Earlier this year, a for-profit company named Wat-aah! staged a very public press conference with First Lady Michelle Obama to promote its high-end brand of bottled water, which is marketed to children with street art. “Wat-aah!’s mission is to make water undeniably cool and desirable among kids,” reads their about page on their Facebook.
The company held the pop-up art event in February at the New Museum and called it “Taking Back The Streets,” and — like most companies do now with empty pom-pom gestures disguised as smart marketing — coined the phrase as a hashtag to follow all the fun. The First Lady was the big get. She signed a big mural. Other artists’ works were showcased. Yay, kids, water, edgy street artists, First Lady, etc.
But now, Wat-aah! — which sells water and other water-based beverages for around $2.49 a pop — is threatening legal action against a non-profit charity that puts up murals by some of the same artists who helped design their fancy water bottles — that never actually go into production, but do look great on social media — over a goddamn hashtag.
The reason for the suit? Trademark infringement. It turns out Wat-aah! filed an application for “Taking Back The Streets” in early September, and the L.I.S.A. Project, a non-profit run by Wayne Rada, that has put up over 40 murals in New York City to make Little Italy less of a tourist hell, was using that hashtag and ran afoul of the copyrighted trademark.
But there’s a catch: Wat-aah! has only applied for the trademark; it has yet to actually be granted it. Still, that didn’t stop its lawyers from issuing two separate letters to L.I.S.A. and artist Ray Rosa (aka the Drif), two days apart in late September telling them both to cease and desist, copies of which ANIMAL obtained.
Rada said it all started when Wat-aah! founder Rose Cameron put on a presentation in Chicago in late spring, dubbed “Take Back The Streets,” that featured one of L.I.S.A.’s murals. Rada went to her Instagram feed and asked that if the organization uses a photograph of one of its murals, that Wat-aah! gives credit. Cameron responded, somewhat favorably, Rada said, and that was that.
At some point thereafter, Rada began incorporating the hashtag in some of L.I.S.A.’s social media posts that he claims wasn’t at all trolling or an attempt to get revenge.
“Trust me, I don’t want to be affiliated with Evian For Kids,” Wayne Rada told ANIMAL. “What is there to gain?”
Rada said he never thought he’d be part of some trademark infringement, since the phrase has been so ubiquitous. From books, to Jesus, to a woman with her toddler in Brooklyn, to people bitching about the UN, to street art in Barcelona, to Pelle and over 381 Instagram posts with that hashtag #TakingBackTheStreets has been everywhere, and certainly, associated with street art for quite some time.
Because of that, Rada’s lawyers responded to the legal request, saying that while they will refrain from using it for now. They will not take down the previous posts and also said it wasn’t acknowledging that Wat-ahh! has any sort of exclusive rights to the phrase.
Rada says he’s trying to prevent more lawyers fees (which take away from his charity and his ability to pay for more murals) and would rather squash what he sees as unnecessary legal action.
“She did three things,” Rada said. “She ate up funds for a charity, she wasted everybody’s time and prevented other artists to be able to paint.”
“Copyrighting something like a hashtag is odd to me,” said artist Chris RWK. “Yes, I understand someone using it and tagging their photos so they show up on their feed, site, etc. It happens with #robotswillkill all the time and that’s something specific. So to copyright a generic term seems for lack of a better term ‘unfair.'”
ANIMAL reached out to several other artists who have worked with Wat-aah! and virtually every one of them either declined to comment or would only give a statement without their names attached.
So much for taking back the streets, yo!