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Plywood muralists are ‘screwed’ as thieves, merchants, landlords take artworks

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The artists’ murals on the boarded-up storefronts along the Bowery and in Soho were meant to turn a negative into a positive. They were done to beautify and enliven parts of Downtown that had been hard hit by rage and looting after the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Springing up in response to the looting, the barren plywood boards protected storefronts, plus covered the wide-open fronts of other boutiques that had already been breached. But the barriers also made the streets, already empty due to coronavirus, feel even more desolate. 

Thus the idea was hatched for the colorful and inspirational murals.

By all accounts, the artists’ paintings on the plywood were a smashing success, no pun intended.

But now, that positive is turning back into a negative again amid a new spree of troubling actions. On the one hand, some store owners and landlords have taken possession of some of the murals and are “holding them hostage,” according to the artists. Meanwhile, apparent thieves, using a screw gun and a rental van, recently snatched several of the plywood paintings right off the storefronts and drove off with them.

As opposed to a street mural affixed to a brick wall or graffiti bubble letters on the side of a subway train, murals on plywood are easy to steal and highly portable: All you really need is a screw gun — and, if you are going any distance, a van helps.

“Love Power,” a large mural by, from left, Hitomi Nakamura, Scooter LaForge and James Rubio, is reportedly being held by a Bowery retailer who claims it was his plywood, so he doesn’t have to give it to its creators. (Photo by Bob Krasner)

Sono Kuwayama, who organized the Bringing Back Bowery murals effort, as well as the artists whose murals are being held or were stolen, are understandably outraged.

The outright theft of the murals by the organized pair of perps in the U-Haul van is perhaps easier to comprehend. Kuwayama and the artists, however, are particularly perturbed by the shop owners and building management companies who are stubbornly refusing to return the murals to their creators.

A case in point is the large “Love Power” mural, a collaboration by Scooter LaForge, James Rubio and Hitomi Nakamura, painted on the Bowery between Great Jones and Fourth Sts. According to Kuwayama, the owner of Côte À Coast — a “men’s lifestyle-concept” store whose window the plywood covered — took down the mural two weeks ago and won’t return it.

LaForge is “pretty well known and established” on the Downtown art scene, she noted.

“We Are the Change We Seek,” by Irena Kenny, painted at 78 Thompson St., was taken down by Centurion management without consulting the artist. Kenny said the piece is now being “held hostage.” (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)

“We’re trying to explain to him that it’s actually not his property,” Kuwayama said of the merchant, “that it’s copyrighted. He’s trying to say that it’s his plywood, so he gets to keep it. Am I not explaining it well enough to him that it’s not his property?”

Street art was admittedly a new experience for Kuwayama. Doing the project and painting out on the pavement, she found that she really enjoyed the community interaction aspect of it — but now she’s having to learn fast about its legal side.

“Anyone who has painted street murals says the artist has the copyright,” she said, adding that she’s being told by other artists that if there’s “no bill of sale,” the merchant or landlord would have a hard time proving ownership.

A man with a screw gun and wearing seemingly legitimate work gear — like a yellow vest and hard hat — took two murals off 310 Bowery Bar. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)
The lookout in the 310 Bowery Bar plywood-murals heist, with the rented U-Haul van behind her. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)

She conceded that, yes, the store owners or landlords do own the plywood. However, she said, “The artists own the paint and they own the image.”

Also, the store owners and landlords allowed the artists to paint the pieces in the first place, she added. Indeed, Kuwayama sent a letter around beforehand specifically requesting permission. But she said the Côte À Coast owner, David Wu, keeps trying to wriggle out of it.

“His reaction was, ‘Oh well, I never read your letter,’” Kuwayama said. “And he said I never said I was taking them back, which was true — it was implied.” 

She dropped by the store personally to say she could come by and pick up the mural, but the owner reportedly told her, “It’s mine now.”

Wu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Kuwayama reached out to all the other stores involved in the Bringing Back Bowery project — 40 murals were done, in all — and they all said they would let the artists keep their works.

“Everyone else was cool with it,” she said.

The “Love Power” mural, at around 11 feet by 8 feet, was “way bigger” than all the others, she noted.

Kuwayama is currently reaching out to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts to get advice and help on the situation.

Robert Blodgett working on a mural of his — that covered a window at the Italian restaurant Bar Primi — that was stolen by the U-Haul thieves. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)
Catt Caulley working on her Emmett Till painting as Robert Blodgett looks on. Thieves recently stole this work off the front of 310 Bowery Bar. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)

The artists are hoping to work with the pro bono lawyers, she said, “because we don’t have money.”

The hope was that the artists would exhibit the murals at a later date, selling them to raise funds for the community and for righteous causes.

“There’s all sorts of social-justice issues” that the murals’ sales could fund, she noted. “Part of it was going to go to the Bowery Mission — homeless issues, which will probably get worse by the extra unemployment being cut.”

This piece by de_salv was also stolen from the front of 310 Bowery Bar. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)

Still upset over the “Love Power” mural kidnaping, Kuwayama was shocked again just a few days ago to find that two murals that had covered the windows of 310 Bowery Bar had been stolen. All that was left behind were screws scattered on the sidewalk.

Surveillance video from the bar shows a man and woman exit a U-Haul van, and the man — wearing a seemingly official-looking reflective vest and hard hat — then use a screw gun to remove the plywood murals. The woman, meanwhile, appears to act as a lookout. They load the murals into the van and drive off.

The stolen murals include an Emmett Till piece that Catt Caulley did with an assist by Robert Blodgett — Caulley did the portrait and words, Blodgett did the background — and a mural by de_zalv.

The artists creating the plywood murals that were on the front of 310 Bowery Bar. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)

Kuwayama later found out from the super of 325 Bowery, about a block away, that another Blodgett mural was stolen from the outside of the Italian restaurant Bar Primi.

