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“Pumping Raw Sewage into the Water Supply”: A Conversation about Tech and Stock Illustrations with Roman Muradov

Roman Muradov in 2019.

On May 5, award-winning illustrator and cartoonist Roman Muradov received an email inquiring about a batch of stock illustrations that he was “credited” for. Unbeknownst to Muradov, a website called GetIllustrations.com—which itself is a subsidiary of RoundIcons.com (“Our plan is to have the biggest icons and illustrations bundles in the world”)—was exploiting his style in their new pack of free stock illustrations. They also curiously added a disclaimer that anyone downloading these stock illustrations should provide an “original style credit” if these rip-offs were actually used.

If this seems convoluted, that’s because (we’re dealing with the tech world and because) it is. Simply put, there are now dozens of start-ups and websites honing in on editorial illustration and design, selling themed packs of art that are royalty free, easily modifiable, and owned in perpetuity to whoever shells out around $50.

Muradov and I discussed how he dealt with this unfortunate and gross situation and what does the prevalent rise of stock illustration bundlers mean for the future of freelance artists?

 

GetIllustrations’ Muradov “inspired” bundle, before it was taken off their website.

How were you informed that this website was using you for “inspiration” for their bundle of illustrations? How did you learn about this?

I’m looking for the email right now. I’ll search by the horrible word that he used.

[Laughs.] What word was that?

Illustrashka. It’s a Russian diminutive. Anyway, I quote, “I’m a designer. I make websites. Listen, how much do you charge for this illustration?” Then there was a link to this site and that was the first time I saw it.

He was asking how much you charge personally, rather than going through this stock illustration site?

Yes. The only thing he replied to me is that they wrote that you were the author. I don’t know how he got confused, but one can see how this kind of misunderstanding can take place, especially in someone who’s not perhaps too visually—how do I put it without sounding patronizing? Visually literate?

Yeah, sure. When you got that email, what did you do? How did you feel once you clicked the link?

Well, the thing is, every week someone sends me a new thing that is blatantly plagiarized. 

Of yours?

Yes. Most of the time I don’t post it or don’t do anything about it at all because what’s the point? It’s just like banging on canisters. People are always plagiarizing my most commercial work that I don’t particularly care about, so I don’t really feel insulted myself. I feel like it’s something the company I work for [Notion] should care about and not me. What was particular about this one was all that stuff that they wrote. I’m trying to find it now.

They say your name and—

What was bizarre was that whole blurb they wrote about how they were “crediting” my style and all that.

They suggest artists and publications who use this bundle should also credit your style.

Right, yes. “We see a lot of illustrators are lately trying to use the line style originally created by Roman and we encourage them to give the Credit”—with a capital C—“to the original creator of this style.” First of all, that is an incredibly convoluted sentence. [Laughter.]

I’ve never heard of style credit request before.

Yeah. It makes no fucking sense. I also quite like the phrasing of “line style.” That means everything I do is a collection of lines. 

Did this instance catch you more off-guard than normal?

Yes, because it was so blatant. They were trying to make it sound like they were trying to do a nice thing and that there is something honorable about this. What they were doing was basically covering their asses and admitting to having done a bad thing.

The more I thought about it, the more insidious it became. The bundle was free, so it seems like they knew they were already on shaky ground.

It’s free and it’s not free, because nothing is really free on a website like that. They are there to promote their product. Further on they write, “We plan to introduce a whole pack of illustrations based on his style and will be called Inked illustrations.” It’s not spelled out, but you can easily deduce that the pack they were planning to make would not be free. This was kind of a sampler of something they were working on. Anyways, when I talked to the dude who runs this thing, he kept going on about how it’s free. This doesn’t make a difference, in my opinion. I’m not charging people by the number of lines they are using or whatever. [Laughter.]

Yeah. I also thought the fact that it was COVID themed, they might have been playing with you a bit. 

That was particularly annoying. They were trying to be all cuddly about it.

