The brouhaha over the mural began with some bargaining.
Late last July a young artist named Marcus Akinlana received a phone call from Amelia Glaser, an assistant to a Los Angeles photographer who was interested in shooting a mural Akinlana had executed on the side of a building in South Shore. The photographer and the ad agency he was working for thought the mural would be perfect as the backdrop for a Honda ad.
The mural, entitled South Shore Rests on the Bosom of Oshun, is a lush work painted on the side of what once was Debbie’s School of Beauty Culture at 75th and South Crandon. Under the sponsorship of the Neighborhood Institute and the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), Akinlana had designed the piece and headed the crew that put it up during the summer of 1989. He’d been working on murals since he was a teenager, but South Shore Rests was the first one he’d created himself.
The Honda ad was intended for billboards in three cities, Akinlana recalls Glaser saying. She offered him $250 for rights to the mural, an offer he took as an insult. “I’m busy,” he said. “I can’t talk to you right now.” Akinlana says that when Glaser hinted the photographer might use the mural anyway he replied, “If you do, I’ll sue you for every cent you’re worth.”
Two weeks later Glaser called again, sweetening the offer to $800. Akinlana said no. But he was rushed; he was about to leave for England on a trip with an artists’ collective he was part of. He told Glaser that in his absence Jon Pounds, the executive director of the CPAG, could act as his agent if she had anything more to say.
According to Pounds, Glaser called him to restate the $800 offer. “You have to do significantly better than that,” said Pounds. Glaser at last put $2,000 on the table, and Pounds accepted. Pounds asked for a contract with minimal requirements: the ad agency was to include Akinlana’s signature or else an attribution, if possible, on the ad and send him copies of the “finished ad/tear sheets.” In mid-August Pounds and Carl Furuta, the photographer, put their signatures to the deal.
When he returned from England Akinlana banked the $2,000 and then pretty much forgot about the ad. He received no copies of it. On October 14 his mother called to tell him she’d been thumbing through her copy of Essence magazine and saw his mural in an ad for the Honda Accord. The ad, stretching across the bottom half of two pages, showed the Accord on the edge of Akinlana’s mural; positioned over the car was the face of Oshun, a west African goddess of fountains, love, and wealth.
“I was pissed,” Akinlana says. The contract had stated only that the ad was to be used on billboards, and though the scene was dated (“9:01 a.m., September 17, 1992”), there was neither Akinlana’s signature nor an attribution. The mural had also been doctored: it had been cropped, green grass had replaced the potholed street that was really under the Honda, and a female crossing guard had been airbrushed out.
At 7:15 the next morning Akinlana called Jim Fox, a partner in the Chicago firm of Holleb & Coff and the CPAG’s board president for 22 years. Fox started work on a lawsuit against the American Honda Motor Company and its ad agency, Muse Cordero Chen, for copyright infringement. He then discovered that Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., was in the process of distributing a special issue of Ebony, its flagship magazine, to mark the company’s 50th anniversary. Ebony too contained the Honda ad, and Akinlana added Johnson Publishing to his suit.
To Akinlana, the Honda ad is a slap in the face. “They made it clear that they wanted to use my mural because it reflected the community. To take this and distribute it widely, with no credit to me, was a situation of a thief in the night.” Plus, he says, tampering with his image was a deliberate flouting of his artistic integrity. “I would not have let them fool with the image as long as there was breath in my body.”
The irony is that the alleged offenders are exemplars of minority commerce. The Japanese-owned Honda is a multibillion-dollar international corporation that has done much to polish its image among American blacks. Johnson Publishing is the preeminent African American magazine house. And Muse Cordero Chen is among the leading minority ad agencies in the country.
Honda seems particularly distressed about the case. “This is an embarrassment for all of us,” says Eric Conn, the national auto-advertising manager for American Honda. But he also contends that the supposed affront is being blown out of proportion.
“This is about an artist and his image,” Fox counters. “About someone trying to make a living at his art, and some big guy trying to steal it.”
