Artist files lawsuit over destruction of Silver Lake’s “Iguana Lady” mural

It was April of last year when The Eastsider reported that a Silver Lake mural of a wide-eyed Zapotec woman wearing a crown of iguanas had been painted over and covered with a two-story ad for Newcastle beer.  This week, the artist of that mural, Annie Sperling of Silver Lake, filed a federal lawsuit against the property owner and beer maker, claiming they had violated  federal and state laws protecting such artwork and resulted in $250,000 in damages to her mural, La Nuestra Reina de Las Iguanas, that once covered the side of a Sunset Junction building.

The defendants “acted in conscious disregard of the rights of Sperling and without taking advantage of preservation techniques that would have saved the “Our Lady of the Iguanas” mural for future enjoyment,” according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court.

Sperling asked that defendants reimburse her for damages in addition to punitive damages and also pay for the testing and possible restoration or  removal of the mural.

Spelling is being represented by attorney Eric Bjorgum, who represented muralist Kent Twitchell his successful lawsuit that resulted in a $1.1 million settlement for painting out of the artist’s “Ed Ruscha Monument” mural in downtown Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, it appears that the lessons of that case are not widely remembered,” Bjorgum said.

Sperling, who painted numerous murals across Silver Lake and Echo Park during the 1990s,  created the 1,050-square-foot “Our Lady of Iguanas” mural with the assistance of school children, some of whom still live in the neighborhood, as part of a neighborhood beautification effort, according to the lawsuit.

The Eastsider is attempting to get comment from the defendants, which include Barry Mason Enterprises, Heineken USA and AstraPacific Outdoor.


  1. Did she also file suit against the taggers who had defaced the mural prior to the beer company?

    • Good point!

      The only reason the suit is filed is because of the deep pockets of the advertiser and associated companies. Another lottery winner ladies and gents!

    • At least the tagger had the decency to place his work on the bottom left corner and not ruining the entirety of Sperling’s piece. Newcastle just entirely destroyed her piece and replaced it with some ugly advertising!

  2. nothing last forever.. get over it!!

  3. What an opportunist. She had 20 yrs of free advertising on that wall. She deserves nothing. Whether any of us prefer the hideous iguana lady to the beer ad is irrelevant. If the property owner met the city codes, and there was no contract in place with the artist, then she should go kick rocks.

  4. Regardless of how anyone feels, the building belongs to the owner, not the artist.

    We should be concentrating on taggers & gangbangers. They are the ones that bring down neighborhoods.

    And there is no shortage of walls in Los Angeles that could use a good mural or two.

  5. Hmm. Interesting lawsuit. But I have to fear it could backfire drastically, putting a major chill on public art that uses private property in Los Angeles. It basically takes the stance that once such an artwork is up, no one can do anything to it without the artist’s permission. I have to think a LOT of property owners who otherwise would offer their property for public art will now stop doing so because they will fear the restrictions it puts on them and the possible costs to them down the line for having offered free use of their property.

    In looking at the lawsuit, it is primarily a copyright violation case, claiming the artist retained the copyright to and ownership of the mural itself (not the canvas, or wall, it was on) and that the building owner violated that copyright by painting it over without notice to the artist. It claims nothing could be done to the mural without the artist’s permission. It claims the mural “could have been removed from the building without substantial physical defacement …” (I’ll take that claim of removal as fact, but wow, that is some serious technology.)

    I could expound about this at book length. But to get right to the point, I have to think that in light of such a lawsuit, any private property owner would have to be nuts to allow an artwork to be painted on their property. Under this lawsuit, that would lose the property owner the right to ever do anything with that spot again, as they would have to get the artist’s permission, and that very well might not be forthcoming. Or, they would at least have to go to some serious expense of whatever this technology is to remove and preserve a painted mural on a brick wall, as there certainly is nothing clear here that simple notice to the artist, but absent permission, would allow for destruction of the artwork without violating the copyright.

    This kind of danger to do anything even many years down the line will certainly chill any offers of free space for such artwork. I think something has to be done to protect the property owner too — gee, they have been generous and should not lose because of their generosity. I really doubt that this property owner, or most others, ever thought they would never again be able to use the space they provided for free without the artist giving permission. And now he faces a federal lawsuit demanding he pay for removing the original artwork that remains under this ad, and pay significant “damages” to the artist — all this for having been generous. (Mind you, the artist has made money off of this artwork through publication and other, but the property owner has lent the canvas for free all these years.)

    Perhaps some law is need to specifically address such artwork on private property and lay out the specific responsibilities and liabilities — and that this information must be provided in advance. Frankly, I think the one providing free use of the property should be protected from any liability, certainly once sufficient notice has been provided to the artist — if the artist wants to preserve it, it should be at the artist’s expense, and in a reasonably short time. Its just not right to undermine people who have been generous.