And use guilt in their favor.

If I’m angry about it, that means I’m the asshole who is saying, “Fuck you and fuck all the essential works that your illustrations represent.” [Laughter.]

Exactly! They put you in that position.

The only reason that he got in contact with me and that this has gone anywhere at all in terms of attention is because Sophia Foster-Dimino, Michael DeForge, and Dustin Harbin posted about it on their respective channels. It got more exposure than what I would usually bitch about on my Instagram stories. I’m grateful that they posted these screenshots and so forth, and I think it enraged a lot of fellow artists, and not just because my style was being ripped-off—that’s not a big deal at all. The conversation around it showed how completely clueless and oblivious the people behind these products seem to be.

I don’t know much about the tech world at all and I’m sure that you are way more knowledgeable living in San Francisco and having a foot in that world, but I wasn’t even aware of the prevalence of all these stock illustration start-ups before this. There seems to be quite a few.

I’ll give you a quick overview of the world of tech illustration.

OK.

It’s not something that I’ve been tremendously proud to be part of, needless to say. But it’s something that you’re kind of required to do in order to make a living in San Francisco. I don’t think I know anyone who is a working artist here who hasn’t done something for a tech company. It’s practically unavoidable. Before I did that, I used to work primarily for The New Yorker and the New York Times and other magazines, but it was just a constant struggle, month after month, for years. No matter how much work I would get, and I had a pretty decent run, it would still be just barely enough to scrape by. When I started getting stuff for tech companies, that was pretty much the only way to make something ostensibly close to what people would consider a more or less comfortable living. But my path is not that common. In general, most tech illustrations come from designers who are just dudes that got bored at their job at one point and decided they can draw. [Casey laughs.]

Why do you think they made that decision to get into freelance illustration and go that route? 

I do think people just get bored and don’t know what to do with themselves. When you talk to them, there is a very sharp sense of disconnection, it’s like talking to an AI. They don’t really communicate on the same plane as you. You get the feeling that a lot of them have no passion and haven’t put any real thought into art. They just decided one day that this would be a cool thing to do, and you can feel it in the way they talk about it, using all these awful words like “assets” and “content.” So, they approach the whole practice of drawing and mark making without what I consider to be an absolute prerequisite for drawing in the first place.

I did read a Medium blog post by someone like this who was trying to “step by step” teach themselves how to draw like you. 

[Laughter.] Yeah. There is a complete separation from the people who know me for what I do as an artist—my graphic novels, or even just the stuff I post on my Instagram—and the people who know me from the tech world. These two worlds almost never cross. The guy who wrote this completely batshit insane Medium post clearly only sees me as some kind of corporate mascot. But at the same time, he did do research and did watch my videos on Skillshare, which again is not my proudest achievement. He clearly put some time into figuring out who I am, but he still wrote something that is still so weird and psychopathic and completely lacking in any understanding or empathy or anything.

It’s like you are the finish line. You are the means to an end for him. If he can draw faces like you, then he will be a successful illustrator. Seems misguided.

I stumbled into any degree of commercial success really by accident. This is nothing something I ever tried to do—

And your talent.

That’s not for me to say. There are many talented people whose style or treatment doesn’t quite translate into money, so I feel like I got pretty lucky. If Gary Panter decided to do tech illustrations I don’t think he would get very far. The reason why I got particularly popular in this sphere is because of the illustrations I did for Notion. Their CEO wanted to have illustrations that look like my editorial work, rather than the typical start-up stuff that tends to look very cold and very same-y. All that vector stuff. And we talked a lot about it, I learned about his vision, and developed a style that’s both personal and tied to Notion’s design. It wasn’t just about minimalism, but understanding the reasons behind the project. So, I did that and now that it’s popular, tech companies and start-ups are now looking at it and thinking, “Well, can I have that too?” But there’s so much more to it than the way I put down lines. This stuff may seem completely separate from my messy and much weirder personal work, but they do inform each other, I’m sure.