Marcus Akinlana was born Mark Jefferson in Washington, D.C., 26 years ago. His artistic talent showed early. “When he was four he won a contest in nursery school,” says his mother, Velma Faison, a retired government computer specialist. “I thought his pictures were rather attractive, but they were more than that. His kindergarten teacher took one look at them and called me and my husband in for a conference.” By the time Mark was seven he was taking Saturday classes at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
For high school Mark attended the Sidwell Friends School, where Chelsea Clinton now goes. He also apprenticed with local muralist Mame Cohanlon and among other things helped her put a six-story mural on the side of a building in downtown Washington. He came to Chicago to study drawing and painting at the Art Institute and became engrossed in murals. By then he had adopted the first name of Marcus, in part after the back-to-Africa leader Marcus Garvey; only later did he change his surname.
Chicago has a distinguished history of mural making, going back to the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. The city movement had a new flowering in 1967, when a group of artists–notably Bill Walker, Mitchell Caton, and Calvin Jones–created The Wall of Respect at 43rd and Langley, a huge mural combining portraits of many black cultural and political heroes. A glowing article about the wall in Ebony spawned murals in other cities. The building, gutted by fire, was torn down by the city in 1971; and though some of the mural panels were saved, the bulk of them were destroyed by a wrecker’s ball.
By then Walker and other muralists had established what became the CPAG. Since 1970 the organization has completed 300 projects, most of them murals but also some mosaics, cement-relief pieces, and park designs. The CPAG enlists an artist to direct each project, then works with a neighborhood group, school, or retirement home to ensure that the vision and imagery reflect local life and concerns. “Our stuff is community built,” says Jon Pounds. “We use teenagers and other volunteers in the execution, and though an artist is in charge of things, the result reflects the artist and the community working in collaboration.”
In 1987 Akinlana signed on to work as an assistant artist on a CPAG mosaic being made for the entryway of the Alfred Nobel School on the northwest side. “It was clear he was a very talented, very hardworking young man,” recalls Nina Smoot-Cain, one of two lead artists on the project. The next year Jon Pounds and his wife, Olivia Gude, hired Akinlana to assist on a mural they did on a railroad underpass between largely black Roseland and white and Hispanic Pullman. Meanwhile Akinlana did paintings and greeting cards and taught in the public schools through the South Side Community Arts Center, where he met Bill Walker. “I’d stop by and encourage him,” says Walker. Akinlana was awed; he considered Walker “the grandfather of Chicago muralists.”
The next spring Pounds recommended the young artist for a mural that was to be done in conjunction with the Neighborhood Institute, a community-development company under the same umbrella as the South Shore Bank. Selling Akinlana to TNI’s president Dorris Pickens wasn’t easy, Pounds recalls. “It’s very unusual for somebody 20 or 25 years old to be an accomplished muralist. You have to work on a large scale, handle volunteers, and be good at business–things that aren’t taught in school.” But Pounds recognized in Akinlana what he calls “commanding skills for someone that young,” and he persuaded Pickens that Akinlana had the goods.
Money was raised from a number of sources, including the Illinois Arts Council, the Chicago Office of Fine Arts, and the Kraft and Land O Lakes corporations. Akinlana says meetings with community members generated a feeling that the mural “should reflect a positive image for African Americans and for South Shore.”
It took a month for Akinlana to complete preliminary drawings. Originally the mural was to adorn a TNI business incubator building on 71st Street, but soon another wall, on Debbie’s School of Beauty Culture on 75th Street, was chosen. The area was blighted, says Akinlana. “They had hopes of building up the business strip there.” By early July a crew was assembled that included Ivan Watkins as an assistant artist and ten apprentices, teenagers from the neighborhood and the west side. An administrator from TNI handled the business end of the project; the creative responsibilities belonged to Akinlana.
“That was my coming-out project, putting into effect what my elders had taught me,” he says. The glazed brick of the 2,000-square-foot wall was covered with gang graffiti, and before beginning to paint the crew had to spend hours buffing it clean. “This work was excruciatingly hard and slow,” Akinlana would later write in a CPAG report. Then the wall was primed, Akinlana’s images were projected onto the surface at night using an overhead projector, and the artists started applying a high-quality acrylic paint.
As the work proceeded, other obstacles arose. “Drug dealers were always running up and down under the scaffolding,” says Akinlana. “It was a pretty wild corner.” The summer of ’88 was exceptionally hot and wet; the crew toiled in the ungodly heat and lost lots of valuable time to rain. “On many days we tried to paint in between impending storms and got caught in the rain only to watch our paint bleed down the wall,” Akinlana would write.