    • The preservation technology already exists and I can’t imagine that it’s expensive to the point where it’s prohibitive, especially if it can stave off these kind of lawsuits.

      Here’s an example of its use:

      • WRONG! That is NOT what this artist is talking about. That link you gave was merely taking paint off the top of another mural, and I presume that other mural had been protected with a coating. That is VERY different from taking the original mural off the wall!

        This artist’s suit says the original mural could have been stripped off the wall and preserved! Then the wall could have been repainted.

        That doesn’t sound the least bit cheap to me — but nonetheless, whatever the price, it should fall on the artist if she wants to preserve it, not the building owner who already have given generously.

    • You raise a good point. This blog has reported on other cases like this, so I agree, it seems like these murals can backfire.

      But, wouldn’t the problem be solved if there was a standard contract that the artist would sign with the building owner that established a term over which the work would remain up, but after that, the space could be reused?

    • Henry has got it right. The law is terrible and if she wins I can’t imagine any rational property owner would allow a mural on their building because it would present such a huge liability.

      • Henry is not right. He’s confusing a law suit, a law and a judgment. A law suit can claim anything, that has no bearing on the law until a judge has ruled.

        An owner of a building retains control over their building, but once they allow a mural to be painted on it there are guidelines for how they deal with it in the future. An owner can remove a mural, they just need to notify the artist in a certain amount of time so the artist can document or seal the mural for later restoration.

        • you’ve obviously never heard of the chilling effect.

          • I’ve heard of it, I just don’t think it merits people losing their shit over a law suit about a mural getting painted over

        • That mural is already documented and it already had been sealed. That is NOT what this lawsuit is about. This lawsuit specifically says the building owner must remove the mural from the wall and preserve it before they can do anything with their wall!

          And the simple threat of a lawsuit, and all the lawyer fees and other costs and delays associated with it, are far more than enough to chill any further gifts of wall space — regardless of who prevails. Gee, this artist alone has murals on 18 different walls around here — and I’ll bet none of those people thought that letting someone paint on their wall would get them sued if years later they wanted to paint over it. I’m sure none of them thought they were giving up their rights and taking on a bunch of responsibilities, and all for free. With this realization, few people will be willing to provide wall space.

          • Henry, you must have exhaustive knowledge of this mural to claim that it’s been documented. A mural like this has a significant lifespan and it’s appropriate to document every part of that lifespan, from it’s creation to it’s eventual removal. Just because a snapshot or a google street view image of the mural exist doesn’t mean that it’s been fully documented.

            I think you’re also failing to understand the finer points of the law and this law suit. The property owners’ negligence is what opened them up to punitive damages, which could include being forced to restore or remove and preserve the mural. There is no judgment at this point that requires them to do so, but this whole situation could have been avoided if they had taken a moment to notify the artist and let the waiting period elapse. Then their responsibilities under the law would have been fulfilled.

            Your description of the situation and how it could impact other buildings with murals on them is as dramatic as it is inaccurate.

    • Following the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act, the property owner would have been allowed to removed the mural if he had given notice to the artist in advance.

  6. She doesn’t own this wall! The artist may take her case and self seriously, but it does seem so frivolous?

      • I just read that – and I have problems with it. It protects art “of recognized quality.”… Nothing personal is meant here to the artist, but in my opinion, this Iguana Lady is not that special or that high quality. Also, was there anything in paper that bound the property owner (and future owners) to keeping it there? You’d think they would have a contract, or an agreement of some kind. I think the law is weak and should be more specific and protect the property owner more. I would not want to buy a building and be beholden to keeping something I don’t like on it.

        • That’s why there are contracts and any purchase of a building should come with a clear understanding of all easements and obligations attendant on the property. Whether you think it is a “good” law or not, it’s rather easy to simply avoid these situations through smart contracting and timely giving notice.

  7. For those who do not see the forest…
    All the owner had to do is to notify the artist about his plans and wait 90 days. Then he/she could paint away whatever.
    So the suite is mainly for the artist rights and respect of the law. Artist is NOT a someone to push around.
    and in regard of “free adwertising” – why dont you do what you do for money for free from now on? Artist IS A PROFESSION just like carpenter or manager or an insurance salesman

    • The 90 day thing – that is a very key issue, thanks for sharing. Good to know!

    • Frescoi School, when a carpenter builds cabinets for me, he or she (usually he) doesn’t get to complain when I decide to refinish them 20 years later.

      • Because its not ART!

