Strange Bedfellows: The New Mashup of Big Booze and Street Art

Nearly two decades after Andy Warhol and Absolut first collaborated in the '80s, a new wave of spirits brands are tapping artists to appeal to consumers—only this time around, they're up-and-comers rather than big names. Regan Hofmann on the new merger of street art and booze.

street art collaboration 1800 tequila

Fortunato Depero for Campari. Marc Chagall for Mouton Rothschild. Andy Warhol for Absolut. For decades, art and alcohol have gone hand in hand, playing up mutual associations of class and taste, refinement and style—tapping into what art historian Joan Gibbons calls “the ethos of exclusivity and savviness” of the art world. But lately, these partnerships have started to look a little different. Instead of banking on big-name art stars, spirits mega-brands have been looking to the street..

Rather than conferring luxury status, new-school collaborations use art as a tool of symbol of rebellion. Artists like “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” creator Shepard Fairey and NYC graffiti legend Futura, both of whom have designed bottles for Hennessy, made their names with artwork that was literally illegal; countercultural messages by trespassing and vandalism. It’s that outsider reputation that big brands are now trying to co-opt in an effort to stand out in an increasingly crowded and craft-focused spirits market.

Standing out was also the goal of the first truly modern alcoholic ad campaign: Absolut. In the early 1980s, the brand was a new import from Sweden, trying to gain a foothold in the Russian-vodka-dominated U.S. by playing up an eccentric aesthetic. Appropriately enough, the artist collaboration was spearheaded by Warhol, who once took out an ad in the Village Voice declaring: “I’ll endorse with my name any of the following: clothing, AC-DC, cigarettes, small tapes, sound equipment, ROCK ‘N ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips, MONEY!!” A series of enigmatic ads highlighting the shape of the Absolut bottle caught Warhol’s attention, and it was he who suggested to Michel Roux, the importer who managed Absolut’s U.S. presence, that he do a Warholian treatment of the bottle.

“Absolut Warhol” was painted in 1985, the same year Warhol was also commissioned by Campbell’s to create a painting to announce a line of dry soup mixes. After Warhol tapped his contemporaries Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Ed Ruscha to follow in his vodka-soaked footsteps, the series grew to foster young and under-the-radar artists like Dutch performance artist Dadara and neo-pop artist and culture jammer Ron English, becoming an enduring ad campaign that ran until 2007.

With these affordable collaborations, Hennessy and 1800 are looking to follow the successful model of a completely different industry: streetwear.

The Absolut campaign coincided with the stratospheric rise of the art market, thanks in part to industrious artists like Warhol embracing the “Greed is good” ethos of the 1980s; more art was bought and sold in that one decade than had ever been traded before. While it’s not totally immune to market fluctuations, ever since then art has been perceived as a solid investment even in unsteady times—like keeping gold bars under the bed, only a lot nicer to look at.

With that security has come a continued, if superficial, exaltation of contemporary art in culture—and a desire for high-end brands to be where the money is. Champagne companies regularly host VIP lounges and private parties at fairs like Art Basel and its international counterparts; in 2013, Dom Pérignon paired with Jeff Koons to produce a $20,000 sculpture-and-champagne set. Macallan, meanwhile, has produced a series it calls the “Masters of Photography” collection, for which $3,500 gets you a hand-numbered box containing a rare Scotch and exclusive prints from photographers like Annie Leibovitz and pioneering photojournalist Elliott Erwitt.

But in 2008, after nearly two decades of these luxury marketing tactics, 1800 Tequila launched its Essential Artists project: an annual limited-edition release of bottles with labels designed by young artists who’ve never shown at Art Basel, let alone commanded record-breaking prices. The first group included UrbanMedium, a pseudonymously named street artist known for a viral sticker campaign called “CheTrooper”; subsequent releases included labels by politically charged artists like Fairey and self-described “pervasive artist” Gary Baseman, whose creepy, cartoonish figures turn Disney idealism on its head. These collaborations have also run alongside bottlings wrapped in licensed images from ’80s-era artists Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both of whom worked as often in spray paint as they did in oils. The bottles and a corresponding billboard campaign are described by 1800 as a “new-generation museum that brings art to the people.”

Just a few years later, Hennessy launched its own artist series with a limited-edition bottle by subversive graffiti-artist-turned-toy designer and streetwear favorite KAWS, followed by Futura, Brazilian hip-hop-inspired duo Os Gêmeos, Fairey and the skate-kid-friendly psychedelia of Ryan McGinness. Crucially, both campaigns trade in accessibility, even while playing up the “limited edition” angle. Both are priced below $50, and both spirits contained in these artful bottles are actually on the low end of the brand’s product range. While 1800 sells two extra añejo “luxury” tequilas and Hennessy’s line goes all the way up to their “Richard Hennessy” cognac (which can sell for more than $5,000 per bottle), those aren’t the ones they chose to highlight in these campaigns.

With these affordable collaborations, Hennessy and 1800 are looking to follow the successful model of a completely different industry: streetwear. In the past 15 years, Supreme has released a number of artist collaborations, including with KAWS and Basquiat’s estate; Japanese line A Bathing Ape has worked with Futura and Takashi Murakami. Block-long lineups form overnight to buy T-shirts and sneakers that top out at a few hundred dollars, and customers return religiously, won over by an economy of manufactured scarcity. Their audiences are young, swayed by the outsider status conveyed by these artists, but they’re fiercely loyal.

It’s that loyalty that’s most valuable today, especially to spirits brands as they sink in an increasingly crowded market. Hennessy, which for a long time coasted on an outdated luxury attitude supported by LVMH money, is selling cognac, a spirit that feels decidedly old-fashioned in our bourbon-obsessed world. 1800, meanwhile, faces an exploding tequila category that appeals to younger consumers but is swamped with competition. Much as the Absolut campaign once helped a struggling Swedish vodka become the third-largest spirits brand in the world, a new kind of art star may be just what these brands need to find success today. Together, they’re creating a new space where it’s acceptable for principled art and commerce to join forces—after all, as Warhol once said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

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