Artist Sparks Outrage For Ripping Off Design For Michelle Obama Mural

By Stephen Gossett in News on Apr 23, 2017 6:45PM

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GoFundMe

A Chicago muralist and self-described urban planner faced a tsunami of criticism this weekend over a recently unveiled mural of Michelle Obama, which shows the former First Lady in the style of an Egyptian queen, in South Shore. But the controversy has nothing to do with content and everything to do with authorship: the image used by the muralist, Chris Devins, appears to have been taken from Ethiopia-native artist Gelila Mesfin—a credit that Devins didn't at first acknowledge either in speaking about the mural with media or while crowd-funding more than $11,000 for the project on GoFundMe.

Devins told DNAinfo on Friday after the mural was finished, "I wanted to present [Obama] as what I think she is, so she's clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate.” But he didn’t recognize Mesfin, who posts work under the handle thick_east_african_girl on Instagram. Users on social media, however, did soon recognize.


After the firestorm grew, Mesfin expressed dismay and called Devins’ actions “disrespectful.”

She wrote in an Instagram post:

"How can you just steal someone's artwork... someone's hard work and claim it like it's yours... how can you go on record and say you designed this... this is so disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels... like this man seriously created a gofundme page, raised money and did this... it's one thing to share or even profit from someone's work but to claim it as yours is just wrong!"

How can you just steal someone's artwork... someone's hard work and claim it like it's yours... how can you go on record and say you designed this... this is so disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels... like this man seriously created a gofundme page, raised money and did this... it's one thing to share or even profit from someone's work but to claim it as yours is just wrong! Thank you to those who DM and messaged me to let me know what was going on @dnainfochi you guys should take this article down because this man stole this. I wouldn't mind if he had given me credit or said he took the design from another artist but saying you designed it is just wrong! The man is a teacher for God's sake and said he was doing this to create positivity for his students and community... but he didn't think that stealing a young girl's artwork and making a profit out of it does more damage than good.

A post shared by G🐼 (@thick_east_african_girl) on


In an updated version of the DNAinfo post, Devins called his handling of the situation “sloppy” and said Mesfin “has been offered a licensing fee, and that we did not intend to claim authorship, only inspiration.”

Still, Devins—who in the past has garnered some local press for previous murals—was on the defensive throughout the weekend over charges of racism (which he tried to deflect by pointing out that his mother is black) and theft.

“The broader conversation is one about authorship in the re-mix culture we live in. and this hate coming from people who listen to music that is entirely sampled from other peoples original music.,” Devins posted in a GoFundMe update. That post linked to a photograph that appears to have served as a base inspiration for Mesfin’s (transformative, it should be noted) Egyptian design.

In the since-deleted statement below, and elsewhere, Devins has cited urban planning as rationale, also—which didn’t go over great either.

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Meanwhile, in an appropriately we-go-high statement posted on Saturday evening, Mesfin asked for positivity, said that she is contact with Devins " in hopes of resolving this issue in an applicable and professional manner," and noted that another public comment is forthcoming.