t seeing the message. People were looking at it like a TMZ thing where I was out to trash the band, but it’s not even about the bands. Most times, the bands don’t even know what’s going on. They’ve hired an artist and the artist is the one who did the cover and either them or their managers approve the art; they’re hands off and didn’t make the decision to steal art. There were only a couple comments where people were like, “No, this is definitely plagiarism,” but most people didn’t care. As time moved on and as more examples got added to the blog, it seemed like more artists started to see the blog and as they came around, they were like, ‘yeah, totally. This happens all the time and it’s frustrating’ and they’d share blog. So, now you’re getting two sides; you’re getting the fans of the bands who don’t want to see the bands in a bad light and now you’re getting the artists who feel the same way I do but haven’t spoke up about it and now have an avenue to share their thoughts. Somewhere in the middle, you’re starting to see more comments from everyday fans who are starting to see it isn’t ok. If they can push aside the whole side of being a fan of the band and look at the artists, they’re starting to see that it is pretty lazy. And that’s the key.
And you mentioned something about the blog’s title?
I sometimes wish I didn’t call the blog Heavy Metal Art Plagiarism because plagiarism is a specific thing, sometimes almost a legal thing where you’re taking something that isn’t yours and passing it off as yourself. There’s a theft aspect, but I also have a problem with artists who are flat out lazy. You can take artwork from 1918 that’s gorgeous, re-colour it, put in a couple new lines, change a facial expression and legally do that because it’s pre-copyright and in the public domain. But I still think that’s lazy. There’s one artist who always takes from art nouveau stuff and he gets so much credit, people saying how much they love his art and how they wish they could draw like that. Well, he can’t draw like that either! Then this gets wrapped up under the heading of “design.” A lot of people in the design field feel that because they’re not in the illustration field that they don’t have to draw anything. Maybe that’s true, but your source still has to be ethical. There’s one artist who I know who’s really famous. He’s worked for so many bands it’s ridiculous and I bounce ideas off him all the time and asked him his opinion about stock photography and public domain usage. He said he never ever uses other people’s photos, and if he uses even stock photography because he doesn’t have access to a photo of something he can take himself, he’ll pay the licensing fee. He’ll radically alter stock photos and be totally up and up about how he obtained the photo. That’s a big deal and doing the right thing. One group of people who responded when the blog first launched were designers who were saying, “We do this all the time, this isn’t wrong, this blog guy is full of shit.” Again, this is another reason the blog needs to exist because those are the people who don’t get it.
How has what you’ve discovered in doing the blog changed your relationship with metal artists and the art world?
I think it’s definitely been a good thing. I’ve met a lot more artists that I didn’t know of before the blog and I love that because it helps create an art community and brings us together to hopefully educate and fight this thing that’s so pervasive.
Here’s where I, as someone who knows little about art, see a grey area of confusion. For example, Venom’s Assault series was recently reissued and I listened to them all after not listening to them for a long while. There are riffs on some of their lesser known tunes that I’ve heard used hundreds of times since the ‘80s. Listen to that song “Powerdrive” and tell me you haven’t heard that riff in a million other places. Bands deliberately attempt to sound like other bands and use very similar sounding riffs all the time. If you listen to Hellripper’s Coagulating Darkness album, it’s very obviously three songs from Kill ‘em All blackened up and re-written into an eight song album. It’s awesome and I love that record, but there’s no hiding what’s being ripped off and people praise it like crazy. How is doing this with music different than doing it with art?
In my mind it is definitely different, but I will say that in the same way you’re not art knowledgeable, I’m not music knowledgeable. But where I see the difference is this: is the identifiable riff the same thing as someone who draws a face or whatever? A riff starts off with the original person who wrote it and maybe it sounds the same as another riff without that person knowing it. They perform it in their own way and it could sound different every time, whereas when someone draws an arm with a bicep taken from Frank Frazetta or any comic book artist and they do their best to draw it that way, at the end of the day, it’s an emulation. But when you actually cut a photo of an arm and put it in your digital software editing program, it’s still the same arm. I think a better correlation would be sampling where you are taking the original recording and reusing it. I still don’t think it’s a good comparison because when you are sampling something – and I could be wrong – like when Puff Daddy took “Kashmir” and put it into a song back in the ‘90s. Whether you know like or know Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or whatever, everyone knows that’s a Led Zeppelin song. It’s unquestionable because it’s such a famous riff. The difference between that and the stuff on the blog is that people aren’t being obvious and aren’t saying, “This is Frank Frazetta and I’ve taken it and added my own thing.” They’re trying to be sneaky about it and not crediting the original art. They’re claiming it’s theirs and that’s textbook plagiarism. Of course, I’m using Led Zeppelin and “Kashmir” as an example, a very famous artists and very famous riff, but does it make less of a difference if it’s an unknown band? It’s still the same act that’s happening.
What have the reactions been like from artists you’ve called out?
The first person I called out, and actually this was before the blog, was an Indonesian artist and he found my Facebook page after I posted about him somewhere else. He found a picture of me, drew a picture of me getting my head ripped off and posted it on his own social media. I thought it was great. What he drew looked pretty good and I said, “Hey, this is pretty good. Maybe if you drew more instead of lifting, you wouldn’t get called out.” Another guy somewhere in South America I’ve called out a lot because he does nothing but rip off. I have to assume that in his home country copyright law must be weak. Other people call him out and he says everyone is just a hater because he has 25,000 fans on Facebook. I did hear through the grapevine that Orion Landau has basically said, “Yeah, fuck that guy.” I know it gets under people’s skin, but at the same time, stop stealing art. It’s really that simple.
Going forward, what are your goals with the blog?
When I first started, going way back to the Slasher Design guy, I was just mad. I’ve personally worked hard my whole life. I’m definitely not the best artist and I was just mad that someone who was basically a layman with a good eye for colour was tearing up the scene and everyone was ringing him up and hiring him. Since then, I really don’t even care if people get work for being a fraud. I do care about the industry getting undercut by these artists. I do very much care that artists that are legitimately better can’t get work and, mostly, I do care about educating people about what’s right and wrong.