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Chicago artist Chris Devin’s plagiarized art in the South Shore mural of Michelle Obama. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Watson.)

Chicago artist Chris Devin’s plagiarized art in the South Shore mural of Michelle Obama. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Watson.)

By Dominika Chruszcz, Assistant News Editor

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Admiring various works of art is one thing, but infringing on the copyright of an artist’s original work is another. Plagiarism can not only encompass a copied paragraph in an English essay but it can also be a reality in the art world.

Gelila Mesfin, an art student located in New York, created a digital portrait showing Michelle Obama off in a depiction of an Egyptian goddess. According to the Chicago Tribune, her artwork has been featured in November on her Instagram account. Five months later on April 21, 2017, Chicago artist Chris Devins came under fire for a painting in the South Shore neighborhood that strongly resembled Mesfin’s.

Devins started a GoFundMe page to raise at least $5,000 for a mural project of the former first lady at Bouchet Elementary, which is where Michelle Obama went to grade school. According to the Chicago Tribune, Devins appeared to “have profited off the project,” raising over $12,000. The Chicago artist hasn’t given any credit to Mesfin and word has gotten around to the original artist herself.

Mesfin has acknowledged that she was disheartened to hear this news.

“There’s a common code among all artists that you can get inspired by someone’s work but you have to pay homage and you have to give credit for it,” she told the Washington Post.

Plagiarism Today, a site about content theft, acknowledges plagiarism as something that can be defined by taking the original work of someone and using it as your own. The site acknowledged copyright infringement as “any infringement up on the rights of a copyright holder.” Copyright infringement matters more in terms of law where plagiarism has to do with ethics.

Ms. Wain, AP Art History and painting teacher, addresses plagiarism with her art classes at the beginning of each school year. This is because of an incident that happened with one of her own students regarding copying a familiar composition. She expressed her opinion on the Michelle Obama mural as well.

“I would say if [the Chicago artist] had still done the theme of Michelle Obama as an Egyptian goddess but in a different arrangement, like a different profile or included more of her body not just kind of the head shot, people wouldn’t have commented,” Wain said.

Muralist Alexander Pastor, who goes by the street name of C3PO, had personal experience with plagiarism within his company, Momentum Art Tech,. which provides art, supplies, and job opportunities to prospective artists. Their own muralists had their pieces stolen.

“We actually have had a few times where people have plagiarized or just right out stolen our artwork,” Pastor said. “We’ve had to send a couple cease/stop orders — basically a fancy word for saying that if they don’t compensate us then we’re going to sue them.”

Pastor said that artists can protect themselves from plagiarism through a multitude of avenues. He said that keeping the original source material can show a “proof of concept” which serves as evidence of a design.

“They can take measures where they fill out an application with the United States Federal Government and copyright their artwork or a picture or whatever it is they want to copyright,” Pastor said. “On a more legal stance, that is what will protect you more than just having a picture of your drawing.”

Eleanor McQueeny, Div. 766, said that she tries to make paintings, photos, or sculptures that explain a situation she’s been in. To get something off her chest, she said that she makes art in a way that’s not too revealing of its exact meaning.  

She said that plagiarism can be avoided by simply crediting the artist responsible for the artwork. However in a world bombarded by images and words, she said that it is impossible to create something purely original.

“If [the artwork] is not yours, there is no triumph in presenting it as such because you are disrespecting a fellow human being,” McQueeny said. “Even more simply put, if it is not your idea to begin with, it will never be and there is no amount of acting that can convince people otherwise.”

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