For these stock illustrations start-ups, do you think the end goal is for them to do that “disrupting the market” tech bullshit? Do they want to eliminate art directors and undercut freelancers? Is that their goal?

It seems like they are trying to do this, but perhaps indirectly. If you asked them, they wouldn’t think about it all. They approach this from the quite demented capitalist mentality of, “How can we turn this nice thing into a product?” They think that way about pretty much everything. They don’t see a moral problem with applying this to art, commercial or not. The man from the illustration bundle company that wrote to me on Instagram, he said something like “Well, you can see that stuff being sold for next to nothing on all these other sites that sell icons and design elements.” Again, I don’t think they’re malicious, malevolent human beings. I think they are just completely clueless. The reason they’re clueless is because they’ve never had a genuine passion for art. They have no idea how much it takes to do anything at all. They can’t empathize with an artist.

Right. I saw a post about this where another professional illustrator commented underneath and said, “For tech, this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The whole GetIllusrations drama is really exemplary of this huge … It’s not even a problem. It’s just the state of the arts in this current time. There’s very little that can be done because magazines are becoming more and more irrelevant, especially as a viable source of income. Artists have to adapt to new media, and that includes tech. But unfortunately, the people who are in charge are not like the art directors at the New York Times, who tend to be artists themselves or who are very visually literate. I don’t want to sound like a snob—I know that’s pretty much inevitable by this point—but I’m used to working with people who have an intellectual foundation for hiring artists. I think that’s necessary. 

Tote bag designed by Muradov.

Is tech’s general attitude and disrespect for art going to push great artists out of the field? I’m sure it already has.

You need to let go of your dignity in order to work with a lot of these clients. And I did do an awful lot of self-loathing and sketching out for the thousandth time some person in a hat fixing a washing machine and thinking, “What the fuck am I doing with my life? I’m supposed to be an artist.”

Is there a possibility of some sort of change?

Maybe if the people in charge are not tech bros. 

So there would need to be a wide, sweeping change in terms of who was at the top.

Right. But people have been saying for ages that companies like Facebook and Google should employ writers and philosophers and non-tech people to help them understand humanity. Otherwise, we’ll have things like Google Glass and all such moronic design that comes from the same place. These things are not really considered. Then you have a world that is dominated by technologies that don’t account for the human element at all. It’s what can be done, rather than what should be done. I think that is the mentality of a lot of these stock illustration people. They think, “Well, this will work and a lot of people can use this. That’s great.” But I don’t know if they even ask themselves about the actual implications there. What will this do to working artists? What will this do, more importantly, to the state of the arts? I think what they’re doing is pumping raw sewage into the water supply. They aren’t just fucking up the lives of students who are graduating from art schools, they are reducing the quality of design by an atrocious degree.

You’re a teacher as well, right? Where do you teach? 

The California College of Arts. I think “professor” is the word you’re looking for?

Professor, yes. [Laughter.] Is dealing with tech companies and these sorts of clients something you have to warn your students about?

Yeah, I’ve always been really frank and open with my students about it. I do see that as part of my duty as a teacher. You can’t just talk about lofty things, which I do love, and then let them go figure it out on their own. I think they do need to know just how brutal and heartbreaking and often unpleasant and sordid this world can be. I think it’s also our duty to make them understand that this work doesn’t define them. It doesn’t mean that they have to turn into corporate sell-outs in order to survive. They can handle both things. They can do the personal work, but also somehow try to fit in whatever is the current money thing—tech or whatever comes next.

A page from Muradov’s Vanishing Act, published by Fantagraphics in 2018.

How do you think artists protect themselves in situations like yours with GetIllustrations?

