Photo by Lele Barnett

Nate Rezac wants to open a ’30s/’40s-gangster-style bar in Fremont. He’s been planning it for ages, but he gets the inspiration for the name when he sees Jeremy Bert’s artwork at McLeod Residence. Bert’s piece is mismatched salvaged neon letters spelling out the words “Leave Nineteen Million Dollars in Unmarked Bills.”

Rezac decides to call his bar Nine Million in Unmarked Bills (it’s opening June 18 in what was formerly the Triangle Lounge), and he commissions his own neon ransom-note sign with those words but in a different style: upscale, glamorous, all-white letters on a rusted-metal background.

What does the bar owner owe the artist?

A strikingly similar debate raged in 2006, when the fancy department store Barneys put up signs made of mismatched old letters that looked just like the signature work of the artist Jack Pierson—though that “signature” is ironic, considering that Pierson’s work recycles authorless found objects.

Pierson’s gallery wrote a letter denouncing the Barneys signs, which were regularly being mistaken for Pierson’s. The window dresser responsible for the designs said he’d never heard of Pierson. Barneys did nothing, and presumably by next season the signs were replaced by something newly fashionable. You can’t copyright old sign letters.

Similarly, Seattle artist Bert has no legal leg to stand on, according to Donn Zaretsky, the New York attorney who writes The Art Law Blog. Zaretsky looked at both signs (Rezac shared his sign design but asked that it not be published) and saw no case for infringement. The phrase is generic, and the signs look different.

But ethics are another matter. Businesses taking ideas from artists without credit or payment is uncool. It’s especially uncool when the business is big and powerful, and the artist is small and unknown—and when the theft seems undeniable but is denied by the business anyway. That’s what happened when the downtown Seattle branch of the clothing chain Anthropologie ripped off artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen in 2005—for a wall display that looked like a section of earth and was made of brown paper—without the remotest apology or credit.

But Rezac is not corporate—he’s a longtime bartender whose dream is to open this bar, and Nine Million in Unmarked Bills is not Anthropologie. First of all, Rezac admits he saw and was influenced by Bert’s neon work, though he is quick to point out that the overall idea for the bar was set long ago. Rezac did inquire about Bert’s work, and McLeod bar manager and investor Clarita Hinojosa says she discouraged him from buying the piece and relocating it, since it was already aligned with McLeod. She gave Rezac the artist’s number and recommended he commission another work by Bert.

Instead, Rezac went to his restaurant designer, who ordered the more glam sign from Western Neon. Bert used to work at Western Neon, and someone there tipped him off.

Just as Rezac is no corporate giant, Bert is no blue-chip Pierson. Bert has no gallery representation; his day job is driving a truck around fixing neon signs. He got an art degree in the ceramics department at Alfred University back in the ’90s and settled into the typical artist life: total obscurity and a day job. At least his day job gives him access to scrap neon letters. The ransom note was his way of making the letters’ original function balder: Instead of trying to attract your business, they just demand your money.

Bert was upset when he heard about the new sign. “I don’t want to cause any trouble, but I want some respect, and I wouldn’t mind making a little money,” he said. He asked Rezac to consider buying the piece for a quarter of its sale price ($3,000 instead of $12,000), and Rezac said he would entertain the idea and would have to hang the sign indoors, since his outdoor sign was already made. “He seems really sincere and at least he’s, like, doing what he can,” the artist said, grateful to get anything and to get the work seen again (McLeod closed last year).

But the new solution presented a new problem: Bert’s work would now effectively advertise a business rather than read as art. On top of that, Rezac wanted it tailored to match the space. Rezac had told his own designer the exterior sign should be “really clean, upscale.” Bert’s multicolored sign, by contrast, was “cool but clowny,” Rezac said. Bert would have to comply, or no sale.

Both Bert and Rezac were uneasy—which makes sense. This art doesn’t belong in this bar.

But the decent thing to do is to give Bert some credit and compensation. Could Rezac have come up with the idea for his name and his sign on his own? Yeah. But he didn’t. How about this: Bert drinks for free for life at the bar. Meanwhile, if Rezac describes the history of the bar anywhere (in a plaque, on the menu, in the press), he plugs Bert’s art.

If that happens, supporting NMiUB (what will people actually call it?) won’t mean screwing an artist. A little generosity goes a long way. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.