It may be easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission, and it may not. What one should never end up having to do in any situation is both.
Last month, a Belgian artist contacted Hallie Bateman to let her know she’d recognized a piece of Bateman’s artwork in a promotion for a show at the gallery Stichting Ijsberg. This came as a surprise to Bateman, a California-based artist who never agreed to license her work. The friendly stranger who clocked the familiar image asked the gallery about it, and a representative allegedly claimed they’d been in touch with Bateman and worked something out. Bateman searched her email and found a permission request from the gallery, dated in March—which she had politely declined and promptly forgotten about. Somehow, what the gallery had taken away from the exchange was that it could just use her work anyway.
The piece in question is It’s a Miracle We Ever Met. In it, a bunch of people and one dog, all drawn in Bateman’s deceptively rudimentary style, are each walking off on their own separate trajectories, trailed by primary color vector lines. Love’s triumph over randomness, eloquently evoked.
Given that the gallery’s show is about various types of connections people make in life, including—ironically, it now seems—those between people and artists, It’s a Miracle makes an ideal avatar for the show. But the Belgian gallery is far from the first to make that connection between Bateman’s art and their own thing.
“A lot of people reach out to me about this drawing and want to use it for their album cover or their podcast art or their book cover,” says the artist, whose latest book is Directions. “But I’ve never licensed it to anyone. It’s my work. There’s stuff you make for the job and there’s stuff you make that’s yours. And I’m not about to turn my stuff into just shit to license.”
It’s a Miracle We Ever Met is Bateman’s most well-known piece—and also her most stolen. Deepak Chopra’s namesake center, for instance, has used it without permission before, like a spiritual FuckJerry, and so have other Instagram and Pinterest accounts with large followings.
In this latest instance, after failing to gain permission, a representative of the Belgian gallery purchased a print of Bateman’s image for $45, and used it to make all manner of materials promoting the gallery’s new art show.
Bateman generally finds out about her art popping up where it shouldn’t from direct messages on Instagram, where she has 109,000 followers. By now, it’s become a routine that happens almost monthly, a succinct summary of everything wrong with how art functions in an online world.
“It’s just so odd that you can love a piece of art so much and give absolutely negative shits about who made it and just treat it like it’s a leaf that fell from a tree or something,” Bateman says.
Theft of her work has become so routine that what happens next has the familiarity of a routine as well. She posts about it on Instagram, then her followers find the account that used her work without permission or credit and give them hell. In response, whoever runs the account typically sends a defensive direct message to Bateman, pleading ignorance, as though there had been no way for a big account to locate the source for a piece of art floating around online. Eventually, the problem tends to just go away after either the artist gets credit or the image is removed.
This time feels different to Bateman, though.
“It’s not just not giving credit,” she says. “Using my work in print to advertise their thing is just a whole new scope of this. There’s definitely Etsy shops out there where people sell my shit or whatever, but this is very commercial. This is a different animal.”
The response to the gallery’s ill-gotten print has been different, too. After Bateman posted about the incident last week, her Instagram followers raged. They tagged the gallery in the post’s comments, and swarmed its own account, giving the most recent entry a rare Instagram ratio.
In response, representatives from the gallery have been sending direct messages back to Bateman’s followers, assuring them that they credited the artist for her work. To the artist herself, though, credit is not satisfactory.
“The problem started way earlier than credit,” she says. “The problem started when I said no, and they bought a print and made a poster out of it anyway. The credit is not the issue; Consent is the issue. I said no, and no means no.”
Enough of Bateman’s followers created enough noise that Belgian publication De Standaard put out an article about the incident. A representative from the gallery, who did not respond to Fast Company’s request for comment, claims in the article that the gallery “needed a qualitative version [of the image] urgently,” and then “forgot to inform Ms. Bateman about it.”
Ms. Bateman finds this explanation suspicious, to say the least.
“As my mom put it, you typically don’t inform people when you steal their shit,” the artist says. “I just don’t believe that it was sincerely, ‘oh, we simply forgot.’ They had my email, they had emailed me before; they sent not one single follow-up. I think it’s because they counted on me being in another country and not finding out. Besides, you can’t inform someone after they’ve already said no. ‘Inform’ implies that if they informed me, it would have been okay, when in fact, if they had informed me, I would’ve said, ‘fuck off: I said no.'”
In between Bateman’s Instagram post on Monday, and a similar Twitter post on Thursday, Stichting Ijsberg finally contacted Bateman. It was was the first time she had heard from them directly since their brief exchange in March.
Bateman did not respond to the email.
When asked what a satisfactory outcome might look like on the gallery’s end, Bateman says she doesn’t think there is one. The damage is already done.
If there is a silver lining, aside from an uptick in print sales from the publicity, it’s that the situation might make some observers think in a new way about whether they perhaps treat art online as though it were the product of immaculate conception.
“We live in a society that does not value artists. It barely values art, but it definitely values art more than artists, and I think that’s really sad and kind of insane,” Bateman says. “And I hope that maybe more people on Instagram or Pinterest or wherever will wonder where their favorite piece of art came from and find out and support that person, because it’s super not an easy job and it’s hard to monetize something that’s not, like, gas or coal or data.”
“There are relatively few people in the world who are working with ink and their hands and feelings and thinking about the heart and the stuff that’s really important but doesn’t pay,” she adds. “And I really believe it’s important. I think we’d be fucked without artists.”