Articles

Graffiti Laws Make No Sense: NYPD Arrests Watercolor Artist for Painting Outdoors

by Hrag Vartanian on September 16, 2010

This is where Julie Torres was painting when she was arrested by undercover cops. (photo by Marcos Caceres, via the artist) (click to enlarge)

A few days ago Brooklyn artist Julie Torres contacted Hyperallergic to let us know about a serious legal issue she was facing as a result of painting outdoors. She explained that on July 17, she was enjoying a summer afternoon in Williamsburg as she worked on a large watercolor painting that was taped to a construction wall at the corner of North 11th Street and Bedford Avenue, near Hyperallergic HQ.

This wasn’t her first attempt at outdoor painting, she says:

I started out last summer at the corner of N8 & Bedford. At that time I was painting very small — no larger than 16 x 20 inches — so I sat at a little table on the corner, painting, and selling work. It was very fun and I sold lots of stuff.

Over the winter I began painting much larger works. I’d had a show at Camel Art Space in the fall and they’d specifically requested larger work, so my work grew into these very large pieces — sometimes up to 4 x 6 feet. When summer came around again I was itching to get back outside — and I had to figure out how to paint and sell this much larger work on the street.

I tried a couple of different locations and the spot at N11th & Bedford, which I started to paint at in May, seemed to work best. I specifically chose a place where I wouldn’t interfere with a residence, business or really any kind of building — I was very conscious of staying out of the way.

The corner for N11th Street & Bedford Avenue, the spot of the alleged crime. (photo by Jim Prez) (click to enlarge)

Torres was even filmed at the spot on N11th Street a few days before by BRIC Community Media, which aired a segment later in the month featuring her work outdoors.

Unfortunately, Torres’s painting experiment took a very scary turn. She explains that on July 17 at 2pm she was approached by plainclothes police officers who pulled up in an unmarked car, asked for her home address, and eventually told her they were going for a ride. Torres says she was terrified by the very intimidating and aggressive figures, and at first she didn’t even believe they were cops.

“I was arrested for graffiti. I wasn’t doing graffiti however, I was painting with watercolors on my own store-bought paper that I had taped to a temporary wall surrounding a construction site,” she says.

The artist can’t believe how the situation seemed to spiral out of control. She believes her actions were more than reasonable as a single woman on the street confronted by three big men she described as “thug-like,” who quickly approached her from an unmarked car. She says it even felt like they were trying to provoke her. Torres thought her requests to speak to a uniformed officer or to see ID were more than reasonable but she thinks her requests angered the officers.

When they were carting away Torres, she asked to take the paintings down because they are her livelihood. She says the undercover cops started to laugh at her. “You sell these, these are art? You’re a funny girl,” she remembers them saying.

The cops didn’t care for Torres’s explanation for painting outdoors and she was handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a holding cell for 23 hours. She has since reported to court twice since then.

She was baffled by the arrest since she hadn’t encountered any problems with uniformed police officers who encountered her at the same spot. They would simply walk or drive by without a word, she said, and sometimes they even smile, wave, say hello, and make conversation. “There was never any indication what I was doing was wrong,” she says.

Some of Torres’s paint materials on the street (photo by Gabe Gonzalez, via julietorres.weebly.com) (click to enlarge)

When I asked her why she started to paint outdoors, she explained that it was an alternative for her from being stuck indoors on beautiful days and “working by myself … wrapped up in my own head.”

She explains:

It’s invigorating to be outside in such a vibrant neighborhood — I’m energized and inspired by all the activity on the street. I’ve also made some amazing contacts this way — artists, curators, collectors — Williamsburg is the ideal place to do this.

But her sense of artistic freedom has been shattered since the arrest, she hasn’t attempted to bring her large work back outside. “To be honest I hate to even look at it. All those pieces that I made out on that corner got me into so much trouble — or at least that’s how it feels on an emotional, gut level. They’ve been laying in a pile in my apartment. A bunch of them were also damaged in the arrest,” she says. “Anyway — I wouldn’t risk [painting outside now] — it’s far too dangerous considering that I have a criminal case pending against me. I’m extremely afraid of cops now. I never used to be.”

Torres has since returned to her table at N8th Street & Bedford Avenue and she has began painting small work again.

She explains that the incident has been a learning experience for her. “I’m learning that Brooklyn courts are very tough on graffiti. They’re cracking down in a big way. It’s unfortunate that I got caught up in that — because I was definitely not making graffiti. I was painting on my own paper. There were no spray cans, no stencils, no paint markers — just watercolors and two tiny watercolor brushes — which they confiscated as ‘graffiti materials.’ What I’ve learned is — the moment they call it graffiti — you are screwed. If you so much as put a sticker on a building — you’re screwed.”

