A Street Artist Is Suing the Vatican—and Turned Down a Meeting With the Pope—After She Says It Used Her Art Without Permission

Alessia Babrow is seeking $160,000 in damages after the Vatican issued a stamp using one of her images.

Alessia Babrow with her street art that the Vatican turned into a 2020 Easter stamp without her consent. photo by Alessia Babrow.
Alessia Babrow with her street art that the Vatican turned into a 2020 Easter stamp without her consent. Photo by Alessia Babrow.

Roman street artist Alessia Babrow is suing the Vatican after its coin and postage agency printed her artwork on a stamp without permission.

Babrow’s image depicts a painting by 19th-century German artist Heinrich Hofmann of Jesus with her own tag of a heart reading “just use it” written across his chest. She pasted the work, which she made in 2019, near the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II bridge by the Vatican, but never expected it to catch the eye of church officials.

Then the Vatican issued a special stamp for Easter 2020 featuring the street art piece. It credited Hofmann, but not Babrow, who first learned of the stamp through Instagram.

“I couldn’t believe it. I honestly thought it was a joke,” Babrow told the Associated Press. “The real shock was that you don’t expect certain things from certain organizations.”

The Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State didn't ask permission to use Alessia Babrow's street art based on a 19th century Heinrich Hoffmann painting for a 2020 Easter stamp. Image courtesy of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State.

The Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State didn’t ask permission to use Alessia Babrow’s street art based on a 19th century Heinrich Hoffmann painting for a 2020 Easter stamp. Image courtesy of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State.

Mauro Olivieri, director of the Vatican Philatelic Office, reportedly spotted Babrow’s work while riding by on a moped. He told Il Mio Papa magazine that he stopped in his tracks, undeterred by honking traffic, to photograph the piece. The Vatican, which did not return a request for comment, does not currently acknowledge Babrow’s authorship of the image on its website.

“Copyright laws in Europe and the U.S. apply to outdoor artwork just as they do to paintings, drawings, or any other more traditional ‘indoor’ mediums. There is no difference in the degree of protection, and it appears that the Vatican has made a rather serious blunder by using her work without permission,” Jeff Gluck, a Los Angeles lawyer who helps street artists sue corporations for using their work without permission told Artnet News in an email. “We have seen this happen time and again with corporations of all sizes using artwork without permission.”

Babrow said that when she reached out to the Vatican, she was offered an audience with the pope and some free stamps in lieu of compensation. Babrow sent three letters asking the Vatican for recognition of her copyright before taking legal action, according to Vaccari News.

The artist has been making street art since 2013, and said she usually leaves her work unsigned. “I am considered a mix between Marina Abramovic and Banksy,” Babrow told Drago. “At least this is what some of the critics have written, and whether it is true or not, I am flattered!

The Vatican turned his Alessia Babrow street art piece, seen here near the Vatican, into a 2020 Easter stamp without her consent. Photo by Alessia Babrow.

The Vatican turned this Alessia Babrow street art piece, seen here near the Vatican, into a 2020 Easter stamp. Photo by Alessia Babrow.

Babrow is seeking €130,000 ($160,000) in damages. The case is set to be heard in court on December 7.

The Vatican is selling the stamps for €1.15 ($1.40), and has issued a print run of 80,000 stamps, according to Artribune, which first reported news of the stamp’s appearance in February 2020. The first run reportedly sold out.

Babrow’s lawsuit comes amid a growing push by street artists to protect the copyright of their work. Banksy won a 2019 case against an Italian museum selling merchandise based on his work, though experienced a setback this year when the European Union Intellectual Property Office ruled that his trademark was invalid, scuttling his lawsuit against a greeting card company.

“Suing the Vatican was not really part of my plans,” Babrow told Il Fatto Quotidiano, noting that she has been known to allow the use of her work for free, but not without permission. “Unfortunately, this story is bigger than me.”


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