Public art vs. property rights: Artist and property owner face off over a mural in Wilkinsburg

Created through a community mural project, vibrant murals in Wilkinsburg depict the faces of young people and historical figures. The property owner has clashed with the artist who led the project in 2007. (Photo by Amaya Lobato-Rivas/PublicSource)

A noted muralist has objected to efforts to alter murals on a long-empty building. The dispute raises questions about the scope of a law meant to protect art.

by Betul Tuncer, PublicSource

On a Sunday around September of last year, just as Erica Givner’s husband was getting ready to throw something into a dumpster, local muralist Kyle Holbrook parked in a clearing on the side of Givner’s property. According to Givner, Holbrook had paint in the back of his truck and was preparing to “tag” a mural on the side of her building, and told her husband that they couldn’t touch his artwork without his permission. 

The encounter took place some time after Givner painted over one of Holbrook’s old murals that was on her recently renovated building at the intersection of Wood and Franklin streets in Wilkinsburg.

Coincidentally, the police happened to pass by during the encounter and helped manage the dispute. The police took Holbrook’s information down and he left, saying that the property owners will be “getting papers in the mail.” 

While the murals were painted more than a decade ago, Holbrook is citing the Visual Artists Rights Act and contending that the property owner can’t modify his murals in any way — even if it means bringing the building up to occupancy standards to provide services to the community. 

Givner received a cease and desist letter from Holbrook’s lawyer, Andrew Rozynski, in December. 

Holbrook declined to comment on the encounter with Givner’s husband or the cease and desist letter, saying it is a matter of “ongoing litigation.”

Erica Givner stands in front Vision Towards Peace, on Wood Street in Wilkinsburg on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. By the time her renovations and exterior modifications were complete, much of the original mural on 613-619 Wood St. was damaged, so Givner decided to paint a fresh coat of paint on the building. (Photo by Amaya Lobato-Rivas/PublicSource)

Addressed to Givner and her colleague Felicia Robinson, the letter notes that Holbrook has rights to the murals on 620 and 613-619 Wood St., and by “destructing” the murals, the property owners have violated the Visual Artists Rights Act [VARA]. The letter also called for a halt to any “additional destruction” and for Holbrook to receive, “monetary compensation for his emotional and reputational damage caused by your destruction, mutilation, and modification of his Murals.”

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