In one of those weird societal flip-flops, The New York Times today reports on a group of graffiti artists who are suing to limit the expropriation of their commercial property for public display. The Tats Cru and a dozen other street artists whose work don the walls of buildings all over the city are suing the author, publisher, and an exhibitor of a book about urban murals - aka in NYC. They feel that the expropriation via public display of their work, which is rooted in a culture of communal ownership of public space, has infringed on their property rights.

Peter Rosenstein is a periodontist by trade, but the doctor is an appreciator of graffiti art and undertook an effort to document it in a book, and then later in a display of his photographs at a Chelsea gallery. He claims that he simply loves graffiti and wanted to expose underrepresented artists to a wider audience; plus, why can't he photograph public spaces?

The artists are claiming that Rosenstein's claim that they were unidentifiable or unreachable is disingenuous, because much of their work is clearly marked with copyright symbols and contact information. And then there are the artists' concerns over how they are portrayed, from bad photographs to including community murals in a book about "edgy" graffiti.

Maria Dominguez was especially riled by the book’s reducing some works — including one of hers — to “decorative murals” done by an anonymous “local artist.” She has created many pieces of public art, including a recent stained glass installation at a subway station in Brooklyn. She said it was important for artists to control how their work was displayed. She spoke from bitter experience: In 1987, a mural of dancers she painted with schoolchildren on the Lower East Side appeared without permission in Playboy magazine.

“Does this make sense that they used this picture of something created by some poor kids from the community?” she said. “But nothing happened, since I only had a volunteer lawyer. I think he took the magazine and kept it.”


A professor of intellectual copyright law at Columbia University told the Times that public display of an artist's work does not invalidate the artist's commercial rights to the property. However, Rosenstein, who said that he made no profit from his book (which was put out by a university press) or the display, says the murals are in public places and "publishing the photographs was covered under fair use provisions of copyright law, which allow images to be used to illustrate art criticism and reviews."

We can see both sides: If Rosenstein really wanted to "bond" with the artists, why not contact them and find out what they think of their art, while asking for permission? However, does everything in the public arena require permission to be photographed for a book? And something we never knew: TV and film location scouts ask graffiti artists for permissions and releases if their murals will be in a scene (location scouts know more than periodontists about rights issues, natch).

Top photograph of a Lower East Side by Tats Cru (see the copyright?) by peterkreder on Flickr; inset photograph of a Tats Cru member spraypainting a Mona Lisa for the Da Vinci Code movie release by jenchung on Flickr