“We were going sunup to sundown, every day,” he says. The work was hard, but he says it developed a kind of dignity in the group. “At the time I was 23 and the kids who were helping out were 19 or younger. Too often people think young African Americans are criminals, but here we were, busy all the time and doing something constructive. People driving by could see that.”
One day at sunset, just as Akinlana and his workers were getting set to wheel their scaffolding into the garage of the TNI building across the street for the night, Bill Walker ambled up. He said he was heartened at the sight of the young muralists. “It’s your time,” the sexagenarian told them. “It’s your turn to carry on our movement.”
The finished mural depicts scenes of South Shore life, grounding them in an African heritage. On the left side is a family and assorted other people, some with their eyes closed as if in prayer or contemplation. In the center is a man in African garb with arms outstretched.
To the right a woman crossing guard has raised a white-gloved hand to stop traffic as a train approaches the arch of the South Shore Cultural Center. A man in a blue suit, his red tie flying, is rushing to catch the train; a pigtailed girl clutches Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Behind the train you can glimpse the New Regal Theatre and Mosque Maryam, the shrine of the Nation of Islam. Then there’s the round, beatific face of Oshun, her hair tied back with a scarf. Behind her a family is enjoying the beach at Rainbow Park.
“What’s beautiful about the mural is that it’s Afrocentric, just as Marcus is, and yet it’s not abrasive or exclusionary,” says muralist John Weber, an art professor at Elmhurst College. “It doesn’t feel uptight or tense or hostile. It’s very affirmative, and at the same time it’s inviting. Somehow you feel embraced by the design.”
Execution of the mural stretched into the fall, taking a month longer than expected. In the end South Shore Rests went slightly over budget; according to Jon Pounds it cost $40,000. (Typically, says Pounds, a lead artist like Akinlana makes $5,000 to $6,000 for such a project.)
The dedication took place on October 8, 1989, attracting a fair crowd, many of them the young workers whose names joined Akinlana’s in a corner of the completed mural (“Kelly Benjamin, Coulbert Brown, Samuel Byrd, Allen Givhens, Brian Pace . . . “) A self-described African priestess gave a blessing, and Akinlana cut a ribbon that was red, black, and green. There was a large spread of food and a harp concert.
To Akinlana, the project showed “what powerful potential there is in using the arts to build community.” It also deepened his feelings for Africa, and on New Year’s Eve of 1989, to mark the holiday festival of Kwanzaa, he finally abandoned his surname, Jefferson, which he says derives from the Mississippi plantation where one of his male ancestors was enslaved. In Yoruba, the language of the west African tribe from which Akinlana claims descent, “Akinlana” means “one who opened the road.” Professionally, says Akinlana, “the mural busted the door wide open for other things to come through for me.”
Ironically, in August 1990 Ebony selected Akinlana as one of its “50 Leaders of the Future.” Also anointed were Jesse Jackson; Martin Luther King’s youngest child, Bernice, an attorney and minister; and Walter Whitman, director of the Soul Children of Chicago.
The year was a busy one for Akinlana. He codesigned a mural at the Jeffery Plaza shopping center in South Shore. He joined John Weber, Nina Smoot-Cain, and Olivia Gude in doing a memorial to Harold Washington in the Winter Garden of the new downtown library. He also represented the city in executing a mural in Milan, Italy, for the World Cup soccer championships.
In October 1991 he moved to New Orleans, believing that the city was the seat of African American culture. “I had to come to the source,” he says. There he established a studio and became part of the Neighborhood Gallery, a collaborative group of black artists started in 1988. In November 1991 some of his paintings and drawings were exhibited in the gallery.
Weber regrets that Akinlana has moved to New Orleans and hopes he doesn’t abandon mural making. “Marcus has enormous potential. He has talent and charisma and organizational ability. He’s part of the whole process of generational renewal in our movement.”
The American Honda Motor Company, the U.S. subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, Ltd., is a giant. Based in Torrance, California, American Honda sold 76,845 automobiles in this country in 1992 (it doesn’t release dollar sales). According to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, Honda claimed 9.4 percent of the domestic car market in units in 1992, placing it behind only General Motors and Ford. American Honda’s most popular vehicle is the Accord, which for three years straight was the best-selling car in the nation. (It was edged out by the Ford Taurus in 1992, thanks in part to an aggressive year-end push by Ford, which was eager to claim best-seller status.)
