Inspiration vs. Stealing - A Lesson From Chris Devins' Michelle Obama Mural Debacle

By Johnnie Ray Kornegay III | @jayrayisthename

Remixing is an important technique in artistic compositions. We see it in all forms of art from musical to visual art. The idea is simple - take a creation, make changes to it while preserving the integrity of it, then make something different. In most cases that something different becomes it's own artistic creation that can stand on it's own.

It's in this context that I find muralist Chris Devins' blatant plagiarizing of Gelila Mesfin's artistic creation of Michelle Obama so troubling.

According to the Washington Post:

"Devins said he came across Mesfin’s drawing on the sharing site Pinterest and was unable to track down the artist. He explained his decision to use the image without permission in an analogy, saying he was creating a 'remix' of a piece of art in the way that a DJ remixes songs.

All of the money, he said, went to the cost of painting the mural.

'I didn’t find out until she complained online that it was her image,” Devins said. “That’s why I didn’t give her any credit.'"

Two problems here:

  1. Remixing means that you create something new out of what's been created, while preserving the integrity and authorship of the original work. What Mr. Devins did was simply repaint the design that Ms. Mesfin created. That's not remixing.
  2. There's a clear line. If you can't determine who is responsible for doing something, you either make something new inspired by the thing that inspired you or you pick something else to do completely. Anything other than these two things call into question one's integrity.

As a creative, I care about other creatives getting their credit for anything that's going to be public facing. It's one thing to curate your Instagram with a bunch of images that you found on the internet to create a mood, it's a whole other thing to plagiarize an artistic work using a medium as public as a mural. In particular, a mural in Chicago. A mural of a Black woman from Chicago. Using an artistic work created by a Black woman.

How can you be sure your creation isn’t outright plagiarizing?

  1. Consider the source and what you plan to create yourself. You need a clear path forward for how your work will be constructed and displayed. If you find that you’re relying too heavily on the work that inspired you, take a step back, and assess if it’s actually copying.
  2. What does your tribe say about what you’re doing? If you have any feeling that you’re relying heavily on a piece of work, bring in some opinions from people who’s opinions matter to you.
  3. Probably most important, what are the distinguishable characteristics of the work you’re inspired by, and are you too closely mirroring them. If so, you may be getting close to plagiarizing.

As a creative I am often inspired by other artists' work. When I create my work, while inspired I may be, I also have to be original. Happy creating!