Jason Levesque, a Virginia-based artist, was strolling through Scope Art Fair this weekend, thinking about how much he'd love to be exhibiting there, when suddenly he turned a corner to find two of his images on sale. The only problem was, they didn't have his name on them. A Miami-based artist named Josafat Miranda, Levesque quickly realized, had repainted his distinctive work with no credit. What's more, Levesque immediately found several images copied from Marie Killen, another photographer and friend of his. "I was shocked," Levesque tells Riptide.
The artist took to Facebook to call out Miranda's theft, and less than two days later, Miranda has disappeared from the Web amid a flurry of furious comments. His Wynwood gallery has pulled all of his work, cancelled his pending sales and apologized to Levesque.
(Update: Miranda has contacted Riptide, saying the controversy had "damaged his life." "I don't have a gallery. I don't have a job," he says. Click through for his full response.)
"It's such blatant disregard for another artist's talents," says Robert Fontaine, whose Wynwood-based gallery was selling Miranda's work at Scope. "I completely pulled all of his work. I don't want anything more to do with him."
Fontaine has been representing Miranda, who is also based in Miami, for about a year. Miranda painted women in distinctive profile splashed with gaudy colors, and while he hadn't sold particularly well, Fontaine says he saw talent in the young artist's work. At Scope, the Robert Fontaine Gallery presented five pieces by Miranda for sale, most for around $4,000.
But as Levesque quickly noticed, Miranda's eye-catching imagery wasn't born of his own imagination. At least five of his paintings were clear copies of Levesque and Killen's photography.
Levesque says he was "shocked" and quickly posted photos of the work to Instagram, but held off calling theft on the artist. First, he called Killen and even went to Fontaine's gallery to pick up postcard sized reproductions of Miranda's pieces.
"I'm not a very angry guy, and I'm very reluctant to pull the trigger on something like this," he says. "It's a crushing blow to an artist. I'm in no way mean or vindictive or wanting to see that happen."
But Levesque decided he needed to take a stand on Miranda's copying. So yesterday, he lined up side-by-side images of his work, Killen's photography and Miranda's paintings. Here is one of Levesque's pieces versus Miranda's:
And here are Killen's pieces:
Within hours, Fontaine's gallery got wind of the accusations. Fontaine said he didn't even bother to call Miranda to hear his side of the tale.
"There was no reason to contact him," Fontaine says. "I'm going to put his stuff in a box and he can come pick it up if he wants to."
Levesque says Miranda did send him a message yesterday. The artist apologized, but called his work a "tribute" -- an explanation that didn't sit well.
"A Beatles cover band calls themselves a Beatles cover band," he says. "Even if my name had been on there, it still would have been a problem, but he kept the source work a secret."
Levesque's posts have blown up. His initial Facebook post has attracted more than 200 comments and shares, and a Reddit post on the theft has earned almost 500 upvotes.
The one positive from the affair, Fontaine and Levesque agree, is how it demonstrates the self-policing power of the artistic community online.
"The art world polices itself, and that's what's happening here. It's great," says Fontaine. "This is someone copying another contemporary artist, another peer, someone parallel in that career tract with him. That's just ridiculous."
Levesque says that's why he ultimately decided to call out Miranda on the web. Too many artists look down on photography as a medium open to outright theft, he says.
"I know for a fact a lot of those painters don't think of the photography as art," he says. "They see it as raw material. Look as this photo, I could make it art. They don't realize everything that went into that composition, or think through what they're doing."
As for Miranda, he's all but disappeared online, with his Facebook profile erased and his gallery listing scrubbed from Fontaine's site. Riptide left a message on his cell phone to hear his side of the story, but he hasn't responded. If we hear back we'll update the post.
Levesque says he hopes Miranda learns from the experience and doesn't stop painting.
"I sent him a note back and ... told him I sincerely hope you can pick up a camera and shoot your own reference material," he says. "You have talent. Done the right way you'll have no problem. I really do hope that works out for him."
Update: In an interview with Riptide, Miranda didn't deny lifting Levesque and Killen's images off the Internet. Instead, he called his paintings "homages" to the photographs.
"I didn't steal these images," he says. "My only mistake was not giving the original artists credit. I've now spoken to them and apologized to them. We came to the agreement that I have to take everything down and destroy it, which is exactly what I'm going to do."
He said the controversy, including an outpouring of anger online, had "damaged his life."
"Now everything is all fucked up," Miranda said. "I don't have a gallery. I don't have a job. I don't have any way to make money ... Now nobody wants to buy my work, even though most of it isn't a copy of anything. I'm not a millionaire! I live in a tiny little room and people think that I'm some famous millionaire. It's not the case."
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He continued: "People are cursing me online, wishing I were dead. In my series there is no specification because it's not a projection of 'my work.' There are millions of piece of art in the world by millions of artists. Yes, I made a mistake by not giving the original artists credit, but those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. It's art."
Staff writer Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.