Who controls the fate of a mural decades after its painted? What happens if the building’s renter completely covers it with white paint, but only after the art has been badly tagged by graffiti?
The answers to those questions may be provided by a federal court if muralist Dan Fontes has his way. Fontes is seeking $400,000 in damages from the current and former operators of Autocom Nissan at Broadway and 27th Streets in Oakland.
Fontes finished painting the mural in 1987, after receiving a $35,000 commission. It was eye-catching. Almost 90 feet long and more than 20 feet tall, the piece showed an idyllic Oakland landscape—puffy clouds in a blue sky, reflected in a blue Lake Merritt, ruffled by the wind.
“This is Dan Fontes' baby,” said intellectual property attorney Brooke Oliver, who represents Fontes in the lawsuit. “It’s his best work. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone can look at a piece of art like that and just want to paint it out.”
Oliver argues that when the dealership painted over the mural in 2013, they violated the U.S. Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA), a law dating back to 1990. Among other things, the law requires a building owner to give an artist a 90-day notice before the mural is removed or painted over, so the artist can take back or at least document the work.