Honda is proud of the programs it sponsors for blacks, particularly its “Campus All-Star Challenge,” a kind of academic college bowl for 64 predominantly black colleges and universities. “Everybody pays black football players attention, but how many of us do the same for scholars?” asks Eric Conn, American Honda’s national ad manager. The All-Star Challenge is broadcast over Black Entertainment Television, a cable network. Conn says it’s intended to boost Honda’s image in the eyes of black buyers while also being “low profile and not real shouty.” He adds that Honda spends $3 million a year to mount the campus challenge.
But Honda also bids for African American customers with straight-up advertising. The Accord campaign in which Akinlana’s ad appeared was to have lasted a year or two and cost as much as $800,000.
Muse Cordero Chen, which was to orchestrate the entire campaign, was established in 1986 after the merger of a black, an Asian, and two Hispanic-owned agencies, and has since become the minority agency of choice for many American corporations and government offices. Nike turned to the agency in 1990, after being threatened with a boycott by Operation PUSH over its hiring practices. According to the Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, the company posts annual billings of $30 million.
In 1991 chairman J. Melvin Muse made a trip to China and decided to seize the future by opening an office in Hong Kong. “As I walked the streets of Beijing with thousands and thousands of people, I sensed a tremendous surge of consumerism,” he told the New York Times. “As an adman, I wanted to be a part of that. I saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Conn says Muse also joined the movement to help rebuild South-Central, the section of Los Angeles gutted by the riots after the Rodney King verdict.
Conn says Honda and Muse Cordero Chen agreed that the Accord campaign that was directed at a black audience should consist of two basic ads. One would picture an Accord sitting before a rural storefront, to appeal to African Americans relocating to the south. The other ad was to have an urban setting.
A Chicago location scout called Jon Pounds on July 15, 1992, asking for tips on local murals for the urban ad. Pounds referred the scout to various works, among them Akinlana’s, but the scout’s first choice seemed to be a 1987 mural on one wall of the New Regal Theatre by Calvin Jones and Mitchell Caton; the mural features portraits of show-business people who played the original Regal at 47th Street and South Lake Park, including Josephine Baker and comedian Moms Mabley. But when Amelia Glaser called Jones to gain rights to the mural, she received a cool reception.
Jones, a painter who once owned an ad agency, releases commercial rights to his work only to benefit nonprofit causes in which he believes, and he told Glaser she was wasting her time. “Won’t you even do this for Honda?” she asked. He cautioned her, “If you use our mural you’re going to have a lawsuit.” That’s when Glaser called Akinlana.
The contract Akinlana agreed to seemed simple enough. The one-page document allowed Muse Cordero Chen to place the mural in billboard ads for Honda. Akinlana was to receive $2,000 in payment as well as two copies of the finished ad. The contract also stated: “Advertising agency will attempt to include signature of artist in ad, but cannot guarantee appearance or legibility.”
Akinlana assumed the Honda ad was going to run on billboards in three cities, but Eric Conn says it was destined for signs in four: Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Chicago (one ad ended up on a billboard at 84th and South Stony Island). The image was also booked to run in four magazines–Ebony, Essence, Emerge, and Black Enterprise–as well as in an auto supplement being inserted into at least 60 black-oriented newspapers by Amalgamated Publishers, an association of black papers.
When an agitated Akinlana notified Jim Fox that an unauthorized magazine ad was running, the lawyer, a specialist in copyright and commercial matters, smelled a case of copyright trashing.
Traditionally muralists have been advised to affix a copyright symbol to their creations, and some professionals still adhere to that practice. “For everything outdoors, you have to have that copyright there,” says Tsipi Ben-Haim, executive director of CityArts, a group that has sponsored murals in all five boroughs of New York.
However, since 1988, when the United States subscribed to the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, a 102-year international treaty, items no longer have to display the copyright symbol (the C in a circle) to be protected, nor do they need to be registered with the Library of Congress. Akinlana’s name is on South Shore Rests as “Marcus Jefferson,” yet even if it weren’t, the work would legally be considered his just by virtue of his having designed it.
