John Bustamante was driving down the highway last year when he saw a billboard featuring a design that reminded him of Cruz Ortiz’s art work.
Bustamante found himself thinking that he hoped Ortiz was protecting his creative brand. The San Antonio attorney subsequently saw Ortiz at a fundraiser for the Texas Civil Rights Project and quickly realized that Ortiz hadn’t developed a strategy for protecting his distinctive Tex-Mex pop art from copyright infringement.
Over the last year, that has changed.
Last November, Snake Hawk Press, the design business founded by Ortiz and his wife Olivia, filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Texas Democratic Party, alleging that TDP violated a contract with Ortiz by altering his logo work and displaying banners that were blatant knockoffs of his irreverent style. (The TDP lawsuit came to a close last month, with the two sides agreeing to dismiss the case.)
It’s one thing to take on a high-powered statewide political organization. It’s another thing to threaten legal action against a small San Antonio business and a young local artist.
But that’s what happened on August 22 when Bustamante, on behalf of Ortiz, sent a cease-and-desist letter (with the threat of $20,000 in damages) to the local Tejano food pop-up ¡Bucho! over its use of a logo, created by local artist Regina Morales, that the letter described as an appropriation of Ortiz’s “contemporary, celebratory Chicano aesthetic.”
That aesthetic has not only won Ortiz considerable acclaim over the years, it has scored him lucrative design work for Absolut vodka bottles and Papa John’s pizza boxes and made him a hipness signifier for a host of Democratic political candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Julián Castro.
The flareup between Ortiz and ¡Bucho! went public last weekend with a piece in the San Antonio Current and has created a social-media firestorm, with several members of the community deriding Ortiz as a greedy bully who has forgotten his roots and is maliciously targeting a young Latina struggling to make a living. It has also spurred a GoFundMe to raise anticipated legal fees for ¡Bucho!
In a Tuesday Facebook comment, Morales said the dispute has brought her overwhelming anxiety and “waves of nausea.”
She added: “I just want to go back to living my little peaceful life and stop being bullied by the man with power.”
Morales’s defenders say the logo conflict is essentially a battle over a shared adaptation of a font associated with 1960s Chicano protest movement posters.
Under American law, you can’t protect a font. The argument from Ortiz’s team, however, is that when Ortiz honed his signature aesthetic — which he once defined as “super rascuache punk rock style” — he tweaked and subverted the old Chicano protest designs by adding a celebratory dimension to them.
When other artists appropriate his appropriation, so the argument goes, they’re damaging Ortiz’s reputation and diminishing the value of his work. It’s an issue that raises complex legal and emotional questions.
“This wasn’t a flippant decision,” Olivia Ortiz said. “This was based on weeks of numerous community members sending us this logo and asking us if it was ours. At first, I didn’t really know what it was and kind of sat on it. As more and more people sent it to me, I said, ‘Wait a minute. What is this?’
Olivia Ortiz said she and her husband had hoped to handle the situation quietly, by convincing ¡Bucho! to change the logo design.
On July 26, Mariah Lange, studio director for Cruz Ortiz Art, sent an email to ¡Bucho! reps, along with some samples of Ortiz’s work. Lange described the ¡Bucho! logo as “incredibly similar to our work” and added, “We hope you understand our need to protect our artwork.”
The email reached Morales, who casually dismissed Lange’s concerns.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the Chicano movement from the 60’s and 70’s,” Morales wrote. “I’ve attached a poster circa 1972 for reference. Let me know if you have any more questions. Tell Cruz I said hello!”
Rebel Mariposa, the owner of La Botánica, said she believes Morales was simply taking inspiration from the same source that had informed Ortiz’s style.
“If someone is referencing and paying homage to a resistance poster that is using a certain font, that shouldn’t be an issue. It’s like if you use art deco lettering,” Mariposa said.
“The issue here is that you have a local Chicana/Tejana artist who was hired by a small local business to put together some art work and a logo. And Regina being the great artist that she is, doing her research and deciding to go with a certain style, that’s what artists do.”
Cruz Ortiz co-founded San Anto Cultural Arts and spearheaded that West Side organization’s mural program. He has devoted much of his career to art education and various philanthropic causes. He still perceives his business as a South Side mom-and-pop operation. He now finds himself, however, cast as the big dog of the local scene, getting territorial and throwing his weight around.
It’s a cruel twist that’s bringing pain to everyone involved.
Gilbert Garcia is a columnist covering the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | [email protected] | Twitter: @gilgamesh470