(WXYZ) — There’s a case pending in the Michigan State Supreme court that could expand protections for street artists.
At the center of the legal battle is the Whaling Wall, a mural painted on now Broderick Tower back in 1997.
It’s a downtown Detroit staple, but right now it’s covered by a Rocket Mortgage advertisement.
The ad can be seen from Comerica Park, making it a prime spot for corporate giants.
“I remember going to Tigers games, seeing the mural. I loved it,” said Mark Ruhl, who lives in Broderick Tower.
The artist known as Wyland says this is the 18th time a company has covered his mural.
“For me, this wall is important. I’ve had to defend it against General Motors, Rebook, Nike,” Wyland said.
The mural stands nearly 20 stories high. Wyland says it was painted as part of an eight-mural series that he completed over eight weeks.
He says some people may look at it and wonder: why paint whales in Detroit? Here’s his answer.
“I wanted people to ask that question,” Wyland said. “It is all about water, freshwater habitats, saltwater habitats and the idea of having whales in Detroit connects that for people.”
“You know that the lakes connect to the ocean and we have to protect both,” he added.
Wyland is known for his ocean-inspired art and his conservation efforts through his non-profit The Wyland Foundation.
“When you do it on a grand scale, I mean it is powerful. You can choose not to go into an art museum, but you can’t ignore a giant mural,” he said.
Based on the Visual Art Rights Act the company is allowed to put up its temporary vinyl banner because it is not defacing or destroying the mural.
“Putting up a vinyl banner temporarily over a historically significant work of art you know it kind of circumvents the visual rights act,” said California-based attorney Steve Creech, who represents the Wyland Foundation.
He’s now taking the battle to the highest court.
“It was challenged by the property owners, Detroit Media Group, but the justices felt like it had merit. They reviewed it and accepted it on the basis that they think it could settle an important issue of law in the state of Michigan,” said Creech.
The issue has some Detroiters conflicted because the banner actually features the work of Phil Simpson, a local black artist known for his depictions of diversity.
“I guess he’s what we call blowing up and this is good that he also has an opportunity to showcase his art,” native Detroiter Ramses Dukes said.
Creech says there is another problem with the ad’s placement.
According to documents US Outdoor leased the exterior portion of the building facing the stadium for advertising around 2004-2005. This was at the same time the building owner was applying for federal historic preservation tax credits from the National Parks Service to cover the costs of renovations the following year.
Basically, everyone kicked the can down the road, according to Creech, covering the Wyland mural with 18 different ads, until the NPS approved the building for historic preservation tax credits for a period of five years, starting in 2012.
The issue then got flagged by the NPS when it caught wind that the property owner was trying to install another sign in 2014. NPS warned the owner the certification could be revoked if the owner undertook more unapproved project work that was in line with federal rehabilitation standards .
This meant no more murals until the end of the NPS tax credit eligibility period in 2018. That’s when the issue of the property owner abandoning the permit was raised. The permit abandonment issue disputes from 2018 to the present.
Creech says the 2022 Wyland Foundation/Wyland Amicus Brief adds a larger dimension to the fight to save public art in general under the Visual Artist’s Rights Act of 1990.
“We say that it’s unconscionable to treat significant works of public art the way the Wyland Mural on the Broderick Building has been treated,” Creech said.
We reached out to Rocket Mortgage and the Broderick Tower leasing office for comment, but have not heard back.
Keep in mind that the Michigan State Supreme Court only reviews 4% of cases on its docket. Right now, it’s a waiting game.
“The fact that the supreme court has agreed to accept it. They think it has relevance to the entire state, to other artists, and potentially the entire nation,” said Creech.