Fox began maneuvering. As insurance, he quickly had Akinlana file a copyright registration with the Library of Congress. He phoned Honda in California, explaining the situation to a couple of in-house attorneys, and got in touch with June Rhinehart, general counsel at Johnson Publishing, who said the November issue of Ebony was heading to newsstands even as they spoke.
The issue, nearly 300 pages thick, was crammed with stories geared to the 50th anniversary of Johnson Publishing (“50 Pathfinders,” “50 Events That Changed Black America”). In a column publisher John Johnson hailed the success of his $200-million-a-year company and delivered a positive message: “We believe–and this issue is our evidence–that there is nothing we can’t dream or dare or do here if we keep the faith of our fathers and mothers and put our hands to the plow and hold on.”
On the phone Johnson pleaded with Fox not to stop his cherished edition from going out. According to Fox, Johnson promised to run a story on Akinlana in his newsmagazine Jet, but Fox didn’t consider that sufficient. Fox remembers Johnson telling him, “This happens in our community all the time–the appearance of a black man beating up on another black man. But it’s basically not my fault. You should be talking to Honda.”
Honda, however, wasn’t talking, nor was Muse Cordero Chen. At this point Fox was dealing with Michael Bierman, a Los Angeles lawyer for the ad agency, who Fox says was making vague promises of a settlement but not coming through with anything. By October 20, recalls Fox, “I was basically being brick-walled with no place to go.” Throughout that day Fox peppered Bierman with calls. Finally at 7 PM Fox and his partner, Howard Hoffman, reached Bierman, who made an offer of $5,000. “We’ll see you in court,” Fox informed Bierman.
Hoffman met David McBride and Keith Schoeneberger of the law firm Ross & Hardies, the local counselors for the defendants, in the courtroom of U.S. District Court judge George Lindberg late in the afternoon on October 21. Hoffman focused on the print ad, charging all three defendants with copyright infringement. “In the print advertisement,” read the complaint, “the scale, grand design and themes of the Mural are lost, obliterated and destroyed. Worse, the placement of the automobile makes it appear that a prominent female figure is ‘swooning’ over the car . . . a colossal distortion of the Mural’s theme and injurious to Jefferson’s carefully crafted image.”
Hoffman requested a temporary restraining order forestalling further distribution of the Honda ad, even to the extent of quashing the Ebony issue. June Rhinehart, Johnson Publishing’s general counsel, testified that 1.6 million copies of the 2.1 million run had already been mailed out and the rest were on their way to the newsstand. If the distribution stalled, Rhinehart testified, Johnson Publishing would face an incalculable loss in advertising revenue and reputation.
The judge said it was too late to stop the Ebony issue but voiced respect for Akinlana’s rights. “The importance of the violation of the plaintiff’s copyright cannot be ignored, and it is clear that such rights are zealously protected by statute and by the courts.” He said he’d issue a written opinion shortly.
The ruling came a week after the hearing, on October 28. “Jefferson is the holder of the copyright on the mural by the very fact that he designed and painted the mural,” Lindberg wrote. “Defendants have copied the mural for use in a major advertising campaign without consent, payment or attribution to plaintiff. Defendants’ intended advertising campaign will irreparably harm Jefferson’s ability to decide when and how copies of his work may be made and shown to others.” Lindberg issued a temporary restraining order; for the time being Honda had to stop using the ad.
The legal back and forth between Akinlana, Honda, Muse Cordero Chen, and Johnson Publications has slowed resolution of the dispute to a crawl. On December 4 Fox and Hoffman amended their complaint, adding charges of unfair trade practices, unfair competition, and breach of contract. They were particularly irritated that Honda and Muse Cordero Chen had made no effort to stop distribution of the auto supplement containing the ad to at least 60 black newspapers during the week of October 26–after the hearing was over.
In one passage of the amended complaint Fox expanded on his earlier statement about the placement of the car relative to Oshun, implying that she had been made to look like Aunt Jemima: “The advertisement uses the Mural in an unflattering manner. It depicts only a small portion of the Mural, making it appear, through the strategic positioning of the Honda automobile in the foreground, that a figure in the mural is swooning over the Honda. The figure, an African goddess, appears to be absorbing the aroma of the ‘delicious’ Honda, like she might over a stack of freshly baked, buttery waffles.”