I don’t think we can do anything about that, other than raise a shitstorm on Twitter. I’m not on it anymore, so my shitstorms are usually pretty contained. I had an unexpected outpouring of support this time, which was very nice, but again, I don’t think this is about me. At all. I think it’s a matter of addressing every one of those things as they happen, which is nearly impossible, I imagine. It’s tempting to just fold your hands and say, “That’s the way it is. That’s the world we live in.” I don’t really know.      

Personally, one of the reasons why I’ve always made it a point to change my style as much as I can and never do a book in the same style twice is because I feel like that is the only way you can retain a sense of identity in the modern art world. If they try to rip off one thing, you just come up with another. Then you die. And that’s a happy life. [Casey laughs.] But again, what annoys me is that they are so bad at plagiarism. 

Right. I was going to ask you what you thought of that “Stay Safe” pack of illustrations.

They have no understanding of my work, and I don’t mean my artsy-fartsy work. The Notion illustrations that are very simple and minimalist, but obviously, all my experience and experiments come into it. You can’t just fake it. You have to live through all that.

More samples from GetIllustrations’ “Stay Safe” bundle of stock illustrations.

It doesn’t look like your work at all.

No, it looks like a shit version of it. I see a lot of student work that is inspired by my stuff and often people write quite frankly that they are inspired by me. That never bothered me at all. I appreciate when people are honest about that. The only way you can develop a style is by ripping off as many people as you can. I even have an assignment every semester that is about picking two artists and mashing their styles together as a study.

And hopefully an artist learns from that and grows past it.

Right. I used to copy Blutch and Christophe Blain quite openly. I would sit in my room and sometimes copy panel by panel. But I never made a big song and dance about it. It just seems insane to do that. It wouldn’t occur to any self-respecting artist. I find it so exhausting that this has to even be explained at all.

I’m coming away from this more depressed than when we started. About everything.

[Laughs.] I’m happy to hear that. The whole quarantine is dropping everyone to my level. [Laughter.] Permanent despair. I’ve never felt more connected to people. 

Is this ordeal going to affect your work going forward at all? 

Well, actually, Sophia said something to me that felt well-put. It was something along the lines of “You’re probably not going to find respect in tech,” so I thought yes, she’s obviously right, so why should I expect it in the first place. If anything, this has made me realize that I should prioritize my own work. I can’t be emotionally invested in this stuff because it would just drive you insane. I’ll continue to do work for Notion and I want that work to be the best it can be. I want it to stand out and look good, but at the same time, I know that I also have to carve out a decent amount of time and energy for my personal work. I need to have this kind of safe haven where no one is allowed in. 

Speaking of personal work, the advantages of making quite unpopular books is that no one will rip you off. That was never an issue. [Laughter.] I really doubt that anyone will be plagiarizing my comics any time soon, but if they manage to make money from it, I hope they share their secret because I certainly haven’t figured it out. This is all depressing—you’re right. It does feel pretty hopeless at times.

Ideally, I’d love if this situation was a learning tool for someone, but realistically I don’t know what someone could take out of it.

Everything is changing so fast right now, pretty much anything I say by way of advice to young illustrators would be irrelevant by the time this interview goes up. When I started, and it wasn’t that long ago, it seemed like editorial illustration was the only thing you could really do. It was difficult, but at the same time there was something comforting about it being the only option. I knew that we had to do the rounds at the New York Times and earn respect. That would be your apprenticeship and maybe something else would come out of it. Maybe you’d get an art show or something else. The only other major venues were animation and games, although I’m sure there were and are other things that I missed. Either way, I think now it’s become more viable than ever to have your own little business. On the other hand, the saturation has reached what seems to be the peak, although I imagine I will be proven wrong. Because it’s so much easier to do digital art now than it used to be, just being a good artist is not enough anymore. In the olden days, anyone who could draw with a brush would have a career.

At the same time, I’m trying to be hopeful. At least the tools are much more accessible now. Applications like Procreate and Blender are usually free or very cheap, as opposed to Adobe products, and are really changing the scene. It’s making it better and easier for people to create their own work. So that’s nice. I’m really struggling to say something optimistic at this point … [Laughter.] But yes, maybe the only semi-realistic way things can change is by people doing their own things and not relying on clients and corporations. 

