Wynwood Artists File a Lawsuit Against Rich Wilkerson Jr.'s Church for Unlawful Use of Their Artwork

Rich Wilkerson Jr. is making headlines again after a group of artists is suing his church, Vous, for copyright infringement.
Rich Wilkerson Jr. is making headlines again after a group of artists is suing his church, Vous, for copyright infringement.
Photo by Stian Roenning

Becoming a viral sensation after marrying America's royal couple, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, May 24, 2014, Rich Wilkerson Jr. quickly rose to stardom. Dubbed "the hipster pastor," Wilkerson made headlines. "The Pastor That Married Kim and Kanye Is Super Hot," Buzzfeed wrote, while TMZ claimed, "A Star Rises From the Kimye Wedding."

Now Wilkerson is making headlines for a different reason.

Eight well-known local artists — Magnus Sodamin, Martin Whatson, Santiago Rubino, Joshua Santos Rivera (Bikismo), Derek Kanterman (Derek Hunter), Michael Andrew Gran (Typoe), Luis Berros, and David Anasagasti (AholSniffsGlue) — have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court after Vous Church, the hip, millennial-driven branch of Wilkerson's family's Trinity Church, used photos of their artwork in advertisements for the new Wynwood branch. News of the legal battle broke in October, but the lawsuit was formally filed this past Wednesday, January 6, as first reported by TMZ.

In November 2014, Robert de los Rios of WynwoodMap.com spearheaded a project with Jose de Diego Middle School in Wynwood to beautify the campus as well as raise awareness — and funds — for the arts at the school. The artworks are the result of a coalition of nonprofits, organizations, corporate partners, local businesses, artists, musicians, and JDD staff and administration, brought together by the Wynwood Arts District Association in partnership with WynwoodMap.com.

Vous Church advertising featuring the work of Magnus Sodamin.
Vous Church advertising featuring the work of Magnus Sodamin.

Vous Church, which rents the auditorium at the middle school for Sunday services, launched an advertising campaign in July 2015 that used images of the artwork found on the walls of JDD. None of the artists was contacted for permission.

"What happened is that [Vous Church] used images of artists from the middle school and never once reached out to anyone — not me, who organized the whole project, not the principal of the school, not any of the artists — not anyone," de los Rios says. "The only time they reached out was after they were called out on the usage.

"The point is that no one reached out, ever."

The lawsuit backs up the claim and states that school officials informed Trinity it needed permission before using the artwork but that the church never made an attempt.

"One big issue is the mistaken belief that works that are publicly visible or publicly displayed are somehow in the public domain. This is simply incorrect," says Andrew Gerber of Kushnirsky Gerber, the law firm representing the eight artists in the lawsuit. "Just because something is visible to the public or posted publicly online does not mean that it is in the public domain or that the creator of that work has waived any intellectual property rights."

(By the way, Gerber also represented AholSniffsGlue in the highly publicized legal battle between the artist and American Eagle Outfitters, which originated when the retailer used Ahol's murals as a backdrop for a national campaign without his permission. That case was settled for an undisclosed sum.)

Vous Church advertising featuring the work of Martin Whatson (left) and AholSniffsGlue.
Vous Church advertising featuring the work of Martin Whatson (left) and AholSniffsGlue.

De los Rios adds that when he tried to approach the church, he was confronted by rude and not-so-holy comments.

"[Vous] has nothing to do with the mural project or the school; it's just a third party renting out the auditorium. So when they go ahead and use the works of artists to promote their church without permission, that's not right," de los Rios explains.

According to the lawsuit filed by the artists, "The media and advertising campaign for the Vous launch made extensive use of the school murals, while placing Wynwood street art and social media outreach at the center of the marketing promotion. Indeed, the majority of the advertisements featured nothing more than the Vous logo and meeting information superimposed over the school murals."

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These murals were the "cornerstone" of the Vous launch and depicted in a light that implied the artists were promoting the church.

Flipping the coin on its head, de los Rios says, "It is as if I were to use their Vous logo [without permission] to promote my own personal things — they wouldn't like that."

The lawsuit also mentions how Trinity Church "committed substantial financial resources to the launch of the Vous brand" and "sought to raise $300,000 for the purchase of high-end production equipment." So if they are spending money on advertising and high-end equipment, why did they not see fit to pay the artists to use their works?

Exterior of Jose de Diego Middle School, featuring a mural by Magnus Sodamin.EXPAND
Exterior of Jose de Diego Middle School, featuring a mural by Magnus Sodamin.
Photo by Shelly Davidov

And Wilkerson isn't exactly living the pauper lifestyle often associated with the people who dedicate their lives to serving the Lord. He and his wife, DawnCheré Wilkerson, live in a "penthouse duplex luxury apartment in Miami, complete with outdoor terraces and rooftop pool," according to the lawsuit. He also released a book, Sandcastle Kings: Meeting Jesus in a Spiritually Bankrupt World, complete with a Kanye-designed cover, in November. And Wilkerson and his wife star on the Oxygen reality show Rich in Faith, which is halfway through its first season.

Moreover, Trinity Church owns property in North Miami and Miami Gardens with a combined value of $10.8 million, and Wilkerson's parents — Rich Wilkerson Sr. and Robyn Wilkerson — own a 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home in the posh area of Golden Beach.

"[What the church is doing is] taking from a project that is there for the kids, whose purpose is to raise money for the school," de los Rios says. "And not a single dollar [from the church] has gone to the school. Nothing."

Yet even if Wilkerson and his team would have reached out for permission, the lawsuit clearly states — and de los Rios reiterates — that the artists would not have given their consent. One of the artists was recently approached and offered a large sum of money to have his school mural used in a campaign, and he declined.

"The hope here is that when this ends — in whichever way it ends — things go back to normal and in the future things are done correctly. I hope that in the future, if any organization wants to use someone else's work, you talk to that person first and ask for permission," de los Rios says. "You reach out to the people who created the work, because after all, to these artists, their work is like their children, and you need to make sure you take care of it."

Since the lawsuit was filed, the artists are not at liberty to comment for this story. Vous Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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