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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Artists Fight Commercialization|of Their Murals in San Francisco

SAN JOSE (CN) - In a lawsuit that spotlights tensions over soaring prices and gentrification in San Francisco, the creators of several iconic city murals sued a real estate company for using their art to advertise "luxury homes."

Eight artists accuse Zephyr Real Estate, the city's largest independent real estate firm, of infringing on their copyrights by reproducing their work in a 2013 promotional calendar without asking for permission.

"It just rankles that a company that is selling multimillion-dollar homes and really contributing to the gentrification of the city uses these beautiful pieces of public art for their private profit," said attorney Brooke Oliver, of 50 Balmy Law, who spoke to Courthouse News on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The images in the calendar come from neighborhoods all around the city, including Chinatown, Dubose Triangle and the Mission.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are artists Francisco Aquino, Mona Caron, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Jetro Martinez, Sirron Norris, Henry Sultan, Jennifer Badger Sultan and Martin Travers.

The artists say they are community activists who want to preserve the city's cultural character and keep it accessible for other artists and activists.

Caron, who painted a mural of a bikeway on Duboce Avenue, between Church and Market streets, is particularly upset about the calendar because "she has been active against displacement and has devoted her life's work to producing public art that appeals and speaks to every societal class," the lawsuit states.

Zephyr president Randall Kostick said he's surprised the issue has come to a lawsuit. He said the company tried to resolve the problem after an artist complained.

"After I researched I found out that, yes, we should have gotten permission - it's a technicality of the law I was unfamiliar with - and we apologized," he told Courthouse News in an interview.

Kostick said his company stopped distributing the calendar and took down an animated video promoting it in 2013, as the artists requested.

Kostick said the calendars, produced by the company for at least 15 years, are given to clients for free, and that Zephyr, which handled $1.8 billion in real estate sales in 2013, does not make any money off them.

"They're cool calendars," he said. "They try to take one aspect of the city that is really cool and highlight it every year."

Kostick said that often artists are pleased to be featured, and that this is the first time there's been such a negative reaction.

The Mission District, which has a largely Latino population, has been the focus of several news stories about the challenges of gentrification and the rising cost of living in San Francisco.

The Mission also has the city's highest concentration of murals, including the eye-popping Balmy Alley, a colorful collection of street art that draws visitors from around the world.

A New Dawn, a mural on Balmy Alley by Martin Travers, is one of the pieces featured in the calendar. According to the lawsuit, Travers licenses the art - which depicts a woman holding a broken chain and several people with their fists raised - for projects that "reflect its message of 'a community resisting injustice, learning self-sufficiency and regaining local power.'"

"These murals represent community, history, culture," Erick Arguello, president of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District in the Mission, said in an interview. Now they're "being used to sell the neighborhood."

But Kostick said his company doesn't dictate changing prices, or what the market is doing.

"I personally feel that it's unfortunate that the housing crisis is impacting as many people as it is," Kostick said. "The artists can say, 'You guys are involved in the gentrification that's taking place,' but the bottom line is we're not creating that gentrification. We love the art, that's why we published it. And it's a little bit hard for me to understand why an artist doesn't want their art published."

Contact Arvin Temkar at [email protected].

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