I called the NYPD’s Vandals Task Force for an explanation of the incident and why Torres was arrested without a warning. The gentleman who answered the phone refused to give his name or identify himself as a spokesperson, or anything else, but he did answer all my questions.

Julie Torres painting on N8th Street in Williamsburg (photo by Marcos Caceres, via julietorres.weebly.com) (click to enlarge)

He explained Torres should’ve asked permission to tape up her work and that the police don’t give warnings when a crime is in process. I asked about the role of intent, as she was planning to take down the work, but he said that wasn’t relevant and that they go by what they see. He explained that tape and paint (even watercolor) were considered graffiti instruments. He said she also could’ve been incriminated by anything she said during the arrest and if she had additional art works with her, in a bag for instance, they would also be considered graffiti instruments. Throughout our conversation, he kept reminding me that he didn’t know the specifics of the case, and he was simply providing answers based on the information I gave him.

I asked the gentleman that if Torres was painting in a city park if she would’ve faced charges. At this point, his answers became less clear. I used the example of a painter using an easel in a park or temporarily taping up a drawing to a park fence, and he said those examples were not the same thing.

What this and many stories related to street art have taught me about graffiti laws in this city is that they need to be changed. They cannot distinguish between different types of art or incidents. How can New York continue to pretend to be a major center of creativity when artist’s aren’t allowed to explore new ways of making work?

Torres’s story conflicts with what the man on the phone at the Vandals Task Force told me.  According to Torres, “During the confrontation, the men said ‘I was only going to give you a warning but then you got lippy, You don’t think I’m a cop, I’ll show you a cop. Now you’re going to have to go to jail, honey. You’re going to jail.’”

Torres’s experience in the holding cell was quite harrowing. She spent 23 hours in a small cell with 20 other women, some of whom were violent. Torres was lucky that some of the women in the cell were looking out for her and they explained to Torres what not to do and what could possibly provoke the more dangerous characters. She describes the cell as dirty and disgusting, with a single toilet in the middle, which they all shared.

The police confiscated hundreds of dollars of her art materials — according to the police report “43 tubes of paint, 22 containers of foil paper, and 2 palettes from the defendant’s bag” (though Torres said she didn’t have any foil so she doesn’t know what the officer saw) — which they are still holding as evidence. They eventually returned Torres’s damaged paintings, which they had crumpled up and placed in a plastic bag. The police report says the following [emphasis mine], “police officer Gedeon Dieudonne Shield No. 203, of 094 Command that at the above time and place, informant observed defendant painting shapes and rainbows on the boundary fence of a city-owned piece of plowed land.”

“I was doing this in the middle of the afternoon with a thousand people around,” Torres says.  “Why would I have done this if I thought it was illegal?”

The July 17th incident continues to haunt Torres. “I still have a criminal case pending against me and my next court date is October 13. They were originally charging me with three counts of graffiti. They offered the charge of disorderly conduct at my last court date, which I did not accept,” she says. She hopes the issue will be resolved soon.

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  • Rebecca

    This is how the law operates. Label something as they wish it to be seen, intimidate, pursue and convict!

    • Ravenswood

      Whatever. She is defacing public property, regardless of whether it is temporary. You want your art to be seen, find another way. Not everybody would rather see your paintings than a clean, blank surface. What about the people who made that wall? How would you like it if somebody painted over one of your paintings? Maybe it isn’t art, but it’s possible the builders take some pride in their work.

      • Ravenswood

        She was painting on PAPER? Not the actual wall WTF? Sorry Julie, my mistake. That’s so crazy I totally missed the part where there’s paper between your brush and the wall. How is that vandalism?

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Waynes-World-of-Watercolor/148355148532200 Waynesronce

    Kodo’s to JULIE all she’s doing is making the world a better place, It’s not like there permanent paints.
    That should be the guide line and there should be area’s where people can express them-self’s in such a way. some city’s do that what the hell do they expect urban dweller’s to do?

    • Khurram

      their should be areas where you can express yourself. They have that in other countries.

  • Olyx

    When I once visited New York I saw some cops slamming some guy’s face into the sidewalk for smoking a joint. When I dared to question their behaviour they started getting violent with me too. I was left with an impression of the NYPD as a brutal fascist gang who are on some kind of Judge Dredd style macho power trip.
    I expect that they ideologically object to this lady’s beautiful public art on the grounds that it represents an organic flowering of the human spirit that they want to suppress in favour of a soulless corporate prison society. As someone once said, the term ‘zero tolerance’ is just another way of saying ‘intolerance’.
    I feel sorry for Julie Torres that she had to endure this kind of abuse. In my opinion she should be allowed to paint freely on construction hoardings. I’d even like to see the government pay her to do so as a community artist, or at least give her some free art materials, because if they had any sense they’d realise that she’s making the city a more pleasant place. Stories like this make me wonder if the agenda of those in power is to eradicate individual expression and spontaneous creativity from the public realm in order to more effectively dehumanise the population.

