A Freelance Urban Myth?

October 18th, 2008 | Posted in Freelancing

When visiting a message board thread about whether signing your commercial work is kosher or not I was reminded of this story I heard about 25 years ago about a mural painter from my hometown of La Crosse, WI. I was told it by a friend sitting in the bar the story supposedly occurred in, but the “evidence” was no longer there. I’m paraphrasing big time, as it was so long ago:

An artist who was a college student was approached by a local La Crosse nightclub owner and asked about being commissioned to paint a mural on a huge wall along their dance floor as part of a redesign and reopening. The space was easily 12 feet high and 40 feet long. Some payment figures were bandied about and, being not extremely business savvy, this artist went ahead without a contract and set to work painting a music themed mural. He showed the owner a detailed color sketch of a very intricate image with musicians playing various instruments interspersed with night time scenes of La Crosse and the river, etc. The owner loved it. He told the artist he wanted this exact image painted on his wall. The artist started painting. It took weeks to complete. Towards the end he spent several all-nighters in the club working around the clock.

The night before the grand opening, the artist approached the owner and said he was basically done but had a few touch ups that he was going to do overnight. He’d be done in the morning. He asked about his payment. The owner told him he’s pay him in free advertising for the life of the nightclub by “allowing him” to sign the work and include his contact number. He claimed they had no agreement for any monetray payment, and the artist had agreed to paint a mural of the sketch he had shown him in exchange for the “exposure”. The artist was stunned but didn’t have a contract, so he just nodded his head and said he’d add his signature last after he had finished the touch ups. The owner left him with instructions as usual to lock up when he left.

The next day the owner came in to prepare for is big grand opening. He looked at his giant wall mural and his mouth hung open. Instead of the giant, beautiful painting that had adorned it the night before, the entire wall was whitewashed. in the center was a 8″ x 30″ exact copy of the original comp. The rest of the wall was taken up by a 10 foot x 40 foot tall signature of the artist in black letters. Taped to it was this note:

“Completed as agreed: Full color mural reproduction of original comp image, size of image on wall never specified so done at the discretion of the artist. Signature added as payment of services, size also not specified. Enjoy the grand opening.”

I’m not convinced that is a real story. It might just be one of those “urban myths” that get retold in different ways over and over. Still a great story either way.

For me, I never sign my work when I am being provided a by-line, but I am thinking of insisiting I place my full name in each image thanks to the possible passing of the Orphan Works Act. I think that having a signature in a hard-to-miss place in each image might go a long way to preventing it being considered “orphaned”.


  1. cvanoni says:


    That reminds me of a story:

    A couple years after graduating high school I was called upon to draw a large portrait of a local band leader (and my own jazz mentor) for his retirement party. I don’t recall the actual finished size but it was something like 24×36 and I had the whole process was new to me.

    The drawing came out great, considering my skill level at the time, but I wasn’t used to signing my name on my work, much less on a piece that big! When I finally placed my signature at the bottom I stepped back and realized it was WAY too big in regards to the rest of the drawing.
    I escaped with a couple small crits like, “isn’t your signature kind of big?”
    For the most part, everyone was so pleased with the drawing they could care less what the signature looked like. After his retirement party the drawing went to hang in his house and I figured I’d rarely get to see it AND that signature again.

    A couple years later, they decided to use my drawing to create a bronze relief sculpture that would hang on the local high school band room. They cropped the image down, but no amount of cropping was going to keep that gargantuan autograph off there.
    So there it hangs, my great big pretentious signature, staring back at anyone who enters my high school. 🙂


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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