Home Posts The Vatican Issues A Street Art Stamp And Is Later Sued For It.
The Vatican Issues A Street Art Stamp And Is Later Sued For It.

The Vatican Issues A Street Art Stamp And Is Later Sued For It.

Alessia Babrow, a Rome street artist, glued a stylized image of Christ she had made onto a bridge near the Vatican one night in early 2019. A year later, she was surprised to learn that the Vatican had apparently used a reproduction of the image, which featured Babrow's hallmark heart emblazoned across Christ's chest, as its 2020 Easter postage stamp.

Babrow filed a lawsuit against the Vatican city-state's telecommunications office in a Rome court last month, alleging that it was wrongfully profiting from her creativity and violating the intent of her artwork. The lawsuit, which seeks nearly 130,000 euros ($160,000) in damages, claims that the Vatican never responded officially to Babrow's attempts to negotiate a settlement after she discovered it had used her image with her permission.

“I couldn’t believe it. I honestly thought it was a joke,” Babrow said in an interview with The Associated Press as he stood steps away from St. Peter’s Square. “The real shock was that you don’t expect certain things from certain organizations.”

The Vatican is home to some of the greatest artworks ever created, and it vigorously enforces its copyright over everything from the Sistine Chapel to Michelangelo's Pieta; however, the tables have now turned, and the Vatican is accused of infringing on a street artist's intellectual property rights.

According to Massimo Olivieri, the Vatican stamp office's chief, the Vatican stamp office declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did the Vatican press office.

Copyright lawyers familiar with the case say it is a significant landmark for Italy and evidence of the growing appreciation for Banksy-style street art, emphasizing that even anonymous graffiti or "guerrilla art" deserves protection from unauthorized corporate merchandising, or, in this case, church merchandising.

Massimo Sterpi, whose Rome firm has represented Banksy's Pest Control agency in copyright cases, stated that intellectual property law in much of Europe and the United States protects artists' rights even if a work was created illegally on public or private property.

People who commercialize street art without making good-faith efforts to find the artist and negotiate use of the image "do so at their own risk and peril," Sterpi said.

The artwork in question is a 35-centimeter-high (13.8-inch-high) printed picture of Christ based on a famous work by the 19th-century German painter Heinrich Hofmann, with Babrow's telltale tag: an image of a human heart with the words "JUST USE IT" written graffiti-style across it.

The work is part of Babrow's "Just Use It" series, which began in 2013 and has included similar hearts on Buddhas, the Hindu deity Ganesha, and the Virgin Mary that can be found on walls, stairwells, and bridges throughout Rome, as well as a massive version that graces palazzo scaffolding.

According to Babrow, the project's goal is to "promote the intelligence and the brain of the heart" in a holistic, non-judgmental manner. Lawyer Mauro Lanfranconi argued in the lawsuit that by appropriating the image to promote the Catholic Church, the Vatican "irrevocably distorted" Babrow's message that there are no universal truths.

According to the lawsuit, the Vatican printed an initial 80,000 stamps of the Christ at 1.15 euros each, which were still on sale at the Vatican post office last week and prominently displayed at the cashier's desk as a promotional item for sale.

Babrow claims she created the Christ image on Feb. 19, 2019, and glued it soon after to a travertine marble wall just off the main bridge leading to the Vatican, one of a dozen or so pieces of poster art she hung that night around central Rome, with her scripted initials inside the heart.

When a well-known Rome street art photographer saw it and recognized it as Babrow's work, she discovered it had been used as the Vatican stamp.

Olivieri, the Vatican's numismatic chief, told an Italian journalist that he photographed the Christ while riding his moped one day and decided to use the image for the Easter stamp in an apparent attempt to appeal to a new generation of stamp collectors.

In comments reported by the journalist in the online arts blog Artslife.com, Olivieri expressed concern that the Holy See's higher-ups would object to using a hip, graffiti-style Easter stamp.

Instead, he was quoted as saying, "the acceptance was immediate and convinced."

According to the lawsuit, Babrow's lawyers sent a registered letter and an email identifying her as the artist to the philatelic and numismatic office, but there was no written response to her request to negotiate terms of use, prompting her to sue.

“I thought they were acting in good faith, that it was true they were looking for me, as it had been written in the papers,” she explained, “but it appears that wasn’t the case because they never wanted to meet with me.”

Babrow insisted that the lawsuit was not an attack on the Catholic Church or the Vatican, but rather an attempt to protect her rights and ensure that her artwork was not used to fund things over which she had no control.

Because the commercial activity and alleged damage to Babrow occurred in Italy, copyright lawyers believe the Vatican's status as a sovereign state will not protect it from the jurisdiction of an Italian court.

The case is somewhat surprising, given the Vatican's familiarity with intellectual property rights and its eagerness to protect its own copyright over everything from the pope's words to its vast art collections.

Years ago, the Vatican's publishing house demanded royalties from journalists who wrote books reprinting Pope Benedict XVI's homilies, and the Vatican Museums has long required media covering news events in the museum to agree to hand over the copyright of their images, lest someone try to reproduce a Raphael without the pope's permission.

According to Enrico Bonadio, a professor of intellectual property law at the City Law School of the University of London, street artists can use the same protections for their own works.

“The law does not discriminate,” Bonadio said over the phone. “Copyright laws do not limit an artwork’s protection because it is in a gallery or a museum.”

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