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VOL. 133 | NO. 85 | Friday, April 27, 2018

A Dozen Mural Artists Take City To Court Over 'Beige Patrol' Action

By Bill Dries

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"Elvis Unraveled" -- the mural panel to the left -- is one that has drawn the ire of Memphis City Council members. The artist, Jules Vero, is one of a dozen suing the city over the removal or threatened removal of the Paint Memphis Inc. murals on Willett. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

A group of a dozen artists whose murals were painted over in February or have been targeted for painting over by city public works crews are suing the city of Memphis in federal court.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, April 26, in Memphis federal court alleges the city of Memphis violated the federal Visual Artists Rights Act and seeks punitive and compensatory damages for the artists whose work was part of the Paint Memphis Inc. effort on South Willett Street near Lamar Avenue.

The lawsuit cites Paint Memphis’s contract with the city for the murals.

“Without giving plaintiffs a fair opportunity to remove and preserve their work, the city of Memphis suddenly decided to destroy it,” the lawsuit reads. “The destruction was gratuitous, willful and wanton and undertaken without regard to the feelings, reputation or financial interests of the plaintiffs, who now seek compensation for their devastating loss.”

Public works crews, referred to in the lawsuit as the “beige patrol,” painted over the murals on one side of Willett after complaints from several council members – most notably council chairman Berlin Boyd and council member Jamita Swearengen, whose district includes the Willett-Lamar area.

Boyd and Swearengen claimed the murals were a negative image that reflected badly on the community and that they had received numerous complaints from the residents in the area about the images – particularly those of skeletons and a caricature of Elvis Presley with a snake coming from his mouth.

Paint Memphis founder Karen Golightly said she got community input from the area and set guidelines on what images were and weren’t allowed for the artists based on that input. But several neighborhood association leaders said their concerns about the artwork were ignored.

Because the murals were on public property, the council directed the city to remove them after consulting with its attorneys. Golightly warned that the federal act had been used successfully in other areas.

Eric M. Baum, the New York City attorney representing the artists in the Memphis case, represented artists in New York City who sued property owners for destroying public artwork and won a $6.7 million verdict under terms of the federal act.

"We are aware that a lawsuit has been filed but have not been served," said city chief communications officer Ursula Madden. "We will not be commenting further until our attorneys have had a chance to review it."

When the public works crews painted over the murals they mistakenly painted over all of the panels on one side of Willett leaving most of the murals council members specifically objected to including the Elvis image untouched.

The mural of a zombie-like figure on a privately-owned structure facing Lamar was also included on the council’s list. But because it is on private property, the city administration has not moved to paint it over on the advice of city attorneys.

The plaintiff-artists are Philip Binczyk, Zach Kremer, Beth Warmath, Chad Ruis, Ules Veros, Kathryn Crawford, Kiera Pies, Angela Montoya, Chase Kolanda, Jack Mears, Shane Boteler and Meghan Gates.

According to the lawsuit, each of the artists “created and maintained all ownership and copyright interests in works of visual art subject to the protection of VARA.”

“Without providing plaintiffs with a reasonable opportunity to protect and preserve their artworks, defendant destroyed, mutilated, modified and defaced each and every one of the works of art installed by plaintiffs at the Paint Memphis site,” the lawsuit adds. “Their works were in high demand in the public marketplace, they attracted legions of admirers who visited them in situ, and the artists have high name recognition among the artistic community. The works are recognized by experts in the art field, by the artistic community and by the general public.”

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