Mich. high court reinstates mural artist’s conviction

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ROSEVILLE, Mich. — Artist Ed Stross faces a stint in jail after the Michigan Supreme Court last month reinstated his conviction for painting the word “love” on his mural in this Detroit suburb.

Stross’ long-running dispute with local officials is over his use of the word in a mural on the building housing his studio. The painting is based on Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man” at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Roseville officials say using letters in the mural violates a sign ordinance. They also object to Eve’s bare breasts in the painting. Stross was told not to paint lettering or genitalia when the city in 1997 granted a zoning variance allowing a mural on the building.

Stross originally spent years painting 150 faces, including Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, for a mural on the side of the building. After being ticketed for loitering in 2003 while painting the mural, he covered it with pink paint. Later that year, Stross decided to paint his version of “Creation of Man.”

In 2005, a jury convicted Stross of violating the conditions of his variance. The state Court of Appeals threw out Stross’ conviction earlier this year, finding that the mural and the lettering on it were protected by the First Amendment. But the state Supreme Court on Sept. 10 overturned that decision, ruling that Stross raised his First Amendment argument too late.

At the time that Stross received approval to paint the mural, state law “required a party to challenge the constitutionality of the variance within 21 days. Defendant’s painting the word ‘LOVE’ on the sign clearly violated the ‘lettering’ condition of the variance,” the high court wrote. “Defendant was obligated to challenge these conditions in accordance with [state law]. His failure to do so precludes him from raising his constitutional challenge eight years later.”

City officials say their concern goes beyond this one mural.

“The issue is not Ed Stross,” said Roseville city attorney Timothy Tomlinson. “The issue is really a municipality’s right to govern [its] signages. … Sometimes there’s bigger fish to fry, but sometimes the issues are pretty significant, and this could affect municipalities all over the state.”

“I’m not going to take those letters down,” Stross told the Detroit Free Press for a story Oct. 5.

He has been packing his paintbrushes and recruiting people to watch his studio and two Chihuahuas, Chico and Princess, while he serves his 30-day sentence.

“I have everything all set and ready,” Stross said.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is working to keep him out of jail. ACLU lawyer Mark Kriger filed a motion Sept. 30, asking the state Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in the case or overturn the ruling.

Kriger says if the high court refuses, the ACLU will ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider whether a district judge improperly instructed a jury before it came up with a guilty verdict.

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