Artists sue celebrity pastor for using artwork without permission

What started as a good deed for a Miami-Dade school has turned into a legal battle. On one side: eight street artists who donated their talent to paint striking murals at Jose de Diego, a struggling middle school in Wynwood. On the other: Rich Wilkerson, Jr., the handsome celebrity pastor who married Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The two sides had been negotiating until Wednesday, when the mostly Miami-based artists filed a federal lawsuit in Miami saying their work at the school was used — without their permission — to advertise Wilkerson’s new church.

They are asking to be paid licensing and attorney’s fees. “Artists have the right to choose the companies and brands with whom they work,” said Andrew Gerber, a New York attorney representing the artists. “It is critical for artists to maintain control over these things.” Church representatives did not return requests for comment. Artists from around the world donated their talent during Art Basel 2014 to cover Jose de Diego Middle school in massive murals, bridging the gap between the public school and the vibrant art scene that surrounds it in Wynwood. One mural features the curious eyes of a child peering out. Another shows a dancer leaping into the air and wearing a colorful dress. Another oozes with color that drips all the way to ground.

One of the artists suing in U.S. District Court is Ahol Sniffs Glue, known for his murals of droopy eyes. Gerber represented Ahol in a similar suit against the clothing retail giant American Eagle Outfitters. That suit ended in a confidential settlement. Robert de los Rios, a Wynwood and arts promoter who helped organized the project at Jose de Diego, called the legal tussle “heartbreaking.” “It feels like s*** that this happened in the first place and it feels worse that no one reached out to the artists,” he said. “At the very least, someone needs to reach out and say, ‘Hey, we love the image. How can we use it?’ …The issue here was the complete and utter disrespect.” In September, Wilkerson’s new church began renting out the school auditorium for its services.

Called Vous Church – short for rendezvous – the congregation branched from Trinity, the Miami Gardens megachurch started by Wilkerson’s father. Vous is known for attracting young people and celebrities with hip sermons that draw on the latest song lyrics or social trends. To advertise their new location, Vous superimposed its logos on images painted at the school and Wilkerson shared them with his thousands of social media followers.

One ad shared by Wilkerson on Instagram was liked more than 2,000 times. Wilkerson’s career has taken off lately. Along with launching his own church, he also released a book for which West designed the cover. He and his wife, DawnCheré, are also the subject of a new reality TV show on the Oxygen network called “Rich in Faith.” The lawsuit notes the couple “live in a penthouse duplex luxury apartment in Miami, complete with outdoor terraces and rooftop pool.”

“They regularly travel around the United States and internationally, fraternize with celebrities, and lead a highend, materialistic lifestyle filled with designer clothing, luxury cars and yachts, and upscale parties, restaurants, and nightclubs, much of which they openly document on their personal social media accounts,” the lawsuit states. Still, the artists claim in their lawsuit that the church hasn’t offered “a single penny” for using their work.