The amended complaint asked for an unspecified amount of copyright damages, plus the “gains and profits” the defendants made from the ad, as well as punitive damages to the tune of $1 million.
In late December Honda’s attorneys filed a brief and a companion memorandum asking Judge Lindberg to dismiss the new claims of unfair trade practices and unfair competition–on the basis of some fairly arcane legal reasoning. They argued that since Akinlana’s name doesn’t appear in the ad he has no reason to allege unfair trade practices. They also stated that the claim of copyright infringement preempted the unfair-competition accusation and therefore voided the second charge.
Other muralists are outraged about the situation. Jon Pounds says it demonstrates the low esteem in which muralists are too often held. “The art world tends to see murals as too socially based to be quite ‘art.’ There is some sense of annoyance and sadness on the part of all us muralists–who have developed our skills over a lifetime–that we are dismissed.”
Pounds also charges that he and Akinlana were dealt with “in bad faith,” having been led to believe the Honda ad was only for billboards. Pounds is most upset that Muse Cordero Chen tampered with the image, airbrushing out the crossing guard: “Of course there might have been some cropping, but this is the destruction of an artist’s image. It was inexcusable.”
Calvin Jones is even harsher. “This is rape, exploitation for someone’s individual needs.”
John Weber says, “These people took advantage of Marcus, which is a function, I think, of these murals being out on the street. There’s an assumption that murals are part of the public domain, but they aren’t. The images belong to the artist or the sponsoring organization.” He adds, “They monkeyed with the image, and for that they owe him damages. This is a really big case for the visual arts. If we lose, our rights go down the drain.”
Ironically, the $2,000 Akinlana was originally paid is in line with what’s normally paid artists who aren’t big names for images used to the extent Muse Cordero Chen used Akinlana’s, according to Harold Woodridge, an executive art director at the BBDO Chicago ad agency. Tom Shortlidge, a creative director at Young & Rubicam, agrees. “If there’s more exposure for an ad, there’s more likelihood that you’re going to get more money,” he says. “But for somebody who is relatively unknown, $1,000 is not out of the question. If you’re dealing with an Annie Leibovitz or Keith Haring, you’re talking about a lot of money.” To him a lot is $100,000; to Woodridge it’s closer to $60,000.
When a mural shows up in advertising without permission, the matter is usually cleared up expeditiously. Calvin Jones remembers the Leo Burnett agency putting the New Regal Theatre mural in a summertime TV commercial for Miller Lite beer. “I told them I didn’t want any money for it,” says Jones. “They apologized and took it right out–and they wrote me a letter saying it would never happen again.”
NYNEX, the east-coast telecommunications company, used a South Bronx mural painted with the help of once-homeless youngsters in a TV spot that appeared during last year’s Super Bowl. “Two Puerto Rican gentlemen were seen out working in the field,” says muralist Bill Moakler, who had coordinated the project. “They got out of their truck, climbed up a pole, and for about five seconds you saw our mural.” Neither Moakler nor CityArts, the sponsoring agency, had authorized the use. “Of course we wanted everyone to see us, and we wanted a good relationship with NYNEX,” says CityArts executive director Tsipi Ben-Haim. “But we also had to stick up for ourselves, and so we objected.” Officials at NYNEX insisted no one had ever seen the copyright sign on the piece, yet they offered a $1,500 settlement, which was accepted and split among the agency, the muralist, and the neighborhood kids.
Eric Gordon, a spokesman for the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), a mural group in Venice, California, says the Los Angeles area is home to 1,500 outdoor murals. “Obviously there are cases where they have ended up in commercials and films.” He says the producers of L.A. Story, a Steve Martin comedy, paid $2,000 for use of one mural, and MGM paid $1,500 to use a Venice mural in the recently released Falling Down. “They actually extended some of the color around to the third side of a building. We kind of liked it and told them to leave it.”
Tampering with an artist’s image is not unusual. “Frequently if something gets bought and people need to make it work for commercial purposes, they change it,” says BBDO’s Harold Woodridge. Young & Rubicam’s Tom Shortlidge agrees that images–both photographs and paintings–are regularly altered. “Though I would certainly let the person whose art I’m buying know about it–otherwise you’re inviting a lawsuit.”
