By Ren MacDonald
Ten years ago, Inland Empire native Ian Campbell founded Cat Cult, an artist collective whose members paste pictures of screen-printed cat heads on sidewalks, traffic signal boxes and buildings throughout L.A. County. As a teen in his Pomona garage Campbell, now 33, started making likenesses of his mom's cat on stickers. While he was studying at Art Center College of Design, the images evolved into numerous different breeds — from striped tabbies to Russian Blues — with diamond eyes and decked out in wizard caps, cowboy hats and vampire capes.
Cat Cult has a not-insubstantial fan base. Besides boasting thousands of Instagram followers, its art has been featured in gallery shows and sold on T-shirts and sweatshirts at retailers such as Fred Segal.
Somewhere along the way, it may also have attracted the attention of L.A. rap collective Odd Future. During the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony in the summer of 2011, Odd Future frontman Tyler, the Creator accepted an award for best new artist. He came to the stage in a tie-dyed T-shirt with a cat head printed on it, which looked quite a lot like Cat Cult's Russian Blue design but was designed by Odd Future's own clothing company. Campbell, watching on television, was immediately bombarded with texts, emails and calls offering congratulations.
“A bunch of people were stoked for me, but I was like, 'What are you talking about?' ” remembers Campbell, who at the time had no idea who Odd Future were. “So I went online and checked it out, and [Tyler's shirt] was exactly like the shirts I had made with my cat image.”
It isn't hard for a casual observer to see similarities between the two logos: cat heads removed from their bodies with bright eyes and a cartoonish presentation. An Art Center professor suggested Campbell consult the school's intellectual-property lawyer. She told him he had a case and helped him draft a cease-and-desist letter, in which he requested both a documented list of all the merchandise Odd Future sold using his imagery and $15 for each one. Campbell declined to file a lawsuit, however, when the Art Center lawyer decided not to be involved with the case (he says she did not provide a reason). He met with other lawyers, but says he couldn't afford their fees.
His difficulty in proceeding legally is not surprising; after all, fashion trademark law is notoriously complex, as evidenced by the long battle between Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin over red-soled shoes.
In the meantime, Odd Future continue to sell apparel with cat-head designs on their website and in their Fairfax Avenue store — including shirts, sweaters, socks and even screen-printed sticker packs. Some of their designs appear to have been altered since the Video Music Awards, and many of the cats now have upside-down crosses on their heads, with cut-out eyes. But many similarities remain.
Did Odd Future intentionally jack Campbell's design? It's impossible to know; the group's manager, Christian Clancy, called the issue a “nonstory” in an email but declined to respond to requests for an interview. Perhaps the group members saw the images and reproduced them subconsciously, without even realizing they were doing so. (In fact, it remains unclear whether Odd Future members put together the designs themselves or if it's done by someone outside of the collective.)
Then again, their 2011 photo book, Odd Future: Golf Wang, includes a photo of the group on Fairfax, under a street sign covered in Campbell's cat-head stickers. Collective member Earl Sweatshirt wears a shirt that says, “Bad artists steal from good artists.”
In any case, already burdened with school debt and other problems, (felony probation for vandalism, a mother with cancer), Campbell decided to back off the case. “As much as I wanted credit for creating the cat-head art phenomenon, I was afraid to end up with another bill I couldn't pay,” he says.
Though discouraged, Campbell remains determined to catapult his street art into a brand, continuing to seek out new galleries and retail distributors for his work. He concludes cheekily: “It's just about finding new ways to represent the feline species out on the streets.”