Sunday Mailbag

April 19th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q:  I recently saw a display for some caricaturists at the Sydney Easter Show that showed the caricature of you done by Mort Drucker. They were using it as a sample of work. I know your work itself is also always being used to promote others (placed on their displays meant to make potential customers think they did it themselves).  I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

A: Here’s a picture from the Sydney Easter Show he is referring to:

Sidney art theives
Photo courtesy of Aussie cartoonist Lee Sheppard

That’s a caricature of me by Mort Drucker on the left.

I also see (from left to right) George W. Bush by Court Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger by Jason Seiler, Baltimore caricaturist Mike Hasson by Jan Op de Beeck. I do not recognize the artist who did the Al Sharpton on the far right. I’m not sure why the artists in question here would use caricatures of regular shmoes like Mike and myself, no matter how good the caricatures might be, but there you are. My work is not actually plagiarized here, it’s Mort’s version of me, but my work a frequent victim of this sort of dishonesty.

Sadly this is a common practice by many “street” caricaturists. I’ve seen my work and work I recognize plagiarized all over the world:

From Times Square in New York City

More Times Square

Yet more Times Square

This I saw in Place de Tertre, Montmartre in Paris

I’ve seen my work on other people’s displays in Phoenix, San Diego, New Orleans and even right here in Minnesota. I’ve also had reports of my work being used thusly in Rome, Greece and London. I didn’t see anyone plagiarizing me in my trip to London last week, but it was raining a lot and the few street artists I did see (mainly at Leicester Square) seemed to mostly have their own work up. Sometimes they have redrawn it as an “original”, sometimes they have literally printed a grainy copy from the internet images.

Why do these street artist’s do this? If they can draw well enough to do it for money in a place like Times Square, Rome or Paris, why not do their own samples?

I can’t answer that for certain. For some, it’s a matter of simply not being a very good caricaturist. Some of those Times Square artists are awful, and can barely draw at all. They sell their wares the same way the people next to them sell watches that look like Rolexes but stop running within a week. They show one thing (like other people’s samples) and then sell another and rely on tourists getting confused or not wanting to create a scene to get their money. Those people have no choice but to show other people’s work as their display art, as they are incapable of doing their own. They, incidentally, give real caricaturists a bad name.

Others, though, have the art skills to do their own samples. So why the rip-offs? I think it’s just plain laziness. They don’t want to spend the time needed to work up good looking samples… they’d rather steal another artist’s work as opposed to doing it themselves. Maybe it’s because they know they aren’t as good as Sebastian Kr?¬?ger (who is???) so they show his work or the work of others rather than display their own honest skill.

So what are my thoughts about this? Obviously I don’t like it, don’t condone it and would rather these artists not represent my work or the work of any other artists as their own. Do I run up to an offending street artist and confront them? No, I do not. Legally they are doubtless in the wrong but realistically I have little legal power to do anything about it, nor the desire to fight an unwinnable battle. Confrontation does nothing anyway… most of these people do not care about anything except parting the tourist from his or her money. I have literally seen the same ripped off samples hanging on different artist’s displays within a few feet of each other. The contempt they must have for their potential customers, and for the artists they are plagiarizing, could not be more plain. Why would they care about my remonstrances.

Sadly this is the price you pay for sharing your work on the internet. It’s impossible to stop copyright thieves from taking your work and doing what they will with it. I have seen my art being sold on postage stamp collections from South American and Russian countries, as posters and prints on eBay, on mouse pads and coffee mugs… I even saw a picture of my Jesse Ventura caricature tattooed on some guy’s arm in my local newspaper once. The more commercial thievery I put a stop to if possible, but that is a different animal. On the plus side, I can take a little satisfaction in the fact that the very accessibility of my work on the internet that makes it a target for thievery also males it easy for others to spot the plagiarism. I get many reports from internet acquaintances who tell me they busted an artist using my work somewhere and let them know what they thought of it. At the very least, it might annoy the perpetrator.

While I might shake my head at this practice by unscrupulous street caricaturists, what I most definitely do not think is that I am being flattered by being plagiarized. Some caricaturists I know seem to feel this way if they happen to see their work being used in this manner. They feel their work is being praised by being worthy of copyright infringement. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These artists are showing a complete lack of respect for the work and artists they are ripping off. It is a crime of convenience and laziness, not of admiration. Witness how they are so stupid as to use caricatures of other caricaturists as opposed to celebrities, like these guys in Australia. It’s something to be sickened or saddened by, not appreciated.

I’m a big believer in Karma and the old adage “what goes around, comes around”. Basically I’m saying that doing this does not, in the long run, do anything but harm to these artists. If these folks want to still be doing caricatures on a soggy street corner 20 years from now for a few euros a pop, then they are going about it the right way. Nobody ever achieved anything of lasting worth by practices like these… even the simple effort of drawing one’s own samples and practicing good ethics eventually brings higher rewards that stealing from others will do. It’s very sad, actually. I feel sorry for them… but I still wish they wouldn’t steal my work nor that of my colleagues.

Thanks to Grant Brown for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Malcolm says:

    What a shame!
    I totally agree with you, it’s sad and it’s also a scam to the customers.
    I’d like to see you coming up to one of your caricatures they have on display as their own art, and sign it. That might embarrass them a bit.
    Your artwork is really great.

  2. Karl Simpson says:

    Tom, you are absolutely right in everything you say but also I have to say a little wrong.
    I’m talking the UK law here so don’t get confused with USA law as I’m no expert on that.

    An artist displaying other peoples work at their stand would in my eye be claiming that that work is his / hers and most people look at the quality of the samples to choose a caricature artist.
    So for me that’s a deception or “fraud by misrepresentation” as we now call it.
    However you would have to prove that the artist has that intention but I feel that would be quite easily achieved by someone asking them if it was their work and noting their answer.
    If they said “Yes” then for me case proved. Call in at a Police Stn and report them.
    That’s the easy bit though because what if they said no, you would then have to reply on the perception that is given of their stand displaying other peoples work as their own. That would be more difficult but not unachievable, a test case would have to be taken I feel.

    Just a few thoughts.
    Next time you see some of your work try it out, but I hasten to add that I am talking UK law not sure on the USA.
    I’m sure you could easily take some advice from your local Police Stn.
    Keep up the work Tom it’s great I check by everyday.

    Karl (UK Police Officer)

  3. Chip says:

    Tom can you try incorporating a pen name or something that can ID your work in the actual drawings as proof the work is yours?
    I know some cartoonists like Al Hirshfeld used to put “Nina” in his caricatures and Pulitzer winning editorial cartoonist Paul Szep used to put his daughter “Amy” in the cartoons.
    If I was a customer and sat down in front of these hacks that used your art as samples I’d say I want my caricature to look like that. Obviously the hacks work couldn’t match your work quality after it was done.
    Then I’d refuse to pay for it and tell customers the hack artist is a fraud!

  4. Mark says:

    This is interesting. I just returned from New York City last week and have pictures of your work, and that of others, that phonies were displaying as their own in Time Square. Most of them saw me looking at their stuff and eagerly approached me to have me sit down. I told them I didn’t know if they could even draw because all of their samples were stolen off the internet. Some looked at me in shame, others tried to reduce their price. And you’re right, they could at least try and be smart about it. They have the same ripped off samples as the guy six feet away. Unreal.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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