British street artist “Stik”, known for painting giant stick-figure images on buildings around the world has become involved in a campaign to restitute a mural he helped create in the city of Gdansk, Poland in 2011. The mural, which features a series of 53 stick figures holding hands in celebration of the local community, was painted onto two large metal shipping containers in Gdansk’s Lower Town. It was commissioned by the Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art as part of a festival of British culture funded by the city and the British Council and involved a group of young artists from the community who contributed to the creation of the work.
The work stretched 150 feet along the sides of the containers, which were said to be owned by a school in Gdansk and used to store canoes for a local sporting club. It was understood by Stik and the others involved that the school had consented to the use of the containers for the project, which was part of a general regeneration of this deprived and neglected part of the city. Stik and Laznia entered into a contract by which Stik gave a limited licence to Laznia to make use of the work for educational and promotional purposes only.
Unbeknownst to Stik, Laznia or the local artists, the containers and the mural painted on them were removed in 2014. In September 2015 a total of 46 of the original 53 stick figures from the mural were found to be held by the Lamberty Art Gallery in London. A statement on Lamberty’s website read that ‘Lamberty is a primary dealer of Stik’s work’ and that the gallery had a ‘close working relationship with the artist. All of Stik’s street works that have come into Lamberty are fully approved by the artist for sale’. Stik had permitted this statement in relation to two charity sales of street pieces made previously through the Gallery.
The next month, sixteen of the figures, cut into ten separate sections, were offered for sale by the Gallery. The sections were advertised as part of a “Stik Exhibition” and each of the pieces was offered for sale at between £10,000 and £12,000.
It was only in September that Stik learned about the whereabouts of the figures, having been tipped off by one of his clients. Stik and the other artists were incensed by the unauthorised removal and severing of the mural and by the Gallery’s subsequent attempt to profit from the sale of the unlicensed segments of the work. Stik objected to his name being used in connection with the removal of the mural, requesting that the statement on the website be taken down and that the mural be returned to Gdansk. Stik has since issued a public statement condemning the removal and the sale of the mural.
One of the Polish artists who worked on the project, known as “Miss Take”, has written an open letter to the Gallery’s owner, Andrew Lamberty, expressing her outrage at the situation. For its part, Laznia has issued a statement explaining that it was unaware of the removals and that it has informed the relevant authorities of the situation. It has also asked the Gallery for the return of the murals.
While the Lamberty Gallery agreed to alter the statement on its website, it has refused to return the mural. The Gallery released a separate statement about the dispute, claiming to have negotiated the purchase of the artwork in 2014 through a Polish agent who had dealt directly with the owner of the containers in Gdansk and orchestrated the removal from the street. The Polish news site TVP reports that the containers belonged to a man named Bogdan Iwaniak who sold them to the agent for the equivalent of USD 4,600.
In fact, Stik has suggested that this amount is roughly the price of two new shipping containers, making it unlikely that these were sold as artworks, adding that the appearance of an apparent endorsement on the Gallery’s website could have given the impression that the Gallery was acting on Stik’s behalf. Stik has also expressed surprise that during the year in which Lamberty was in possession of the figures, Lamberty never brought his acquisition to Stik’s attention, despite the fact that the two parties had had several other direct transactions during that time.
The Gallery has offered to return the mural figures that had been co-created with the local artists (while keeping the works created solely by Stik), in exchange for Stik’s authentication of those works that the Gallery keeps. Stik has rejected this proposal and continues to refuse to authenticate any of the Gdansk mural pieces in the Gallery on the grounds that the pieces have been cut up without his approval, the money is not going to the local community and the removal is being investigated by the authorities in Poland.
Lamberty has also threatened Laznia with legal action, accusing the community arts centre of libel and damage to reputation for reporting the situation to the authorities and to the press.
Three pieces of the mural have since been photographed in London’s Bankrobber Gallery. Meanwhile, Stik has offered to return to Gdansk to help reassemble and renovate the mural once it is returned to the city.
It is clear from the facts that the artists have a strong moral claim to demand the return. Legally, however, there may be an initial stumbling block. There was no written agreement in place with the owner of the containers when the project commenced. While the owner had supposedly allowed the painting of the mural, there is no suggestion that he had been contractually forbidden from selling any part of his property. As such, from a physical property-based perspective, title to the containers (though not necessarily to the artworks themselves) could have, in theory, passed to the end purchaser, Lamberty.
But the situation is different regarding the intellectual property rights. Stik and the local artists are the indisputable ‘authors’ of the work and would therefore benefit from the moral rights associated with the work as a whole. Under UK law, moral rights include the right to object to derogatory treatment, which is any treatment that mutilates or distorts a work or that is otherwise prejudicial to the authors’ honour or reputation. The splitting up of a continuous frieze into makeshift panels is an obvious example of both distortion and mutilation. This is especially so when the hands of certain figures, intended as symbols of solidarity, have been cut apart.
The treatment is also a direct attack on Stik’s reputation. He is an artist known for his support of local communities and his refusal to authorise or personally accept proceeds from the sale of works intended for charity. The statement on Lamberty’s website that ‘all of Stik’s street works that come into Lamberty are fully approved by the artist for sale’ created the illusion that the artist was complicit in the removal, and the subsequent offering for sale, of the mural. As a result, Stik’s reputation has been seriously undermined.
In France, where moral rights reign supreme, an artist who had decorated a fridge in his idiosyncratic style was able to assert those rights after it had been subsequently taken apart and sold as separate parts (a door, a top, a side, etc.). While the UK has had a lukewarm relationship with moral rights since their introduction into British law in 1989, there is a good chance that the activities undertaken by the Lamberty Gallery in this particular case are the type of actions intended to be covered by the moral rights regime. But whether such an argument will go all the way to court is another matter entirely.
Nevertheless, we will keep an eye on the situation and will report on any new developments in the brewing dispute. Watch this space.
The author would like to thank Stik for giving a fascinating presentation on this dispute at the IAL study forum of 28 November 2015 in London, for providing additional information used in the preparation of this blog post and for providing the photographs used in the piece. All photographs ‘c/o Stik’ are licensed CC BY-SA-ND-NC, but note the possibility that other copyright holders may need to be contacted.