A World-Renowned Gallery Owner Took Big Money From San Francisco Artists, Then Moved to Portland

As Justin Giarla buys a house near the Alberta Art District, California street artists fume and sue.

Justin Giarla

BY SARAH BURKE of East Bay Express

A nationally renowned San Francisco art gallery owner has relocated to Portland amid a flurry of complaints and lawsuits from artists who say he stiffed them out of paintings and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Justin Giarla, 45, owned and operated the White Walls gallery at 886 Geary St. in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood.

But in September, after Giarla sold the building that housed his gallery for $3.3 million, he bought a house in Northeast Portland for $667,000—apparently paying cash.

Oakland artist Jessica Hess once thought Justin Giarla was her ticket to success. But by the time Hess traveled to Art Basel in Miami in 2012, Giarla was her enemy.

Hess' roommate had just called from their home in San Francisco. It was bad news: For years, Hess had been trying to retrieve thousands of dollars owed to her by Giarla, former owner of three popular San Francisco galleries. But a bank letter had arrived in the mail that day, and it stated that his account was closed, which meant that—after winning an $8,245 judgment against him in state court, and chasing Giarla's assets all over California—she still wouldn't see a dime.

Hess says she started shaking after hearing the news. "My blood ran cold," she recalled.

Oakland artist Jessica Hess waited years for Justin Giarla to pay her. (Shaun Roberts)

Giarla was also at Art Basel. Hess descended on his booth and yelled in his face:

"'You think it's OK not to pay your artists?!'" she recalled. "'Fuck you for changing your bank account! When will I get my money?!'" She admits she shoved Giarla, but he was unfazed.

"'You'll get your money when the sheriff comes and takes it,'" she recalls him saying.

Since then, at least 30 artists have claimed Giarla owes them money—many hundreds of thousands of dollars in all—for work sold at White Walls.

In response to a version of this story that appeared online Nov. 25, Giarla issued a statement. "For 13 years I worked hard to promote the success of artists while building a business," he writes. "It's unfortunate that factors in my personal life coupled with plummeting art sales forced me out of a business that I would have loved to run for years. I have been working off my debts and plan on settling every one of them."

Giarla, who'd earlier worked in nightclubs, opened White Walls in 2005, focusing on street-, outsider- and lowbrow-art markets. Shepard Fairey (the artist behind the Obey Giant brand and the Obama "Hope" poster) had two solo shows with Giarla in 2006 and 2008. Artists flew to the Bay from all over the world to show at White Walls, often selling pieces for $20,000 or more.

Oakland artist and former White Walls assistant director Lauren Napolitano described the gallery as a hub of the Bay Area art scene. "When I first started working there [in 2011], it was like any artist you wanted to know in San Francisco, or any artist you wanted to meet, would probably come through there at some point," she says.

Artists who showed and spent time at Giarla's galleries over the years describe him as both charming and intimidating. He's tall, and hefty, with a sleeve of tattoos on his left arm, a dark brown coif and square-rimmed glasses.

The backs of his forearms are tattooed with big letters so that, when he raises them, they read "Self Made."

"He was the kind of guy who would be your best friend when he wanted something from you, like selling your art, but then would be impossible to get a hold of if he didn't want to deal with something," says David Marc Grant, a San Francisco artist who showed at Giarla's galleries, and who says Giarla owes him $3,800.

In March 2011, White Walls opened a solo show by the British artist Ben Eine, who's known for bold, technicolored, block-letter art works. In 2010, former United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron presented President Barack Obama with one of Eine's paintings during a visit to the White House.

Eine's show at White Walls sold out and generated more than $200,000 in sales. But, instead of paying Eine, according to court records, Giarla asked if he could use his half of the proceeds to invest in a building at 886 Geary St. In exchange, Eine says Giarla agreed to give him an upstairs apartment, plus a studio in the basement.

That never happened. In October 2014, Eine sued Giarla, claiming that the gallery owner duped him out of $100,000 worth of additional paintings and never transferred the title for the promised apartment. Records show that Eine and Giarla eventually reached a settlement agreement, and that Eine later took out a lien on 886 Geary.