      • James, are you disagreeing with the law suit or the law? There’s no law dictating how you treat your cabinets. There is a law about how murals are treated.

        • I’m not really taking a stand at all; I was just making an analogy that I thought was somewhat apt. If the property owner has violated the law, then I agree that the muralist has the right to pursue whatever remedies she’s entitled to; however, it does seem a bit of an overreach (if the artwork is on private property) to go after the owner for removing the mural when he or she has, in effect, given the muralist free publicity for several years.

        • In other news, the Los Angeles Housing Department has decided to modify the provisions of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance to apply to murals. Beginning on January 1, 2013, any muralist whose mural depicts an adult male or female is entitled to 60 days’ notice and a $7000 relocation fee prior to painting over or otherwise covering the mural. If the mural depicts any minor dependent children, disabled adults, or adults over 65 years of age, the muralist is entitled to 60 days’ notice and $14,000. (Not really.)

    • Actually “artist” is NOT a profession. It is a title granted by consensus to those who have built a body of work that is of recognized value. Van Gogh was a crackpot until his paintings were recognized as having value and the title of “artist” was conferred on him. It is of course today also a self-appointed title by anyone who so wishes to bestow it. Or are there training courses, apprenticeships, licenses and certifications for this profession as exist for carpenters, for instance? And please, in any replies, don’t mention MFAs. I have one of those. It doesn’t make me an artist, I assure you.

  8. Good for her. I loved the Iguana Lady and felt like it was an iconic image in the neighborhood. It has been here for decades…

    Plus – was it ever determined if putting up those billboards is even legal? I remember when the legality was being questioned a while back when the M.I.A. one covered it and it was taken down pretty quickly.

    At least the M.I.A. one was just a super graphic laid over the top of The Iguana Lady and easily removed without damaging it. Even if it is legal, why couldn’t they have done that type for the Newcastle one and preserved the art underneath?

  9. A lot of you people are outraged – that is a mistake. The law protects this kind of artwork, and if property owners are worried they can just ask the artist to waive their VARA rights or otherwise make a contract to protect themselves. If you have a building in US, you have to obey US laws and laws protecting art like this are on the books.

    If you don’t like it you can get the law changed or move to Russia.

    • so if you bought one of my paintings ten years ago at a swap meet for $10, and then one day i see it torn up in your trash, i should be able to sue you for a quarter of a million dollars, and say “hey – that’s the law. you don’t like it, move to russia”.

      • I’m sure Bob didn’t mean just Russia. If you don’t like something here, there are any number of places you could move to. You could move to the Netherlands for instance. The standard of living is much higher there than in the U.S., medical care is free, and the threat of being killed by a gun are nil compared to here. So you should move there instead of Russia.

    • i’m pretty sure people are allowed to be outraged at terrible laws that violate a property owner’s rights.

  10. She deserves nothing, actually she should be fined for this frivolous lawsuit. I own automotive shop on scott/glendale, thought about lending it out to city for a school mural, not now. I WILL NEVER LET ANYONE PUT UP A MURAL ON MY WALLS. THANKS Annie Sperling!

    • it’s the law bro. all they had to do was notify her 30 days in advance… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Art_Preservation_Act

    • Now I know where me or anyone I know will not to take cars to get fixed.
      Sean great advertising…

    • Wait – you own Caye’s? What wall was the mural going to go on?

    • I heard that your auto shop was part of an anti semitic kiddie porn ring.

      • just sayin.

        • I am a business owner. Business is good. I will be bringing this up at the next Echo Park Business function and will make sure that my friends and owners of local businesses hear my view. Never Ever will I allow my business or anyone of my colleagues to donate its wall for a mural that will come back and bite them on their ass.

          • Yes < and you are the new crappy attitude that has moved to Echo Park.
            It is really not an artist community anymore , its a 60 dollar t-shirt and 20 dollar burger community.
            Welcome to Echo Park ,you missed the curve when it actually WAS cool.

          • I am an Echo Park resident. Life is good. I will be bringing this up at the next meeting of my social network and will make sure that my friends and patrons of local businesses hear my view. Never Ever will I allow myself or anyone of my colleagues to give their money to an automotive shop on scott/glendale with such a poor understanding of community that they would refuse to donate their wall for a mural that would enhance the beauty of the street and increase their clientele.

          • Sean, I would take the same stance btw. And I’ll be there on Monday to have my timing belt replaced.

            For every person that disagrees, there will be one who agrees…

    • Sean, relax. You’d still have control of your building if you allowed a mural to be painted on it. You’d just need to wait a few days before paint it over.