Hopefully other artists will also make clear that their existence is not justified by some brand needing something to fill an empty space on their website. I don’t know how this will happen. It might be a matter of creating unions and whatnot. We talk about this all the time and it does sound like a good idea. And I think people are becoming more conscientious and aware, which is definitely an improvement.

At least it’s the first step.

Yes. There seems to be less of that “everyone for themselves” attitude, and people seem to be coming together and caring more about the larger implications of all these issues. This is more important than one specific artist being ripped off. If there’s any good that can come out of this, I suppose, is if it sparks some conversation, and I hope there’s something constructive that can be done with that other than shouting into the void—like both of us right now screaming into our iPhones. [Laughter.]

I feel dumb complaining about this, but it’s not about me—right now I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay rent in a pandemic, but for many people that isn’t the case. These stock illustration companies are attempting to take away jobs from people who need them more than ever. Whether they succeed or not is not important. The bigger problem is the lack of respect and understanding of the labor of art, and it permeates everything. Everything comes down to value, and if seen this way, there really is no value in paying someone decent money for making a good illustration, when you can use a stock picture and buy yourself a spice rack, or something.

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6 Responses to “Pumping Raw Sewage into the Water Supply”: A Conversation about Tech and Stock Illustrations with Roman Muradov

  1. Vincent says:

    “I’m coming away from this more depressed than when we started” sums it up pretty well.

  2. The last paragraph summarises a lot of important things very well – our collective notion(s) of value seems very irrational at the present time.

    This talk reminds me a bit of the conversations around royalty free music libraries in the marketing and music worlds. If that industry can be said to provide any sort of foreshadowing, I guess we can expect to see AI drawn illustrations arriving in the near future…

    Marx’s theory of unemployment seems quite pertinent here.

  3. Kyle Webster says:

    Great interview, scary situation. Brad Holland foresaw all of this in the 1990’s, I’m afraid. I am a fan of Roman’s comics- I think he has more fans than he knows.
    (Correction: Adobe Fresco is a *free* pro illustration app- sorry, but it’s my job to point this out.)

  4. Franklin Alabast says:

    Brad Holland is an overlooked genius. There aren’t many geniuses in commercial art, but he’s one of them; maybe the last? Someone needs to do a career-spanning interview before he dies (he’s approaching 80). He worked in the underground press, for Playboy, school textbooks, book covers… a whole range of material.

    His book Human Scandals should be reprinted (Hello, Fantagraphics) — possibly the last truly vicious work of editorial cartooning in America. Makes The Nib look like the “My Little Pony” of political commentary that it is.

  5. I’m a colleague of Roman’s at CCA and have messaged him this info, but there is in fact legal precedent to pursue these companies, not via copyright law but via trade dress law. Trade dress law is where a company steals another companies “dress”; their look, ie a cafe stealing Starbucks in-store design style, etc.

    There have now been a few successful cases of this with artists suing corporations, so legal precedent has been established and can only grow. The real issue is that artists often don’t want to pursue these cases for whatever their reasons are. Flaming companies on twitter won’t do anything at all in terms of actual behavioral change.

    IP lawyer Chuck Cordes did a superb lecture about this and some of the cases at the last Icon 10 in Detroit.

  6. Brandon Land says:

    It’s hard to speak up about stuff like this, and especially gutsy to do it during a pandemic. Wouldn’t expect anything less from Roman. Thank you for bringing this discussion to light on a legitimate platform (other than our Twitter rants and Slack channels). Might come at a cost, but hopefully discussions like these will give in-house and freelance illustrators in tech more firepower when they need it.

    “The bigger problem is the lack of respect and understanding of the labor of art, and it permeates everything.”

    Keep fighting the good fight!

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