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Artists Sue City of Memphis for Painting Over Sanctioned Murals

Twelve artists who created murals at the behest of nonprofit Paint Memphis, Inc. are suing the city for buffing five of the murals and threatening to erase three more.

A mural by Jules Veros, “Elvis Unraveled,” is one under fire in Memphis, currently protected only by a lawsuit collectively representing 12 plaintiffs and filed by New York City lawyer Eric M. Baum. (all images courtesy of Paint Memphis, Inc., and Eisenberg and Baum)

It seems the only thing more popular these days than leveraging the creative energy of mural artists to bring excitement, tourist trade, and visual interest to cityscapes is for cities to buff over the work of these artists with little provocation or explanation. On April 25, 12 artists being collectively represented by Eric M. Baum of New York City firm Eisenberg and Baum, filed a federal suit against the city of Memphis for painting over five artworks painted by the plaintiffs in January of 2018, as well as over the City’s threats, approved by the City Council, to paint over and destroy another three artworks. Plaintiffs are also represented by Memphis attorney Lucian T. Pera of Adams and Reese LLP.

The artworks were created based on authorization by the city for a program managed by a local nonprofit, Paint Memphis, Inc., which commissioned the artwork and selected the artists — plaintiffs Philip Binczyk, Zach Kremer, Beth Warmath, Chad Ruis, Jules Veros, Kathryn Crawford, Kiera Pies, Angel Montoya, Chase Kolanda, Jack Mears, Shane Boteler, and Meghan Gates.

Mural by WRDSMTH, before and after buffing by the city

“Paint Memphis was a celebration of the arts that enlisted a diverse group of talented artists to help beautify walls around the city,” said one of the artists, who preferred to be identified as WRDSMTH, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “We were hand-chosen to paint individual pieces of art on select walls. All of this was approved by the city prior to our arrival in Memphis. Street artists and muralists run the inherent risk of their work getting damaged or covered by graffiti artists and taggers, but it is distressing that the city of Memphis would destroy the art that it sanctioned, especially works created by artists who have passion for the art they created.”

“Memphis is my hometown, where I graduated from the University of Memphis, where I have family, friends, artists, and musicians I’ve grown up with,” said Beth Warmath, another plaintiff, whose mural depicting a tiger was buffed. “I made this piece of art to represent the Memphis Tigers and everyone in my hometown. This was a legacy to show the community we can conquer anything we dream up, if we work hard enough. This was one of my biggest accomplishments, and I was very proud to show it off.”

Mural by Memphis artist Beth Warmath, before and after buffing by the city.

The sudden change of attitude by city authorities on the approved mural project — believed by many to be the result of complaints to City Council members — came as a big surprise to all involved parties, including Paint Memphis, Inc.

“Paint Memphis has worked with the City of Memphis for three years, painting on flood walls and underpasses,” said Karen B. Golightly of Paint Memphis, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “We helped to establish the first city-sanctioned permission wall in 2015, at Chelsea and Evergreen. We painted on that floodwall for 2015 and 2016, then moved to an underpass on Willett between Lamar and Central in 2017. This wasn’t quite enough space, so we worked with a private property owner to paint his adjoining property as well, covering over 33,000 square feet in one weekend (September 30, 2017). We had an agreement with the city that if any work was considered offensive to the organization’s standards and guidelines (no nudity, no profanity, no gang or drug images), then we would buff it.”

As can be seen in the complaint, which includes pictures of most of the disputed murals before and after they were buffed by the city, none of these guidelines were violated by any of the compromised works. According to Golightly, several members of Memphis City Council claimed that their constituents complained about some of the murals, with the greatest number of complaints coming over Dustin Spagnola’s zombie mural. Spagnola is not a plaintiff, because his mural was on private property; the owner agreed to keep the piece, thus there was no action that the city could take.

A mural by Kathryn Crawford is currently being protected by the lawsuit, but has been threatened with buffing by Memphis City Council.

“I cannot tell you why some City Council people objected the way they did,” said Golightly. “I’m not sure how a cow skull could be deemed offensive when it is a sacred Native American object” — referring to the subject of a mural by Kathryn Crawford, one of three works that is slated for buffing and currently being kept in limbo by the legal injunction. “And Elvis with the snakes [another of the murals on the chopping block, by Jules Veros], well, that isn’t offensive to me, but art is subjective, and it might be to some people. I think that it’s fine to have a reaction to art. Hopefully we don’t all have the same likes and dislikes and we can agree that it is subjective and you should embrace what you do like. But it isn’t the city’s job to censor artists, nor break federal laws protecting art.”

Speaking of those federal laws, the Memphis suit has legal counsel with solid experience representing them; Baum made headlines earlier this year after obtaining a $6.7 million verdict on behalf of 21 artists who had their work destroyed by New York City property owners who destroyed public artwork at 5Pointz. Sadly, the censorship and destruction of public art seems to be a growth area for Baum, who also filed suit on Monday, April 30, on behalf of Pittsburgh-based artist Kyle Holbrook — founder and CEO of the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project. The suit alleges that numerous landowners destroyed eight of his murals over the last three years, breaching their contracts with him not to destroy or remove the works and violating the federal Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). Baum has also been retained as legal counsel for artist Carolina Falkholt, whose high-profile phallic murals have been quickly censored in both New York and Stockholm in the last six months.

Mural by MegZany, before and after buffing by the city

Though Baum has been successful in netting remuneration for destroyed works on behalf of his clients in the past, another tangible benefit of these suits is to increase awareness for artists about their VARA rights. After all, for many of these artists the goal is not to win compensation for damages, but to not have their work damaged in the first place.

“Art is a vital piece in the rise of a neighborhood — I take great pride in contributing directly to the rise of neighborhoods through my art,” said MegZany, another plaintiff in the Memphis suit. “People are inspired to perform positive acts when their life is enriched with art — that is a magical symbiotic relationship between the artist and the viewer.”

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