Bootleg as Illicit Alcohol

The term rose to popularity during the Prohibition Era in the United States (year 1920). The 18th Amendment imposed a federal prohibition on sales, consumptions, and distributions of alcohol (hence the Prohibition Era). Bootlegging was an act of concealing flasks of illicit liquor in boot tops, an act that was deemed to be criminal during this period. People could not resist the thrilling taste of liquor, so the demand for it reached an all-time high. More than just a simple cover-up, the term bootlegging entered its reigning period as a secret operation to distribute alcohol, make moonshines, open speakeasies, and smuggle foreign liquor into the States. As ridiculous as it sounds, the federal law was short lived due to its poor reinforcement and the rise of bootlegging operations. Eventually, the Prohibition ended in 1933, just 13 years after.

Bootleg as Unofficial Recordings

As the music culture flourished, in the 1960s, bootleg re-entered the scene as informal audio or video recordings of the originals, usually unknown to the artists/record labels. In this era, bootlegging meant making and distributing these unauthorized recordings. Bootleg culture parted away from being illegal, and became the signifier for unofficial releases, studio out-takes, and demo recordings. For instance, if you found yourself at a Rolling Stones’ concert, you could decide to record the audio of the entire concert, and distribute  the CD to fellow Rolling Stoners, wanting to relive the moment or not able to see them live. There you go, you just distributed some bootlegs. It is not authorized by the artists, but at the same time, it is still legal in a certain sense.

A bootleg should not be confused with counterfeits or unlicensed releases, but rather, it is a category of its own. A counterfeit is an item that has directly copied an authentic piece and market itself as an original product, as a way of scamming the buyers, making profit off the high demand or the success that such item brings in. Whereas bootleg are objects that do not try to replace the original design, but rather claim to be an off-beat interpretation of them.

Bootleg as Ignorant Bliss

Today, bootlegging entered its current limbo state of existence, with many criticisms towards the operation’s authorship and legitimacy of bootlegged items. Bootleg culture persists through high demands of movies, shows, cartoons, and iconic landmarks in places where original owners haven’t yet reached their audience. Sometimes the local demand is not enough for the supplier to venture out and sell their works, so without the original owner’s acknowledgement, bootlegs slither their way into the unregulated trading markets. This must sound quite shady, however, fear not, it is more innocent than one would think.

I did not even register my first bootleg item. For my 6th birthday, I received a Sailor Moon paper doll booklet, and it was one of the toys that truly jingle the artistic bells in me. The moment I realized that it’s a bootleg was when I saw that Sailor Moon on TV had blonde hair, whereas my paper doll Sailor Moon had green hair. As a kid, that moment of realization was devastating, some yelps and tears were involved, as I began thinking less of myself because I owned a bootleg, making me some kind of imposter. However, coming to terms with the diverse markets of demands for goods, entertainments, or simply comedic reliefs, I realized that bootlegs are everywhere, and how they are able to turn fantasy into reality.

With people making their own variations of the original through referencing, the aesthetic choices of this artform are usually… questionable. There is always a touch of campiness and tackiness to the bootlegging attempt, with wrong colouring, different names, and completely different storylines. Within this context, bootlegs almost detach themselves  from the original work, but still leave traces that resonate  to consumers/buyers with its iconic original. In this category, bootlegs are carefree knockoffs. With that said, there are various version of poorly-shaped Winnie the Pooh, Pink Batman, and the abundance work of bootleg brands such as “Bolencioga” “Adiads” and “Guccy.” As this creations roll into the hand of the markets at a much lower price, what is your conscious choice as a consumer?

Another way of recognizing a bootleg is to look out for its notorious shamelessness. Bootlegs that are in this category own their proud title as parody, and they are willing to co-exist with their original. This created a sensational market for the masterminds of hijacking and alternating the original work. The mainstream US audience, who do not have the financial backing to see the real Eiffel Tower in Paris,  can check out a bootleg version of it in Las Vegas, Florida, Paris of Tennessee, and Paris of Texas. The motif of this route is humorous and joyous, creating a hilarious spin on the original.

Bootleg as Counterculture

Bootleg is in the DNA of our endless consuming market, undercover, secretive, but now, it is time to shed more light onto its quirkiness attributes to the world. It brings in a counterculture to the existing capitalistic giants through their beautiful and tacky art of spin-off and remake. Bootleg continues to spark joy to those who cannot afford the real deal, those who cannot care less about the item’s authenticity, and those who want to proudly wear a “NEKE” shirt as a statement. There is room on the table for everyone, and the existence of off-beat design makes way for a revolutionary thinking about what is appropriate, what is proper, and what is good in the creating and designing.