The Art of the Steal

Justin Giarla on the phone during DYoungV's show 'The New Race' at White Walls, Jan. 2013. (Photo by Tommy Babbit)

In 2010, when Boston-based painter Jessica Hess got a phone call from San Francisco's White Walls gallery asking her to be part of a two-person show, she thought she'd finally gotten her big break.

"I remember being in high school with a Juxtapoz magazine tucked inside my history book," says Hess. "And White Walls seemed like it was the coolest thing. That's where I wanted to be."

Justin Giarla opened White Walls in the Tenderloin in 2004, next door to his existing space, Shooting Gallery, which opened in 2003. By 2010, when Hess received her call, both spaces had a reputation for showing graffiti and street art from some of the most established artists in the field, including Shepard Fairey, Blek le Rat, and ROA. For Hess, a show at White Walls was an incredible opportunity.

Jessica Hess and Justin Giarla during install of 'It Finds You' at White Walls.
Jessica Hess and Justin Giarla during install of 'It Finds You' at White Walls. (Photo by Shaun Roberts)

She quickly moved to San Francisco, where her two-person show with Kevin Cyr was a success. Giarla offered to represent her, and Hess accepted, scheduling her first solo show at White Walls for 2011.

But after a costly move across the country, Hess struggled to make art and ends meet. In danger of eviction, she told Giarla she was considering taking a part-time job to cover her expenses.

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"He said, ‘Please don't get a job -- I'm going to give you $1,200 on good faith and you can put that towards rent. Please keep making work for the show,’" Hess remembers.

Her solo show, It Finds You, was another success. Over the next month, she visited the gallery on a weekly basis to keep track of paintings sold. By her count, sales amounted to $22,000 -- half of which she was owed, according to the gallery’s split with artists.

Jessica Hess and Spencer Keeton Cunningham installing of 'It Finds You' at White Walls.
Jessica Hess and Spencer Keeton Cunningham installing of 'It Finds You' at White Walls. (Photo by Shaun Roberts)

Thirty days after her exhibition’s close, Hess asked Giarla for her check. He informed her that once he subtracted her $1,200 advance, the framing costs, and the discounts he had given to collectors on the sales, she was owed $1,500.

"Discounts of 20 to 25 percent were offered up," says Hess. "By contract, and with every gallery I've ever worked with, if a discount is going to be given over 10 percent, you need the artist's permission, and it was too late for that. And he was tough. He said, ‘Do you want the money or not?’"

Upset, Hess left the gallery without payment. She sent Giarla several follow-up emails and made phone calls, all of which went unanswered. That weekend, two of her friends pulled all of her unsold art out of the gallery while she waited on the sidewalk, shaking.

It took a 2012 court decision in her favor, several attempts at levying Giarla's bank accounts, a lien against his property, and a total of five years before Hess would ever see the $8,355 owed to her.

Install image from Jessica Hess' show 'It Finds You,' Sept. 3-24, 2011 at White Walls.
Install image from Jessica Hess' show 'It Finds You,' Sept. 3-24, 2011 at White Walls. (Courtesy of the artist)

'I am so sorry for what happened to you'

In February of 2016, White Walls and Shooting Gallery hosted their last shows before Giarla put the building housing the galleries -- 886 Geary -- on the market. It sold for $3,333,250 in July 2016.

Shortly thereafter, Ken Harman, director of the Tenderloin's nearby Hashimoto Contemporary Gallery, posted publicly on Facebook: "For years, Justin Giarla stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from artists who consigned works to Giarla's gallery, White Walls / Shooting Gallery... To every artist, employee, and friend who was ripped off or hurt by these two, I am so sorry for what happened to you."

As of Nov. 23, Harman’s post has over 1,000 shares and 540 comments. Well-known artists like David Soukup, Jonathan Darby, and Jason D'Aquino responded with stories of their own struggles to get payment from Giarla for sales at both White Walls and Shooting Gallery. According to one commenter, a class-action lawsuit against Giarla may be in the works.