Akinlana’s attorneys say they have yet to receive a settlement offer they find adequate. They’re now demanding $140,000. “There was a period when this could have been settled for a lot less,” says Howard Hoffman, “but the other side has put up endless hoops and obstacles.” Now, he says, $140,000 is necessary to give Akinlana a respectable take after he pays the lawyers their fees.
Akinlana thinks $140,000 is reasonable. “That’s very little compared to the millions of dollars that’s been involved in profit. The other thing is, that $140,000 is because they are holding out, running up astronomical fees on our side. If they had settled at jump street, we wouldn’t be asking for so much. But they are totally recalcitrant in this. I should be spending my time painting, not reading legal documents.”
“They want a ton of money,” wails Eric Conn. “We’re willing to be fair, but [Akinlana] is asking for a buck or two more than is fair game.” Conn says Akinlana should be pleased just to have landed in a national advertisement. “This guy wasn’t exactly on Main Street yet. For somebody like that, a national ad can be a big boost.”
Yet Conn concedes that Honda and Muse Cordero Chen erred in not sending Akinlana copies of the billboard ad and in failing to secure permission to run the ad in magazines and newspapers. “Normally when you buy art from a guy, you buy it for all usage,” says Conn. “We didn’t, and when we went ahead with the print campaign we failed to pay for it.”
Conn says the mural was cropped so the Accord wouldn’t be lost in a magazine fold. As to Muse Cordero Chen’s promise to try to include Akinlana’s signature, Conn argues that the definition of “signature” can be debated. “Signature in advertising is a broader term than the scrawl down in the corner. It means you can identify the image, like a LeRoy Neiman painting.” But Akinlana is unknown to the general public. True, says Conn. Then he adds that even if Akinlana’s signature or name had been included it would have been lost in the small ad.
And what about the addition of grass and the cleaning up of the street? That was done to lend the advertisement dignity, says Conn. “After retouching you don’t see the potholes or the scruffy street. We tried to give the scene a little class.” He says the crossing guard was eliminated not only because she “interrupted the flow of the ad” (she was facing the wrong direction), but also because the advertisers were reluctant to include a policelike figure with her hand in the air following the Rodney King riots. “I didn’t feel the [crossing guard] was complimentary to the audience we were trying to reach.” As for Fox’s contention that Oshun was made to look like Aunt Jemima, Conn says, “He’s probably the only guy on earth who sees her that way.”
Conn is pained. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of work with the black community, with black colleges–all this good-guy stuff. And this one little error puts us in a bad situation. It’s awful. I’m in advertising and public relations, and something this protracted can do me in.” Conn says he’s pressuring for a settlement, but Honda’s insurance company, for one, is holding out.
Johnson Publishing believes it’s an innocent party in the case. In October June Rhinehart testified that the company’s rate cards contain a hold-harmless clause that says the publisher will not be responsible for claims or suits over ad content, including over copyright infringement; the responsibility falls to the ad agency or the advertiser. Johnson Publishing is refusing public comment on the case, as are Muse Cordero Chen and Honda, with the exception of Conn.
One anonymous source on the defendants’ side lays the blame on Fox. “He’s playing a game of holdup and using you people in the media to do it. He’s letting artists think that people like him can make them a million bucks. Come on. Everybody screws up. You gotta pay, and you do. But when somebody takes advantage of a mistake for his financial gain, well, then there’s a problem. You have a lawyer here who’s making a career out of this.”
Fox, who claims his law firm will lose money representing Akinlana, says the defendants merely got more than they bargained for. “How can they say they’re helping the black community when here’s a black man who’s trying to make a living at his art, and they’re stealing it from him? They figured Marcus couldn’t afford to fight this. They thought a little guy down in New Orleans couldn’t afford to stay in litigation over this issue. But they were wrong.”
In New Orleans Akinlana is busy preparing to put a mural and bas-relief on three miles of the city levee.
Debbie’s School of Beauty Culture at 75th and Crandon closed down in 1989 and is now up for sale. The windows are boarded up, and grass grows through the pavement of the parking lot, which is occupied by old trailers and a couple of motorboats. The corner remains a rundown urban intersection.
But the mural has held up fine. When it was finished it was coated with a polymer-based sealer to prevent graffiti; there has been no tagging. Jon Pounds says, “That’s not so unusual when a mural speaks to a community.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Adele Hodge, Bruce Powell.