I finished my series of 200 marker portraits in March. I’ve imagined the end of this project many times. It turns out this series is incomparable to any previous work I’ve done. When a play ends the production disappears, and the experience is all that remains after strike when the stage is laid bare before cast and crew. With this series, there’s no retirement of the work created: it remains as visible as ever. Then there’s the fact that I’m still completing commissions in this style, so in some ways it feels like “finishing” didn’t actually change anything. I always find it hard to know when to stop when drawing. When I drew number 200, a portrait of my mother, the mystery of when to stop felt almost impossible. I kept thinking “is this it?”.
I was unsure if commissions would keep coming in, when I reached 200 portraits and raised my prices. I thought perhaps I’d move on to a new medium, with an occasional marker portrait here or there. However, business has only increased. I have two exhibits running right now: one at Studio Morey (Oakland) and the other at Flying Goat Cafe (Healdsburg). I feel my childhood dreams growing up very fast. I’m stunned that I am being sought out and paid to do Art. What an incredible dream, and how incredibly fortunate that I have the resources and tools to make it come to fruition.
That being said, these successes have not been without their lessons. I’ve been learning some hard but important lessons about being an artist and protecting your work. The following are two stories that illustrate them and what I’m taking away from them.
Story A (Lil B):Trust Your Instincts (And Never Send Un-Watermarked Images)
I was commissioned by the brilliant author and teacher Holly Hardy, to do a portrait of Lil B (Bay Area rap artist) for the cover of an issue of BCC voice (Berkeley City Colleges Magazine) which my work was to be featured in (issue here). Lil B, known as the base god, is a well known artist in the Bay Area with a decent following. Lil B was difficult to work and communicate with and rescheduled our shoot multiple times, sometimes within the hour. Because his portrait was already a rush job, this was very stressful. Others working on his feature had a similar experience. I wanted to call it off, but was advised to stay engaged with this great opportunity.
2. Never send un-watermarked images
We finally met at a starbucks about 40 minutes from my house. He was a half hour late, but relatively relatable in person. While I photographed Lil B, we talked about his career and I asked for some advice as someone just beginning to make a living in art. He said to just keep doing what I’m doing and sometimes you “have to do these collaborations”.
I told him that if he liked the work I would love it if he posted it when it was drawn, but to make sure to link to me. He agreed saying I didn’t even need to say it and “he knows all about how it is”. I spent the next three days (including my birthday) perfecting Lil B’s cover portrait, also completing two secondary more stylized drawings, as I knew there might be high exposure, should he choose to post my work. When I sent him the images he responded very positively and expressed interest in buying the work.
He also requested un-watermarked versions.
Since we had an explicit conversation about the importance of exposure and social media crediting, I sent him the images. Two weeks later, I discovered all three of my drawings had been posted to Lil B’s instagram and twitter buried under a feed of pictures of his private messages with women.
He had not linked to me, or credited me in any way, nor had he responded to any of the comments requesting information about the artist. Instead, he tagged himself and captioned the un-watermarked drawings “collect the photo and save”, distributing my work to thousands of people.
- Know your rights as an artist
I was upset, but thought it could have been an honest mistake and texted Lil B letting him know I needed to be credited, but received no response. I went through and responded to all the people asking who the artist was saying that Lil B had posted these images without credit, violating our verbal agreement and my rights and hopefully Lil B would remedy the situation without legal involvement. Multimedia artist Willow Germs immediately researched my Creative Commons license and a bunch of the other legalities of social media. The creator of my Etsy store, Yael McCue (@YancyQ) who has a business providing artists with affordable tech support, sent me a list of IP (intellectual property) lawyers and rallied allies via social media to hold Lil B accountable and comment on the uncredited posts. Other friends also spoke out
After giving Lil B a weekend to respond, I spoke to Don Morey, whose gallery, Studio Morey, has kept an ongoing exhibit of my work for the past 6 months. Don is basically an Art Law textbook and he informed me of a lot of rights that I didn’t know I had.
My request was for Lil B to delete the initial post and simply repost the images with appropriate credit. Horrified, Holly Hardy who commissioned the initial portrait, offered to reach out and help negotiate. Her communication with Lil B was disturbing. I’ve never seen someone with a true “god complex” but now can see how sick someone can be with this disorder. It became very clear that Lil B has routinely posted other people’s professional photography, but never credits the artist. In his world there is only him, and the fact that he could help an artist at no cost to himself is no incentive. It gives him a funny persona but when you see that that’s who he is, it’s sad. It’s as if he could not grasp another artist’s experience even put in simple terms like: It’s the same copyright issue as someone posting your music without your name on it. Instead of posting them with credit he deleted the posts, though Hardy explained to him that deleting them doesn’t fix the issue as the digital image has already been distributed.
For another week, I anxiously planned to sue Lil B. Then I decided I needed to disengage. Some folks really are not worth interacting with. A lawsuit would be taking energy from what I really want to do: art. The only lesson that stood to be learned from pursuing that course was one for Lil B. I learned my lessons from the experience. So why would I invest in his? I felt the angry energy bashing around inside me making it hard to focus. Instead of investing in that, I accept that I need to be better at educating subjects about their rights and mine (and have every subject sign a clear contract), and I’m asking my community to hold Lil B accountable and not to support his work.
Story B (Always roll up your windows, lock all doors and unload your equipment)
I use my camera and three lenses frequently and often keep them with me in my car. Last week this equipment was stolen from my trunk in the night, while it was parked outside of my house. The great news is that I’ve been on top of uploading my commission shoots, so all of my paid work was on my computer. The last shoot that was on the camera was of my partner, Ryan. It feels so invasive to think of a stranger looking at his face. The canon t2i and wide lens are the most expensive things I own. I paid for them myself with many long hours of waiting tables, and they have completely changed my life. They were my first investment in my artistic work. The other two lenses were my last two years of birthday presents from my step dad, Dan and my mom. Beyond what this equipment represents sentimentally, I use them constantly. My portraiture series is completely dependent on them.
I’ve put up fliers around the neighborhood, but I know that I’m probably going to need to let go of those materials and that data. All I can say is that it’s going to be alright and I will figure this out. The last time my car was robbed, the thief smashed my car window and took an ipod that was visible. That’s when I learned never to leave anything, even a small thing visible. I had resented myself for locking the door on that night because I then had to replace the window. On the night my photography equipment was stolen, my passenger window was cracked and one of the doors was unlocked, so now I’ve learned two new lessons: Always roll up your windows and lock all doors even if you are parked at your house. Always unload your equipment, even if it’s in the trunk, not visible. The lessons are expensive ones, but now I know and can grieve these precious tools and move forward. It may just be time for new investments in new tools.
My painting partner, Napoleon, says: When you start to have something good, that’s when people steal from you. Unfortunately, that’s been true in this case. Fortunately, the things that ultimately matter can’t be stolen. No one can take my ability to innovate, adapt, create, and rebuild.