When asked what prompted him to speak out, Harman says, "This is something that has been weighing on me pretty heavily for a few years now."

View of 886 Geary from the street.
View of 886 Geary from the street. (Image from realtor.com)

What pushed Harman over the edge was a Facebook post by Giarla’s girlfriend, Helen Bayly, after the sale of 886 Geary. "The post basically read, we are in our brand new car, we're leaving San Francisco, and we're going up to Portland to buy a house and we're going to miss you San Francisco," Harman says.

To Harman, the post by Bayly -- who did not respond to KQED's email seeking comment -- felt like a slap in the face to the Bay Area art scene. He thought of Jessica Hess, whose work he now represents, and the dozens of other artists who have made allegations against Giarla.

"If these allegations are true, then that brand-new car is being paid for by some artist's money who never got paid -- or some collector whose money you've taken and not given the work to. Or even worse, some nonprofit that you accepted donations for, but never gave them to,” Harman says. “And seeing that, turning it into a joyous occasion, just really rubbed me the wrong way."

In a public Facebook post responding to Harman, Giarla took offense at Harman's inclusion of Bayly in his statements, asserting at length that she had done nothing wrong and that she was a good person. He did not, however, deny any wrongdoing of his own. At one point, Giarla alluded to the "financial debt" he incurred at White Walls, and told Harman, "If you wanna be mad... be mad it me" [sic].

KQED reached out to Giarla for comment multiple times: by email on three separate occasions, as well as via social media and the last listed phone number for Shooting Gallery. Giarla did not respond.

Install image from Jessica Hess' show 'It Finds You,' Sept. 3-24, 2011 at White Walls.
Install image from Jessica Hess' show 'It Finds You,' Sept. 3-24, 2011 at White Walls. (Courtesy of the artist)

'Nobody wanted to believe the rumors'

When street artist David Young V, also known as DYoungV, saw Harman's post about Giarla, it inspired him to go public with his own story. "It’s been public knowledge that Justin has been either stealing from or attempting to steal from artists for years,” DYoungV wrote in a public Facebook post. “Yet artists heard all the warnings and continued to work with him anyway. It’s almost like nobody wanted to believe the ‘rumors’ until it actually happened to them."

DYoungV wrote from personal experience. Through his four shows with Giarla, in both a smaller project space and main gallery solo shows, he developed a professional and borderline friendly relationship with the gallerist. But as early as 2011, when he had his first major show with Giarla, DYoungV says there were issues around transparency and money.

"After my first solo show at White Walls Gallery, he was extremely unclear about how much money I had made,” DYoung V says. “He would be like, ‘I discounted a bunch of your pieces for 15 percent’ and he basically gave away one of my pieces for free."

Installation view of DYoungV's 'The New Race' at White Walls.
Installation view of DYoungV's 'The New Race' at White Walls. (Photo by Rachel Ralph)

While the piece in question was given to a videographer friend of DYoungV’s in exchange for help documenting the exhibition’s opening, "gifting" an artist's work without consulting the artist is a highly irregular move for a gallery -- a breach of trust at the very least. After that, DYoungV spoke with Giarla about the discount and sales terms he was and wasn't comfortable with.

Despite the experience, DYoungV agreed to do another show with Giarla in 2013 -- when a portent of Giarla's financial troubles arrived.

"While my show was up, all of the electricity goes out in the building. It was a show that I had spent a year on,” he says. “I had people coming in to see it."

DYoungV says Giarla received a 48-hour eviction notice at the gallery, and without telling him or the other artist showing in the upstairs space, Giarla’s staff cleared out all of the art and moved it to his new space at 886 Geary.

Installation view of DYoungV's 'The New Race' at White Walls.
Installation view of DYoungV's 'The New Race' at White Walls. (Photo by Tommy Babbit)

"They were in such a rush to get to the new space that very little effort was made to preserve the artwork they were moving,” DYoungV says. “I had these sculptures that were replicas of rifles that I had painted. And what I'm told by the staff is that another artist's son came in and he was playing with my sculptures like toy guns."