Kuwayama said the artworks are definitely worth more than $1,000 — at which value a theft becomes grand larceny — while others think the stolen murals are actually worth more than $5,000.

For its part, Soho hosted two separate plywood mural projects: Soho Social Impact, which mainly focused on Black Lives Matter themes, and Art to Heart, which largely featured messages of hope and love. Like Bringing Back Bowery, the Soho mural projects also have seen theft of artworks and disputes over ownership.

Artist Irena Kenny did a total of six murals, both in Soho and on the Bowery. Two of them, she’s currently fighting to get back. Another one, she has no clue where it is.

“Lady Liberty Can’t Breathe,” by Irena Kenny, is gone from 102 Greene St. and the artist has no idea what happened to it. (Courtesy Sono Kuwayama)

Her piece “Lady Liberty Can’t Breathe,” that was at 102 Greene St., in Soho, is missing. 

“No idea if it was trashed, is being held for safekeeping — whatever that means — or was stolen, like so many others,” Kenny said.

Another of her murals, “Is My Daddy Next?” painted on the plywood covering Jamali Gallery, at 413 West Broadway, was removed by the gallery, along with a piece by fellow artist Kamila Zmrzla. 

Artist Kamila Zmrzla with her mural “Say Their Names,” which was taken from 102 Greene St. (Courtesy Kamila Zmrzla)
A detail from Kamila Zmrzla’s painting “Say Their Names” with the names of victims of police violence. (Courtesy Kamila Zmrzla)

“The gallery took them down and was originally proposing to auction them off, with proceeds going to a charity of our choice,” Kenny said. “They no longer want to do the auction but are keeping the pieces safe for now.”

On the other hand, the two artists have heard scant word about their murals that covered 78 Thompson St. Kenny had one piece there, “We Are the Change We Seek,” along with another one by Zmrzla.

Kamila Zmrzla with her mural “Metamorphosis,” which is currently being held by Centurion management. The company is not saying what it plans to do with the artwork. (Courtesy Kamila Zmrzla)

“They were taken down by Centurion management without including us,” said Kenny, who describes the murals as being “held hostage.”

“I feel really disheartened by the turn of events,” she said. “What started as a positive response to a very painful and difficult situation is now bringing up blatant disregard, entitlement and greed.”

Through a plea on its Web site, the Soho business improvement district, the Soho Broadway Initiative, is trying to help track down missing murals.

In the meantime, the superintendent for Bar Primi said, for the remaining murals on the restaurant’s windows, he’s going to put in “better screws” — probably with special heads, from the sound of it — that are harder to remove, Kuwayama said.

Sono Kuwayama, the project organizer of Bringing Back Bowery, above, enjoyed the community feeling of painting on the street. But thefts of some of the completed artworks and fights to regain possession of others have been frustrating. (Photo by Bob Krasner)

There are plywood murals still covering the Bowery Poetry Club, at 308 Bowery, which like other New York City entertainment venues, hasn’t been allowed to reopen yet. However, according to Kuwayama, the club’s proprietor, Bob Holman, feels the pieces there are safe and firmly attached.

“He was saying they have a lot of screws,” she said.

Holman and the 310 Bowery Bar owner have pored over the videotape of the murals theft, scouring it for possible clues.

Meanwhile, Kuwayama said a few days ago she e-mailed yet another appeal to Côte À Coast owner Wu to return the “Love Power” mural, but is still waiting to hear back.

She’s hoping the artwork’s message of love gets through to him and that he agrees to do the right thing. 

“I think it’s up to the artists now,” she said. “I feel I’ve done all I can to help and to try to see if David Wu can understand that he is taking an artist’s work that doesn’t necessarily belong to him.”

She’s also awaiting word from Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, hoping they will help sort things out.

The theft and “kidnaping” of some of the murals is a downer for Downtown art projects that were all about uplift during a moment of both local and national crisis. 

“It’s such a wrong thing to do at a time like this,” Kuwayama said. “It’s a really awful, greedy thing to do.”

6 Comments

  1. JackDog JackDog July 26, 2020

    Freebie is as freebie does. Implications gratuitous.

  2. John zee John zee July 26, 2020

    I have a question for the artist that painted on plywood that was securing a property that wants the plywood back. What right do you have to the plywood? The landlord paid for it for the purposes of securing his property. And why does the landlord have to tell you what he wants to do with his property that you painted on? Did you have an agreement with the landlord about the painting beforehand that he’s not holding up to?

  3. Amir Diop Amir Diop July 26, 2020

    Thanks so much for this article because 6 of my paintings have been stolen from these exact guys. The police won’t do a thing about it. So if we can find where they are going, we can get them back hopefully.

  4. Lora Tenenbaum Lora Tenenbaum July 26, 2020

    I always regarded paintings like this as ephemeral…a gift of the artist to the community. I thought everybody understood that there was no “possession” of the physical artwork. That the message was the important thing. I guess I was wrong. It is so sad that there is so much anger and feelings of betrayal about something that should have been uplifting.

  5. Louis Painton Louis Painton July 27, 2020

    Some guys just painted graffiti on my car and their lawyer says now they own the car.

    Come on, you did some self-promoting art on a business storefront so you could look “woke” on your Instagram.

    Unless you had an agreement with the storeowner, it was a gift.

    There is no resale or other value to the art either. In 5 years it will be as dated as anti-Iraq War WMD graffiti. Great that you did it, but you did it on a board you knew was temporary and that you didn’t own. Offer to buy the plywood if you want it.

  6. robert robert July 28, 2020

    Hi Amir, please reach out to me about this. Would be grateful to hear what information you have about the thefts. 2 of my works were stolen, and written about in the article. My instagram is @liza_and_the_clouds

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