  11. Ms . Sperling is an asset to the community. Her art is an asset to the community.
    The beer ad that was painted over her work is not an asset to the community.
    If you prefer art to beer then you are for her.
    If you prefer beer to art, go drink someplace else.
    luv from a Sperling and an art lover

  12. So, maybe the taggers can/should piggyback on this lawsuit too. After all, their “art” was also covered by the ad. This would, of course, make anyone who paints over graffiti guilty of a federal crime, because who is to definitively (or at least legally) say what constitutes art? If you argue that the Sperling had the property owner’s permission, then couldn’t you also argue that if you don’t actively prevent graffiti from being applied, then there is a certain degree of implied permission?

    Perhaps the property owner should present Ms. Sperling with a bill for the use of the wall for an amount equivalent to the damages she is seeking.

  13. sounds like they have a good case. The main point being the building owner must notify the artist 30 days in advance of removal. That is all that had to be done, if the artist was not notified then it looks like the building owner will need to pay up.

  14. Nooo
    we need more beer ads!
    Art is for the wealthy, ads are for the huddled masses.
    This message brought to you by Brawndo!

  15. beyond ridiculous lawsuit

    give me one good reason why an artist who just happens to paint on a wall instead of a canvas deserves some sacred / heroic / legally protected status.

    and i’m speaking as an artist myself.

  16. just wait until you save up your entire life to buy a building and the government tells you can’t sell advertising space to help you pay down your mortgage because an “artist” painted a mural there first.

    • It’s called due diligence, and if you buy a building without doing it, you don’t deserve the building.

    • @Stella….

      The Beer ad was illegal…..look up super graphics!


    • Stella, you just keep doubling down on your ridiculous comments. The city of LA probably wouldn’t let you put of advertising regardless of whether there was a mural there or not. There are ordinances that limit advertising in the city.

      • there is nothing ridiculous about my comment. the fact that the city may or may not allow you to replace a mural with an ad is completely beside the point. the point is that a property owner should be able to decide what goes on the side of their building. that doesn’t make them evil and it doesn’t make them greedy or “anti-art”. it’s their property and they should be able to paint whatever they want on the side of their building.

        • So you’re saying its ok for a building owner to make a giant mural of porn on the side of their building?

        • ……………….i think you are EXACTLY what squidoo is talking about ………..

        • I can’t tell if you’re addressing moral or legal issues here. You can certainly try to make the argument that every person’s home is their castle. I’d like to make the same argument. But if you believe that a person is legally allowed to do whatever they want to their property then you are wrong on multiple counts. You might think that a property owner can paint what they want on the side of their building but that doesn’t make it true.

          Also, I haven’t read any comments that accuse the property owner of being greedy or anti-art. Comments like that seem to be reserved for the artist, who has been described as a greedy, grasping, frivolous, chilling, opportunist.

          Your passion for this issue seems either misinformed or misplaced.

          • I think everyone on here assumes landlords to be greedy. Its in the Eastsider bylaws or something…
            As far as being “anti-art”. If he’s had it on the side of his building for this long in the first place, it sort of negates that point (unless its a new owner).
            I think the real issue if that that mural is that it wasn’t a such an amazing piece of work. I love the story behind it about the children, but I helped paint murals when I was a kid and I dont think they were my best work. Lets just say I wouldnt be heartbroken if they were painted over. This isnt Rome, things get painted over constantly in a city like LA. Its part of the landscape here.
            If it was a well-known LA artist (lets say Ed Ruscha), I could see more of a point. He built a very substantial career documenting and commenting on LA. His work is studied and collected and important.
            When you google her its just a bunch of production design and burlesque photos? and other very unfortunate “paintings” that I personally dont find compelling or unique. Methinks she should let this one go.

  17. My sympathy goes out to the building owner on this one. I’m not crazy about the idea of an ad replacing art, but you’d think owning a property would give you the right to paint it. And yes I’ve read the wikipedia link. Just because it’s law, doesn’t mean it’s right.

    • But the point is they *did* have the right to paint over it, they simply had to provide 30 days notice as part of their *obligations* under CA law.

  18. I prefer the beer ad… at least it is done well.

  19. I have a possible solution: Perhaps some local politician can bring Ms. Sperling and the Newcastle representatives together for … wait for it, folks … a beer summit.

  20. Building owner should have notified her, hope she loses the case though. It’s his property. Glad that piece of crap mural is gone, not my definition of art.

  21. exactly – this is the kind of pc law that gives liberals a bad name because the cure is way worse than the disease.