DYoungV confronted Giarla and ended their working relationship, removing all his work from White Walls over the course of several months. But if DYoungV wasn’t the first artist to experience unprofessional treatment at the hands of Giarla, according to reports, he also wasn’t the last.

'We have never seen any of that money'

Samantha Robison founded the nonprofit Awareness & Prevention Through Art (aptART) in 2011. aptART provides art workshops for those who live in conflict-affected areas across the globe, to give those who have experienced war first-hand an opportunity to express themselves through street art. Robison partnered with artist Jonathan Darby to raise money for aptART based on a percentage of sales from his 2012 White Walls exhibition, CONGO.


“We have never seen any of that money," Robison says. To her knowledge, Darby was never paid in full for his work.

Robison says she tried to get in contact with Giarla numerous times after the show. "He didn't tell me how much was sold, and he wouldn't respond to me,” she says. “And he'd accepted donations on behalf of our charity."

When asked if she sought other methods of legally collecting money from Giarla, Robison says, "I don't think we'd get much out of it, and it would be a huge legal battle. I'd honestly rather spend my time working with the charity and doing work with youth than chasing Justin around."

Is it really that difficult for artists to recoup what they’re legally owed? M.J. Bogatin is vice president of California Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit that provides legal services to artists and members of the creative arts community. "What we see more often than not is slow payment,” he says, “not so much non-payment."

Justin Giarla (seated) in DYoungV's show 'The New Race' at White Walls, Jan. 2013.
Justin Giarla (seated) in DYoungV's show 'The New Race' at White Walls, Jan. 2013. (Photo by Tommy Babbit)

"It takes months and months to collect the money on a sale, when in fact, there's an artist-dealer statute in California that creates a higher standard for galleries and agents who take things under consignment," Bogatin says. "There are a number of things that White Walls did and a number of galleries do that violate those terms."

Bogatin says he deals with cases concerning late payment of artists regularly, but he usually uses the statute to collect payment for amounts due to artists fairly quickly.

Bogatin explains that if gallerists do not pay within a month of selling a piece, "You have a claim that is a breach of those duties [by the artist-dealer statute] and you can pursue punitive damages, as well as the loss of commissions, sales, and proceeds that you're due."

Jessica Hess during install of 'It Finds You' at White Walls.
Jessica Hess during install of 'It Finds You' at White Walls. (Photo by Shaun Roberts)

Learning from White Walls

Jessica Hess, DYoungV and Samantha Robison are just three of the many artists and nonprofits who claim Giarla withheld money owed to them. Other commenters on Ken Harman's Facebook post say they experienced eviction, homelessness, or were forced to leave San Francisco as a result of nonpayment.

And while artists are not to blame for their own mistreatment, what DYoungV remembers most from his ordeal is being warned by Hess about Giarla’s track record with artists. Even though he believed her, he made the choice to show for a second time with Giarla.

DYoungV and Jessica Hess at White Walls.
DYoungV and Jessica Hess at White Walls. (Photo by Shaun Roberts)

"When offered the promise of exposure, career opportunities and the potential of financial gain," DYoungV wrote on Facebook, even artists like himself "will often bend over backwards."

Shows at White Walls and Shooting Gallery garnered coverage in publications like Juxtapoz, SF Weekly, Hi-Fructose and even KQED Arts. Giarla actually sold work.

"Artists can be extremely hard working people," DYoungV wrote, "but also very naive."

After she won her court case against Giarla in 2012, Hess says, "I was an outcast. Everyone was still believing Giarla. It didn't matter that it happened to me. Nobody listened to me. I wrote to all his staff, I contacted other artists."

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Even with her lawsuit settled, Hess won't soon forget others' complacency about Giarla. "Everybody was like, 'Well, I'm really sorry that happened to you. But I'm still showing with him, because it hasn't happened to me yet.'"

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