The Los Angeles city attorney's office has filed a lawsuit against Gheorghiu and nine other graffiti writers associated with the MTA tagging crew, charging them with violating California's unfair competition laws because they're selling art works on the strength of their outlaw names and reputations.
"They've obtained an unfair advantage because they gained fame and notoriety through criminal acts," said Anne Tremblay, assistant city attorney. "This is unlawful competition."
Using an unfair competition law and targeting graffiti writers' commercial works are both in uncharted legal territory. The maneuver underscores authorities' exasperation with a subculture that prizes prolific defacement of public property, including buses, street signs and freeway overpasses, and costs taxpayers millions to remove.
Tremblay said her lawsuit is not aimed at preventing Gheorghiu from making a living as an artist or from using the name "Smear."
However, it requests that a court declare him and nine other graffiti writers in violation of the unfair competition law because they've sold art signed with their tag names, and bar them from selling photos of graffiti that includes the writers' tags or the name MTA.
"They're creating a crime scene and taking photos of it to sell," said Tremblay, who is also seeking to have the MTA be subject to legal restrictions as a criminal street gang and pay $5 million in fines and damages.
But use of crime scene photos, commonly featured in crime books, and nicknames, such as mobsters' colorful monikers, can't be limited, said David L. Hudson, scholar at the First Amendment Center. .
Gheorghiu said he's never sold photos, and denies the lawsuit's assertions that he used graffiti to launch his art career. "I don't have a five-year career plan. There was no intent of profiting from it," he said. "All these things kind of happened."
Los Angeles graffiti expert Roger Gastman said Gheorghiu's story is not unusual.
Graffiti writers are part of a wave of interest in urban art that has gained mainstream acceptance in recent years, he said, noting that Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art is opening a large exhibit "Art in the Streets" later this month.
"There's a huge growing market and it's nonstop," said Gastman, co-author of "The History of American Graffiti."