  22. The only people who dont give a damn about the murals and are “happy ” the beer pollution banner went up , are people who didnt grow up in the neighborhood and are not used to seeing all the original murals that we used to have in SilverLake and Echo Park.
    Some long gone , some holding on.
    The big advertisements and billboards are things that are embraced by those who didnt grow up in a diverse neighborhood and your comments stick out like a sore “i moved here because I want to be cool and dont give a damn about art ” thumb.
    Growing up here , murals were always part of the community . Often , the muralists/artists would involve the children of the community to help out .
    The community feel is long gone , making way for greedy folk trying to be hip , and embracing corporate advertisements over original art .

    • this sums up everything that is wrong with these discussions. THe fact that you’ve been here for 2months or 40 is IRRELEVANT. The neighborhood has changed. If you ever left it you would see the entire world is changing.Whatever growth/change SilverLake is experiencing is not unique to it. Its happening all over.
      I have been a longtime resident and dont’ love the mural, but the amount of time Ive lived here (20 years BTW) has absolutely nothing to do with the discussion.
      Art appreciation doenst really have a correlation to how long you’ve lived in your house (or rent control apt).
      BTW, I always wonder how the people on these discussions who consider themselves the “mayors” of silverlake came to be? Were they born in Sunset Junction – never to leave again?
      I assume they would have had to come from somewhere else at some point. The only neighbor I know in my hood who’s been here for a really long time moved here in his 20’s. When the “gays” were the “hipsters” of the neighborhood. Back then they were the ones “ruining it all”…..

      • Of course it matters how long you have lived here !
        We have memories of all the things that remind us of where we grew up.
        Murals , for example. Yes change happens , understood.
        Are your childhood memories of the town you grew up in irrelevant ?
        Do you not think of the awesome things that you remember about the neighborhood you grew up in ? Are you supposed to never bring them up and forget about them ?
        The only people who say ” it doesnt matter how long you have lived here “are the people that are desperately trying to feel “connected ” to a place they really have no clue about !
        ECHO PARK / SLIVER LAKE SINCE 1967…………..

  23. I really enjoy Newcastle, those brewers are artists in their own right. The mural that was painted over, I’m sorry to say, was all-time garbage. The artist claims that school children helped with the mural, to me it looks as though this was the work of a child.

    • Annie’s murals from the mid 90’s in Silverlake were indeed done with the assistance of children. The Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance used to support an after school program she was involved with.

  24. 100! good work people!

  25. 100 comments, good work people!

  26. The artist’s rights were infringed upon and she’s taking legal action because of it. It was a public mural and has legal protections that were violated. This doesn’t seem greedy or frivolous to me.

  27. Losing that megacool “third eye” painting on the wall of the laundry a block away was another tragedy that took place recently. It was brilliant. And then the redesign added those cheap looking metal doors to the exterior. It looks really lame and dull. NEXT!
    Don’t bldg owners consider that KEEPING these unique murals will engender interest from residents and people in the neighborhood? They’re tacky losers from other parts, “starbucking” our now tentatively groovy environs.
    I deliberately avoid places that reflect that “corporate whiteswash artsy” embalming.

  28. As far as the Iguana Lady is concerned…I always liked the mural.

  29. I lived in Silver Lake for 12 years from the mid-80’s to mid- 90’s. I will always remember the Iguana Lady and so many fantastic murals along Sunset Blvd. I made a point of taking photos before our family moved away and am now so glad I have a copy of this mural. It was a vibrant piece of a vibrant community.

  30. Her mural on the side of Furthur in Silverlake was covered with plain red paint years ago. Had I been that business owner I would have left it but ultimately it’s their choice. I’m thinking that there was no lawsuit against that independent business owner.

  31. For the commenters that keep citing the California Art Preservation Act, that might seem more compelling if this was filed in state court. I don’t know for sure, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the federal courts would have jurisdiction over a violation of that state law. There doesn’t seem to be much that would make it a federal matter (the complaint says just because it all takes place in this district of CA, but that doesn’t sound like actual legal authority for a federal case) and they cite 17 USC s 106(A) which seems to be a much weaker law dealing more with copyright infringement and doesn’t require any notice to the artist. I’m not a lawyer, but you can look the laws up easily enough it’s certainly an interesting topic.

    If you actually look through the complaint, it looks sloppy. As far as the building owner providing notice to the artist, they allege “Sperling’s name appeared on the mural. Sperling still lives in the Silverlake neighborhood and is well known in the area.” I don’t think most people would find that a reasonable standard for finding someone’s contact information. “I live in this neighborhood, ask around, I’m well known.”

    It sucks that her mural got painted over with a billboard, but does it really suck to the tune of $250,000? I’ll bet the lawyer talked the muralist into doing this to try to score a quick settlement for much less money. If I were the building owner, I’d just wait for Heineken’s lawyers to crush the suit.

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