Dec 28 2016

Yoshitomo Nara Sued by Korean Cosmetics Company

by HG Masters

Left: a detail of Yoshitomo Nara’s painting Another Girl Another Planet (2002). Right: the “bee girl” logo of W.Lab’s W-Honey Beam Cushion.

Known for his moody paintings and sculptures of large-eyed, malcontent adolescents, Yoshitomo Nara has legions of fans from Tokyo to Istanbul to Los Angeles—and many imitators. But even for the notoriously laid-back artist, there are instances when someone or a company goes too far in copying his signature style. This time, however, a Korean cosmetics company has turned the tables on Nara, by suing the artist himself for copyright infringement.

On December 22, Nara tweeted that he had notified W.Lab that its product the W-Honey Beam Cushion featured a face that strongly resembled his own signature figures. The letter from Nara’s lawyers asked that the company recall and destroy the product, amend its future product packaging, and pay compensation to the artist. W.Lab denied Nara’s allegations by saying its “bee girl” icon was developed by own its internal design team, and has sued the artist in a South Korean court claiming authorship over the design. In a series of now-deleted tweets Nara said that his concerns were not primarily the monetary compensation but the rights of artists and designers.

The artist has stated that he “turned a blind eye” in the past even though he has encountered “slight copies” of his work. However, he believed that W.Lab “crossed the line of mere resemblance.”

The response by W.Lab has puzzled many people in Japan and Korea, in part because the plagiarism of Nara’s iconic style appears particularly egregious. The cosmetics company has a large market in Japan, and Nara himself is quite popular in Korea, so W.Lab’s customers in both countries would probably have recognized the resemblance. W.Lab’s case will likely be challenging to argue, considering that its cosmetics product was released in 2015, and Nara has been creating his signature drawings, paintings and sculptures since the late 1980s.

Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings routinely break seven figures on the auction block. On the commercial end, the artist collaborated with major bicycle manufacturer Trek to create a time trial bike that was embellished with his trademark motif of cartoon children; Lance Armstrong rode the bike at the 2009 Tour de France, and it was later sold by Sotheby’s at auction for USD 200,000.

Yoshitomo Nara’s first solo exhibition in a public museum, “I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME,” was mounted at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2001 and then traveled to Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art and others around the region. The show led to a massive following for the artist, who has since participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions in Asia, Europe and North America. Nara’s creations are part of major collections around the world, including MoMA in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

H.G. Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.

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