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Obama Muralist Accused Of Stealing Art Says He Gave Artist 'Free Publicity'

 Gelila Mesfin (top inset) created an image of Michelle Obama that Chris Devins (bottom inset) used to create this mural on a South Side building.
Gelila Mesfin (top inset) created an image of Michelle Obama that Chris Devins (bottom inset) used to create this mural on a South Side building.
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DNAinfo/Andrea Watson; Instagram; Facebook

SOUTH SHORE — A local artist and urban planner who erected a mural of Michelle Obama is firing back after he was accused of stealing another artist's work, saying the controversy has helped the woman gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in free publicity and said she doesn't have grounds to sue because her art is based on someone else's photo.

Chris Devins of Hyde Park was criticized after news of his mural appeared online Friday, because the mural is virtually identical to an image Ethiopian-born artist Gelila Mesfin made last fall. Devins raised nearly $12,000 through a GoFundMe campaign in November to create the mural outside of Bouchet Elementary School— two blocks from the former first lady's childhood home at 7436 S. Euclid Ave.

The mural portrays the former first lady as an Egyptian queen — a digital image created by Mesfin, who posted a photo of the work to her Instagram account, @Thick_East_African_Girl, in November. In October she credited photographer Collier Schorr for the original photo.

Devins said Monday that Mesfin “has no legal grounds to stand on for copyright infringement.”

“Her work is itself considered a derivative work of the original photographer,” he said. “She herself appropriated Ms. Schoor's image and ‘digitally painted’ over it. You can’t appropriate a bike then sue someone for riding it.”

He said that usually he uses free and clear images from WikiCommons or the Library of Congress when he does murals in his role as an urban planner and not an artist. Otherwise, “when I am acting in my capacity as an artist, I take original photos,” he said.

Neither Mesfin nor her attorney responded to requests for comment Monday. But Mesfin told the Washington Post she felt “disheartened” when Devins used her work as his own.

“There’s a common code among all artists that you can get inspired by someone’s work but you have to pay homage and you have to give credit for it,” she told the Post. She previously asked her followers to remain positive in their treatment of Devins.

Both artists over the weekend said they were trying to resolve the dispute amicably.

But Devins on Monday said that he had yet to speak with  Mesfin, who lives in Rhode Island.

“I have never actually talked to Gelila,” he said. “A friend of hers emailed me saying she wanted to talk, but instead of her talking to me, she just had that attorney send me a letter. The last thing I heard was from her attorney threatening to send Chicago lawyers on me.”

On Saturday, he said he had reached out to Mesfin offering a licensing fee. He received a letter that day from an attorney in New York representing Mesfin, he said.

"We've read your public statement and we appreciate your willingness to negotiate a licensing fee and attribute credit to Gelila," a copy of the email, forwarded by Devins, reads.

Devins said he feels “fine” about the situation.

“I gladly take the heat of millions of haters if it means that Chicago's young ladies can have a mural that inspires them to be all they can be,” Devins said in an email.

In an update to his GoFundMe page posted Monday, he added that "my original intent has been realized, the kids have a beautiful new mural too look up to. I credited Ms Mesfin immediately. [A]nd kept my promise to you donors. I understand there may be some controversy, but it has given Ms Mesfin $100,000's in free publicity. I've taken the heat and will gladly do so as long as the kids have a mural they can look up to."


In emails to DNAinfo Saturday, Devins apologized for the "misunderstanding" and said that his mural was inspired by Mesfin's work. "We were blown away by a wonderful image we stumbled on, and only found out after the fact who the source of our inspiration was.” He admitted: "It was sloppy."

South Shore Residents React

Neighborhood residents said they appreciated the mural but expressed sympathy with Mesfin and said they want the mural to stay.

Tony Thomas, 44, who lives in the building that has the mural on the side, said that he first noticed it Saturday and was surprised.

“It’s a nice piece of art,” he said. “It adds beauty to the property.”

Mesfin deserves to be credited, but he said he wouldn’t want to see it removed because art is for everyone to see.

“I would hope they would finish the building with some other artwork because it brings value, it brings art to the community,” he said.