A noted Latino artist who was the self-described "driving force" behind San Diego's famed Chicano Park has sued the San Diego Unified School District and a construction company for the destruction of one of his murals.
Salvador Torres, 84, painted the 75-foot by 45-foot acrylic-on-stucco mural in the late-'80s at what was then called Memorial Junior High School, in the Logan Heights neighborhood of San Diego.
As time passed, the school's name morphed into Memorial Prep Middle School and its campus featured many murals. The artists of some of them, including Torres, said they were unaware their murals would be destroyed when the district tore down buildings and renovated the campus in the process of building a new K -12 center, the Logan Memorial Educational Campus along 28th Street and Logan Avenue.
In the suit filed last week, Torres' attorney, Lawrence G. Townsend, argued that since there are only a "finite" number of murals created by Torres, "all efforts [need to] be made for their preservations so as to ensure that the honor and reputation deserving of the artist is permitted to endure."
While the suit recognizes that the plans to renovate the campus were under way for several years, Torres only became aware of the destruction of his mural shortly before the district planned to destroy it, according to the court documents -- and that the district at no time notified him of its intent to do so.
Despite community input and opposition from Torres, the mural was destroyed on Sept. 23, 2020, when the building it was painted on was torn down by workers employed by Balfour Beatty, the construction company named in the suit as a co-defendant.
"We are not against the project, we are not against the progress of education in Logan Heights," Logan Heights resident Wicho Flores said back in September when demolition was under way at the campus. "What we want to do and what was asked of them five years ago is No. 1: We asked that they be transparent and help us preserve the culture and history of the community and school."
In a statement around the same time, San Diego Unified School District said the murals could not be moved because they were painted directly onto an old wood-framed building that contained lead-based paint and asbestos. The district said they took photos of the original murals and plan to display them on campus.
However, Torres' suit alleges that his mural at the school "could have been removed by readily available mural-removal methods, including the age-old Strappo technique, which only requires removing the film or outermost layer of the surface composed of the paint."
The suit further alleges that the district did not own the copyright to the artwork and that any reproduction undertaken on its part would have violated Torres' rights.
"… the school district, at the very moment it had just dishonored the artist with the mutilation and destruction of the mural, brazenly announced its intent to also infringe the copyright in the mural, exclusively held by [Torres], by making or having unauthorized, bogus copies made," the suit states.
As causes for action, the suit also alleges the intentional destruction of fine art and negligence, and seeks payment for, among other things, "deprivation of [Torres'] property right and damage to his honor and reputation."
Reached for comment, a representative for San Diego Unified said, in part, "San Diego Unified does not comment on pending litigation."
However, the city schools spokesperson did email the following statement to NBC 7, which reads, in part:
"Recognizing the area’s rich public art and mural history, new public art and spaces for future public art are built into the new facilities currently under construction. One mural is being preserved in its current location. We have preserved another existing mural in high definition digital format and are in the process of filing that copy with both the San Diego History Center and the UCSB Library Special Research Collections. A third mural on panels was removed from an interior wall for future relocation on campus. Finally, we intend to reproduce a fourth mural on panels for display on campus."
It's not clear if any of the murals being referenced is the one Torres was commissioned to paint in the late 1980s. NBC 7 has asked for clarification.
Regarding the Logan Memorial Educational Campus, the district provided the following update:
"The district anticipates the entire Logan Memorial Educational Complex project to complete in the spring of 2023. Once completed, the district plans on having new murals painted on removable panels/surfaces so that those murals can be easily preserved, removed and replaced when new renovation or construction projects are needed at the school."
Torres and his attorney have requested that their suit be resolved in a jury trial.