At least five artists have sued Giarla.

In November 2014, French stencil artist Blek Le Rat accused Giarla of selling his artwork but not delivering payment and sued for $819,000. The way art sales work is the artist consigns work to a dealer, such as Giarla, who takes a cut—often about 50 percent—of the sales price.

In February of last year, successful Belgian street artist Peter Ysebie, who goes by ROA, sued Giarla in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claiming that Giarla paid him nothing from two solo shows at White Walls, in 2011 and 2012, plus for works sold at Scope Miami art fair in 2011.

Giarla conceded Ysebie's claim a week later, on Feb. 25, and in March 2015 the court issued a judgment of $127,043.

Despite the appearance of success, Giarla's reputation soured.

Artist David Soukup says Giarla would endear himself to artists but also share stories of debt and promises to pay as soon as possible. He bounced checks, three sources told this reporter. Many just let it slide, sometimes for several years, in hopes that things would work out.

"He did this intentionally to people, and bullied them when confronted," says Soukup, who won a judgment of $6,818 against Giarla last year. "He hid behind the threat that he could ruin you if you spoke out against him."

Many artists kept their complaints to themselves.

British artist Jonathan Darby did a show at White Walls in 2012, transforming the gallery into a shanty town—a theme inspired by his work teaching children in the Congo. But Darby says Giarla delivered only $3,500 of the nearly $14,000 in payments and returned artwork the artist says he was due. After 3½ years of attempting to get his money, Darby just gave up. "When you're so far away, it's kind of difficult," Darby explained via Skype while in Greece. "I wasn't aware of the full extent of how bad things were."

Giarla seems to have over-extended himself on the 886 Geary building. Not long after that expansion, things started to go downhill. Artists pulled out of shows after hearing about payment problems. Some of his staff, once as large as eight people, defected after paychecks bounced and attendance at shows waned.

"Toward the end, it was almost unrecognizable," Napolitano said.

White Walls Gallery in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. (Brock Brake)

On July 31 of this year, Giarla's girlfriend, Helen Bayly, posted a photo to Facebook: she and Giarla sitting in a car, boxes, a dog and a large plant filling the back seat. "Crossed the border to Oregon!" the post read.

Bayley wrote that she and Giarla were house-hunting in Portland.

After reading that post, Ken Harman, who owns another San Francisco gallery, erupted.

He composed a Facebook post of his own that Giarla stole from artists. "These two people are sociopaths and criminals who prey on those who can't defend themselves," he wrote.

Harman's Facebook post garnered more than 500 comments. Among those comments was an outpouring by artists and collectors from all over the world who claimed that Giarla had stiffed them in some way—and comments from disgruntled ex-employees. One painter claimed that, after Giarla didn't pay him, he was forced to sell his home and truck and move from the Bay Area.

"I thought that I knew how widespread it was, but I really had no idea," Harman says.

In September, Giarla sold 886 Geary for $3,333,250—and the sale gave at least one artist satisfaction.

For those who had sued Giarla and taken a lien out on his property, such as Hess, the sale brought a long-awaited pay day. She celebrated with cake decorated with Giarla's face on it and the words "Congratulations, you've been served."

Records show he bought a home Sept. 23 for $666,760 in Portland's Sabin neighborhood, near the Alberta Arts District. No mortgage related to the purchase has been recorded, which suggests he paid cash.

Giarla claims he's finished with art.

"I have no plans to ever run or own a gallery again," he said in a statement. "While the good times are missed, the struggles continue to dominate my experience and I will not pursue another risky venture."

Today, White Walls sits shuttered, a hollow reminder of broken promises. Most artists say there is no other Bay Area art space that offers anywhere near the same level of opportunity for lowbrow artists.

"What's the next-best gallery that you could show at in San Francisco, now that [White Walls is] gone?" asks Napolitano, Giarla's former aide. "There's no other one."

A version of this story originally appeared in the East Bay Express (eastbayexpress.com) in Oakland, Calif. WW staff writer Nigel Jaquiss contributed reporting in Portland.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.