VH McKenzie’s Battle Against The MTA Goliath

This is the story of VH McKenzie, who, like many others, saw a city MetroCard as an intriguing art instrument, and then fought for the right to use it.

The East Village artist has been creating watercolor or oil paintings on city subway cards and selling them on Etsy alongside other original works, creating what she calls “a world where the eccentric downtown East Village of NYC gently rubs shoulders with the ragamuffin heart of the Caribbean.”

VH Mckenzie's MetroCard art.

However, her subway card artwork raised the ire of the MTA, who sent McKenzie a letter urging her to stop selling them until she gets a license from the agency to do so:

“While we at the MTA are flattered that you recognize the value of our brand to consumers, please understand the MTA has a well-established product licensing program which markets authorized versions of such products. While we have no record of your firm requesting or being granted such authorization, we are prepared to initiate discussions with you about acquiring a license from us.”

“That ain’t gonna happen,” McKenzie wrote on her Tumblr, referencing the recent Single Fare 2 show as evidence that the MetroCard art scene is alive and well: “A full-scale gallery show is permitted, at top-notch prices of $100 per card, but my handful of offerings on Etsy, and at a lower price, are not?

Mark Heavey, the MTA’s chief of marketing and advertising, explained the issue last week to the Village Voice‘s Runnin’ Scared blog: “Whenever we find someone profiting from use of our trademarks, we must strictly enforce and protect our trademark rights. As a public entity, this is our obligation. And the issue is not the size of the infringer (individual or corporation), but the principle.”

The story seems headed for a happy ending, we’re glad to report: after her story was picked up by news outlets across New York, McKenzie wrote a followup post on Monday stating that she had exchanged emails with Heavey. With some changes to her Etsy shop, he claimed, “you may continue to do what you are doing.” (That is, once she creates some new works of subway card art to sell – she’s currently all sold out.)

“I wish you continued success with your ‘fare card art’ project,” Heavey told McKenzie; “the media does love a good David vs. Goliath story.”
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