Artist's work looked familiar
His ironic T-shirts delighted fans, but there was one small problem to overcome.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published May 8, 2007
CLEARWATER - It was a kitty. Or maybe a squirrel. Either way, it was cute, and it was kneeling at a cute little bed, with a cute thought balloon over its head that said "Dear God, please make everyone die."
The image was pure Todd Goldman - the kind of ironic design that built his T-shirt company into a $90-million media business.
There was only one problem: Goldman didn't draw it.
He copied it, with a few small changes, from the work of a cartoonist named David Kelly.
In March, Goldman sold two oil paintings of the cat/squirrel for about $5, 000 each. In April, when Kelly found out about the paintings, he denounced Goldman as an art thief on a Web site.
What followed was an superheated Internet explosion.
Hundreds of angry artists and designers tore into Goldman's work, calling him a fake and a hack.
"Man, I can't wait for him to be brought down, " one blogger wrote.
Another publicly fantasized about "violently shoving this guy's pencils under all his fingernails."
Goldman, 38, has admitted copying Kelly's work, which he said was a mistake.
He and Kelly have reached a settlement, according to Goldman's press agency. But on the Internet, the public shaming continues.
Jim Benton, a fellow T-shirt designer, said Goldman's fans bought into his image as a creative, original artist.
"If you're in the business of 'clever, ' there's sort of a promise, a covenant: 'I promise to be clever, and you promise to love me and my cleverness, ' " explained Benton.
By copying another person's art, Goldman betrayed that trust, Benton said. "It's like if you find out a rock star is lip synching."
Innovated thinker hailed; sales explode
Goldman's art dealer, Jack Solomon, sees it differently. Goldman made a mistake, he said, but he doesn't deserve to be pilloried.
"The real story is that with the Web, anybody can go out and ruin someone, " Solomon said.
Goldman declined to be interviewed for this story, first dismissing the controversy as "false accusations and blogging, " then hanging up the phone on a reporter.
But he was happy to give an interview to the St. Petersburg Times in 2004.
"I just keep coming up with ideas and ideas, " he said then.
A University of Florida graduate, Goldman started his T-shirt company, David & Goliath, in 2000 with a $250, 000 loan from his father.
His first success was a series of shirts with crudely drawn figures and snarky captions: "Boys are smelly, " "Boys have cooties, " "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them."
The designs got him noticed, and soon the shirts were selling at Bloomingdale's and Urban Outfitters.
Not everyone liked them. In 2004, a radio commentator named Glenn Sacks attacked Goldman for his "antiboy" shirts. Some stores stopped carrying them.
Goldman shrugged it off. His line had already expanded.
He added a series of shirts featuring "Goodbye Kitty, " an ill-fated cartoon cat. Then came "Eve L." the sinister goth girl, "Meatball" the fat guy, and dozens more.
Retailers couldn't get enough.
"Todd stood out as an innovative thinker, " Brandweek editor Karen Benezra told the Times in 2004, the year her magazine named Goldman one of its 10 Marketers of the Next Generation.
By that time, Goldman's company had produced 3, 500 graphic designs and was selling close to $90-million worth of merchandise.
New frontier beckons: the pop art world
He broke into the art world when a friend passed some of his designs to Jack Solomon, of the S2 Art Group, based in Las Vegas.
To Solomon, Goldman's designs were in the pop art tradition of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but with a humorous streak.
"This guy is politically incorrect, " Solomon said. "America is so uptight, we're afraid to say the wrong word, but he does it in a very disarming and funny way. He makes fun of everyone."
Goldman sold the two paintings copied from David Kelly's work in Solomon's galleries. Soloman wouldn't disclose their exact price, but said that most of Goldman's oil paintings sell for $4, 000-$5, 000.
When Kelly discovered the sale, he contacted the Las Vegas Sun.
"Here's somebody taking my intellectual property and ruining it by making money off it, " Kelly told the paper. "Everyone can see that he traced it. There is no denying it."
Reached last week, Solomon said his client had made an honest mistake. Many of Goldman's designs legally incorporate existing art, Solomon said. Sometimes he licences designs from artists or uses art that isn't owned by anyone. In this case, he said, Goldman just didn't check to make sure the image was in the common domain.
"The guy knocked it off, but he didn't do it on purpose, " Solomon said.
After Kelly made his accusation, designers, cartoonists and T-shirt aficionados began to scrutinize Goldman's work online. They found many similarities to other sources.
Goldman's character "Goodbye Kitty, " for instance, bears a marked resemblance to a graphic from an old computer program, they said. The character "Meatball" seems similar to an illustration from a defunct spelling textbook. And many of Goldman's slogans are similar to those emblazoned on Jim Benton's T-shirts.
Benton said he won't accuse his colleague of plagiarism. But he said he was impressed with his fans for bringing the issue to his attention.
"For someone to send me something saying 'I think this person is stealing from you, ' that's a really new phenomenon, where a fan is becoming the custodian of the brand, " he said.
Settlement reached, but damage done
On May 3, Goldman's publicity agent announced that Goldman and Kelly had reached a settlement. Goldman would pay Kelly the money he earned from the paintings. Kelly agreed to drop his protest.
But some damage had already been done.
Solomon said that several galleries stopped showing Goldman's work. And the wholesalers who buy Goldman's posters canceled their orders and asked for refunds for unsold stock.
"I lost the three biggest poster distributors in America, " Solomon said. He wouldn't say how much money he and Goldman may have lost.
Solomon added that he called both of the collectors who bought the copied paintings. He explained that the paintings were plagiarized, and offered a refund.
Both refused, he said. One was delighted.
"He said, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be a famous painting, ' " Solomon recalled. " 'I want to keep it!' "
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 323-1243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.