Graffiti artist Cristian Gheorghiu, emblazoned with his street nickname… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
The line between art and vandalism seems to be getting a bit thin; such acclaimed talents as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy have gotten big bucks for their works on canvas, but their works on billboards, buildings, culverts and other public surfaces cost property owners big bucks to clean up. In the case of one such street artist, Cristian Gheorghiu, the city of Los Angeles is looking for payback.
As Times staff writer Richard Winton chronicled last week, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich has filed suit against Gheorghiu and nine other graffiti artists (none as well-known as Gheorghiu), seeking $1 million in penalties from the group and a civil injunction that would prevent them from profiting from their street names. It's a perplexing case in which an artist's 1st Amendment right of expression is butting up against state laws on unfair competition, leading to a tricky balancing act that any judge would have trouble performing. But we think we can see a way out, if the two sides are amenable to a settlement.
Gheorghiu is better known to those familiar with his work — meaning anybody who has ambled past certain sections of the L.A. River or simply looked up while driving through broad swathes of Los Angeles — as Smear, the moniker made famous by his graffiti. He crossed the line from midnight tagger to serious artist in 2006, when he held his first professional showing at a gallery in San Francisco. Now he gets up to $2,500 for a large work, and insists he has stopped tagging. But that hasn't stopped Trutanich.
The city attorney's office charges that Smear created what was in essence an illegal advertising campaign, building his artistic credentials and brand identity by defacing property. That gave him an unfair advantage over legitimate artists. Gheorghiu, who is being defended by the ACLU of Southern California, argues that the city is trying to violate his rights of expression. A lot of money rides on the issue, because without the Smear name, it's unlikely his canvases would sell as well.
Is it fair for the city to take away a promising young artist's livelihood? On the other hand, if Gheorghiu were allowed to get off scot-free, wouldn't that just encourage other taggers to rampage through the city in the hope of imitating his success? Taggers don't just deface empty walls; some of L.A.'s most beautiful public murals have been ruined by kids with more spray paint than sense.
Gheorghiu owes a debt to society, but by taking away his career, the city attorney is only ensuring that he can never pay it. After a graffiti vandalism conviction in 2007, he was ordered to pay about $28,000 in restitution but has only paid about $5,000. So here's our elegant solution: Settle the case, let Smear use his name, but charge him a fee each time he sells a piece of art using it until he has paid off the $23,000 he owes.