It’s a tough pill to swallow when you discover that one of the most respected visual painters in contemporary pop culture today has been plagiarizing other artists and passing the works off as his own. So when someone discovered that Sam Flores stole imagery from other famous artists and pawned it off as his own to make a pretty penny, his loyal followers demanded proof. And shockingly, proof they did receive.
Not only has Sam Flores become the most familiar name under Upper Playground, a Bay Area brand collective of artists, but he has gained international acclaim with solo and group gallery exhibitions throughout the United States, Canada, Singapore, Japan, and throughout Europe. For the past decade he’s been steadily branding his name and signature art style, describing it himself in a San Francisco Chronicle interview as “very exaggerated and weird, all mixed together, a little bit Art Nouveau, ’60s Japanese block style”.
His iconic characters, often dawning some type of animal headdress, are drawn with exaggerated large hands and placed amidst scenery that draws influence from Asian culture or fantasy landscapes. So iconic are his characters, in fact, that he has successfully developed an off-shoot clothing brand 12Grain, his own line of whimsical t-shirts, pillows, and even shower curtains. His reach has even touched the vinyl toy world, where his popular ‘Tigerbaby’ and ‘Fatima’ figurines have almost consistently sold out during pre-order, and when lucky, can be found up for bid on Ebay for no less than $500 a pop.
Imagine the surprise of his loyal followers then, when someone discovered that a Sam Flores print released in 2009 titled ‘Dragon Tree’ looked strikingly similar to a Jon Foster painting released in 2006, titled ‘Dragon and Herdsman’:
If you still don’t believe, the people at You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice, a blog dedicated to counterfeit artwork and creative plagiarism, transposed the two images into an animated .gif:
If that wasn’t bad enough, soon after the posting, numerous posts were made of other Sam Flores works and the ‘original’ from which he copied:
An outing of epic proportions, apparently. Just two days after the posting on YTWWN, Sam Flores swiftly issued an apology to Jon Foster, claiming negligence due to the fact that the image was found on a website tributing the late Arthur Rackham, and that his own work was not done with the intent to copy or steal creative property but rather to pay ‘homage’. The apology from Sam Flores:
"First and foremost, I’d like to offer my sincerest apologies to anyone I’ve offended regarding a mistake I’ve made recently reinterpreting a Jon Foster image. Before I explain the carelessness that led to this, I want you to know that I have already contacted him directly and offered all compensation made from the posters, as well as a public apology for not thoroughly researching my source of inspiration. I was looking online awhile ago searching for old illustrations from the 1900s and came across a small image of a tree painting that I dragged to my desktop. It was on the same page as Arthur Rackham’s paintings, and my mistake was assuming it also belonged to Rackham, and revisiting the image without thorough research, i wanted to have one of my characters visiting his painting as sort of a homage . There’s absolutely no excuse for this neglect on my behalf, and I’ve learned a huge lesson in all this to always do your homework. I never intended to deliberately use his art and pass it off as my own. My biggest regret, however, was meeting such a talented artist under such unfortunate and preventable circumstances, and undermining his work on account of my negligence. Once again, I apologize if I let anyone down and promise to be more responsible as a working artist humbly in the presence of exceptionally talented peers."
His public apology prompted a backlash of comments from readers that believed his apology a sham, arguing that if he was really paying homage to Rackham, why hadn’t he chosen one of Rackham’s more popular and recognized works. Moreover, if this was him paying homage, why was there no word from him stating that it was a homage before he was “caught”? And, what has seemed to seal his current fate, are the alleged 20 or so other works of art that have since been discovered to be copies of other artworks “homages” as well?
In an interview by Ripo of ModArtNews just two months before the Jon Foster mess, Sam Flores said:
"I think its always more important to be true to yourself and build your own style and voice."
"…you can only find you when you stop looking, when you’re just being true and not trying that’s when you start to develop who you really are."
This sort of news is like being a kid and finding out that Santa Claus is not real. You just don’t want to believe it, but truth always prevails doesn’t it? A part of me will always love Sam Flores’ art, but I too was deeply disappointed to find out about Flores’ lack of artistic integrity. I’m rather torn about how I feel. While some of it has obviously tread a fine line between referencing work and plagiarizing, I don’t want to believe that his entire breadth of artwork is void of any original creativity, and so until all of his work is proven just a counterfeit, then it’s the original works that I will continue to respect, not the ones I’ve posted above. As far as offering advice to aspiring artists, perhaps the only artist who needs his advice the most is himself…. what do you think?