Image: Unsplash

On one evening last November, musician Ryan Upchurch carried a couple of paintings into has backyard in Tennessee, propped them up against a some greenery and shot them repeatedly with an assault rifle. He posted a video of the incident to his Instagram account, and then proceeded have the mutilated paintings – one depicting himself and the other of Johnny Cash, on which he wrote “Fuck This dudes Paintings” – auctioned off to the public. It turns out, 28-year old Upchurch – who rose to fame on YouTube as part of the burgeoning country rap genre – had a bone to pick with the artist, Jacob Aaron LeVeille.

Florida-based LeVeille – who claims that his “unique paintings of country musicians have achieved growing acclaim among visual art and country music aficionados” – has since taken the beef to court. Filing suit in federal court in Jacksonville, Florida on Monday, LeVeille alleges that “Upchurch intentionally mutilated [his] works … for purposes of damaging [his] honor and reputation, and the reputation of [his] art,” thereby running afoul of a relatively obscure federal law called the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (“VARA”).

Under VARA, certain artists – such as those behind single or limited edition paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, or sculptures – “moral rights” in their works. Practically speaking, VARA, which was the law at the center of the protracted 5Pointz graffiti case, enables artists to prevent the destruction of a work of art if it is of “recognized stature.” It also allows artists to control the alteration of their works, regardless of whether they have sold it.

 LeVeille’s mutilated paintings LeVeille’s mutilated paintings

The parties’ relationship didn’t always involve lawsuits and mutilated paintings. LeVeille claims that he initially met Upchurch at one of his concerts in 2016, and thereafter, the rapper purchased a number of his paintings, including the two that were “mutilated” in November.

While Upchurch paid for a number of the paintings he obtained from LeVeille upon delivery, the artist claims that Unchurch did not pay outright for the portraits of himself and Johnny Cash. In fact, LeVeille alleges that Unchurch did not pay at all, and “despite [his] repeated attempts to obtain payment or the return of his paintings,” LeVeille alleges that he “never received assurances [from Upchurch] that his works would be paid for or returned.”

“Beginning on or around November 8, 2018,” LeVeille asserts in his complaint that his quest to relieve payment for the work translated into a “dispute on social media [with Upchurch] over the payment for or return of the Cash and Upchurch portraits,” which ultimately culminated in the rapper firing “tens if not hundreds of rounds from a shotgun and an automatic assault rifle” at the two paintings and then handing them off to a Tennessee-based company called Cheatham County After Dark for auction.

As a result, LeVeille says that Upchurch has “intentionally harmed [his] honor, reputation, and growing status as a visual artist by publicly disseminating the defamatory video in which he mutilated the [portraits] and by subsequently displaying the mutilated portraits and distributing images of them publicly on social media, on the internet, and to Upchurch’s over 1 million social media followers on the internet.” Such “willful and malicious” conduct, the artist asserts, gives rise to a claim under VARA, and he is seeking actual damages, any profits that Upchurch made in connection with the “unlawful conduct,” and attorneys’ fees and costs.

*The case is Jacob Aaron Leveille v. Ryan Edward Upchurch professionally known as Upchurch, 3:19-cv-00908 (M.D. Fla.).