South Florida

Wynwood artists, celebrity pastor in legal tussle

Students walk through the courtyard area of Jose de Diego Middle to study the murals painted by artists who donated their time to help revitalize the Wynwood school.
Students walk through the courtyard area of Jose de Diego Middle to study the murals painted by artists who donated their time to help revitalize the Wynwood school. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The evocative murals were painted to bring the richness of Wynwood’s art scene to a poor public school. An upside down rose against a backdrop painted to look like marble. A dog fashioned of shiny chrome. A pattern of droopy blue eyes peering out.

The striking works of art at Jose de Diego Middle caught the attention of the community — and a growing ministry called Vous Church – short for rendezvous. The church began renting out the school auditorium for Sunday services, and launched a campaign to draw followers.

In social media, fliers and mail, the church superimposed its logo over the art on invitations from its pastor — Rich Wilkerson Jr., a Miami Gardens preacher who has become a pop culture celebrity for being young, handsome, and for having married megastars Kanye West and Kim Kardashian — to join him at the new branch on the edge of one of Miami’s hippest neighborhoods.

To the artists — who donated their talent to paint the murals for free — the ads are nothing short of theft.

“This is my career,” said Miami artist Typoe, whose work was appropriated for the ads. “It’s like if you were to walk into a CVS and steal a whole aisle of Cheerios. There would need to be accountability.”

Now, the church ads have sparked a legal tussle over the intellectual property rights of street artists who hang their work where everyone can see them: on the walls of buildings.

On the one side are seven artists demanding to be paid after their work at the school was used without their permission. On the other side is a charismatic pastor who has led a thriving youth ministry at a popular Miami Gardens church, has landed his own reality TV show, borrows heavily from pop culture and boasts tens of thousands of followers — of the social media sort. His attorney defended the use of the art on public display at a site leased by the church.

“We’ve had this challenge in front of us, and I would just like to say that we love artists,” Wilkerson said. “We would never want to compromise anyone’s work and 100 percent want to settle everything.”

Jose de Diego became a focal point in Wynwood when world-renowned artists descended on the school during Art Basel and Art Week last year to paint murals, some two-stories tall, all over campus.

Robert de los Rios, a Wynwood and arts promoter, helped organize the mural effort after a teacher at the school reached out with the idea. Along with the murals, the RAW Project was born. Re-imagining the Arts in Wynwood was started to raise money for Jose de Diego and to create an art program there. The school had gone years without even an art teacher.

Beyond the ads, he said the church has painted over some of the murals inside the school without permission – images of inspirational figures like Muhammad Ali and Albert Einstein. Representatives from the church also have been calling the artists to try to get them to back down from their legal claims, he said.

“I’m legitimately worried that this will ruin what we’re trying to do here,” de los Rios said.

New York attorney Andrew Gerber is representing the artists in their claims against the church. Among his clients is Ahol Sniffs Glue, the Miami street artist whom Gerber represented in a similar suit against the clothing retail giant American Eagle Outfitters. That suit ended in a confidential settlement.

“These artists are very careful about who they license their work to, and it’s very critical that they control the licensing and distribution of their artwork,” Gerber said.

The church says it has removed the images from its website and social media — though many were widely shared online. One shot shared by Wilkerson garnered more than 2,000 likes on Instagram. A shot of his newest sneakers, which go for hundreds or even thousands of dollars on Ebay, drew twice that. The two sides are negotiating because the church wants to be able to show the art in the background of its photographs, and artists are asking for damages.

Wilkerson did not want to address the controversy, only saying his church wants to be “peacemakers.”

Wilkerson Jr. served for years at his father’s popular Miami Garden church, Trinity. He once resorted to swallowing a goldfish just to attract people to his youth ministry, Rendezvous — Vous for short. Over time, hundreds of followers began to turn up for services where religious messages are laced with pop culture references.

“We wanted to create a church for everybody, a church everyone would feel comfortable in,” Wilkerson said.

Among the faithful rocking to the church band are celebrities such as Kanye West.

The world-famous rapper and his reality-show wife tapped Wilkerson to officiate their 2014 wedding in Florence. Photos captured the preacher smiling in white-and-gold robes, his hair perfectly parted down the side.

“Wait, the pastor that married Kim and Kanye is super hot,” crooned a Buzzfeed headline.

A reality TV show deal soon followed. Rich in Faith will premier in December on the Oxygen network. From the promotional material, it looks like Wilkerson’s quest to find a place for his own ministry will be a major plot line.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Wilkerson, who lives in the Edgewater section of Miami, said he bounced around the city looking for a home for Vous before settling on Jose de Diego. Wilkerson began renting an auditorium in September for Sunday services.

“A lot of people who have come around the vision of planting the church live in that area,” Wilkerson said. “We want to serve this school. We want to serve these people.”

Wilkerson said the church has spruced up the school with landscaping, fed Jose de Diego staff to celebrate Hispanic heritage month, and installed projectors and lighting that the church allows the school to use. It’s not unusual for public schools to rent out their facilities, and Vous pays about $1,200 a month for the space.

John Malloy, an attorney representing the church, said they are trying to work out a solution that allows Vous to show some of the artwork when chronicling church life on the school campus.

“The church is located inside the middle school and these murals are everywhere, so naturally some of them are going to be part of the background in photographs on church grounds,” Malloy wrote in an email. “That’s fair use under copyright law.”

Leslie Lott, an intellectual property lawyer in Coral Gables who is not involved in the Jose de Diego dispute, said the claims of both sides are not so black-and-white, which is why these types of cases often get settled out of court.

There are plenty of factors to consider, such as whether the intellectual property is used to create something entirely new, or whether the reproduction reduces the value of the original work.

“It’s one of those areas where it all depends,” she said.

Typoe said if he recovers any money from the suit, it will go toward the school.

“This is something very specific for the kids,” he said. “To rip off the charity that we’re doing like that, you know, that kind of sucks.”

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga