Jason Levesque, a Virginia-based artist, was strolling through the Scope art fair earlier this month, thinking about how much he'd love to be exhibiting, when suddenly he turned a corner to find two of his images on sale. The only problem: 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. "I was shocked," Levesque said.
The artist soon took to Facebook to call out Miranda's theft, forcing the artist to disappear from the web amid a flurry of furious comments. The gallery showing Miranda's pieces, meanwhile, pulled all of his work, cancelled his sales, and apologized to Levesque.
"It's such blatant disregard for another artist's talents," said Robert Fontaine, whose Wynwood-based gallery was unwittingly selling the knockoffs during Scope. "I completely pulled all of his work. I don't want anything more to do with him."
Not that Miranda believes he has done much wrong. Though he apologized, he also defended himself to Riptide. "I didn't steal these images," he said. "My only mistake was not giving the original artists credit."
Fontaine had been selling the Miami-based artist's work for about a year. Miranda's paintings of women in distinctive profile hadn't sold particularly well, but Fontaine saw talent in the young artist's work. During Scope, his gallery presented five pieces by Miranda, most selling 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 held off calling theft on the artist. First, he phoned Killen and even went to Fontaine's gallery to pick up postcard-size 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 on Facebook, he lined up side-by-side images of his work, Killen's photography, and Miranda's paintings.
As the post garnered hundreds of shares on Facebook and Reddit, Fontaine caught wind of the accusations. The gallery owner says he didn't even bother to call Miranda. "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 himself got in contact to apologize, though he defended his work as a "tribute" — an explanation that didn't sit well.
"A Beatles cover band calls themselves a Beatles cover band," Levesque says. "Even if my name had been on there, it still would have been a problem, but he kept the source work a secret."
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Yet Miranda also echoed that rationale to Riptide while complaining that the accusations have "fucked up" his life.
"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," he said. "People are cursing me online, wishing I were dead... 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."
Levesque, for one, says he hopes Miranda can recover. "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."
Staff writer Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.