    • Eggnostriva

      Seriously. The whole concept of zero tolerance has transformed new york. Yes there are arseholes in the police and there always will be. (its not a job I would want). But do you really think there is an agenda based on eradicating peoples artistic expression.What is the motivation for these people if that is the case?.

      • Xylographics

        As I said, to dehumanise people….in order to make them into consumer drones. Artistic expression scares those in power because it means that people might be using their own minds instead of blindly following orders given to them by the mass media and advertising. Zero tolerance has transformed NYC yeah. ..into a bland cookie-cutter disneyland where art is a crime.

  • Matt

    Yikes. I feel for her. I’ve recently come to realize the last place you want to be in this city is on the receiving end of any cop or judge. They are BRUTAL. I hope she has a good lawyer…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Julie-Torres/807740186 Julie Torres

    Thanks for the kind words guys.

  • http://twitter.com/KatyGerman Katy

    Sweet Jesus – and I thought I was leaving a healthy artistic environment *behind* when I left NYC. Here’s hoping the judge sees things more clearly. Julie, power to you; you’ve got right on your side.

  • Victoria

    This is crazy. NYC needs all the tourism & money it can get. Having artists in the street generates revenue, that then revolves back into the city. These ‘cops’ and maybe the city courts need some lessons in marketing and economics.
    And they also need to stop making judgements on art. Critics they ain’t. Guiliani already proved that years ago.

  • ala

    It’s amazing how many stories there are like this out there and yet, nothing ever happens to the police. I mean, they can basically assault people on the job and commit drunken vehicular manslaughter off the job until they retire with a pension better than most armed forces service members.

  • RP

    Julie, what a horrible and unfair experience. I’m not from the US, so please excuse my ignorance, but 23 HOURS for drawing rainbows? Even if it had been the worst quality of graffiti, this is inhumane and not at all what I would expect from a country that prides itself on its progressive standard of human rights (at least within its borders). New Yorkers, stand up for civil liberties – this must stop.

  • Jamie

    This is crazy. Surely if the artwork can be taken down and used as evidence, then it’s NOT graffiti!

  • Cheiser5

    Julie: your work is beautiful and it is a shame the police did not pause to consider the situation and look at your art. Had they looked at it, they probably would have noted it was beauty – not something tainting the neighborhood. Stay strong and keep painting. -Cristi

  • http://www.zapcomic.com Pascalle Lepas

    Man, I hope she can find a way to sue them for loss of income for the damaged paintings.

  • Bob

    This is not unique police behavior. Most cops regard any kind of verbal resistance to their orders in a non-threatening or questionable confrontation as a personal challenge to their authority or manhood. They then use the power to arrest as a way of punishing the individual. Even if the case is dismissed one is forced through a humiliating and unpleasant process, deprived of liberty for a period of time, and is degraded.

    If the confrontation escalates, in extreme situations the police response can grow into physical injury or death. Criminals are best able to deal with police because both sides know the rules and etiquette. It is the ‘law abiding’ person who is at a loss as to what to do and not to do.

    Police are vital to maintain order and to deal with emergencies. When police are out of control the tools and weapons we provide them make them enormously dangerous. Like an aggressive watchdog, they need to be regarded with caution. They can and do turn on us at times.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Schlicht/1566144898 Steve Schlicht

    Painting on property that is not your own is not ethical, nor is it legal.

    The rest seems to be one big ad hominem against individual officers.

    • Olyx

      It WAS her own property that she painted on though. Unless you are suggesting that she stole the paper she used as a painting surface?

  • http://newcleanblog.blogspot.com/ Lawrence Swan

    What if there was a mass Paint-In at that corner to draw (or paint) attention to what happened to her?

  • http://www.arttoronto.wordpress.com Maggie

    Reminds me of Roadsworth. Montreal arrested and charged him; the city eventually dropped the charges on the condition that he only paint when the city commissioned him to. An interesting debate on the topic of street art http://films.nfb.ca/roadsworth/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Schlicht/1566144898 Steve Schlicht

    Dear Julie Torres,

    I badly misinterpreted the facts of your case.

    Please accept my deep and heartfelt apology.

    Now that I’ve been brought to reason and have taken the time to understand what you went through, would you consider painting a watercolor peace sign for my daughter Erin?

    You should know that we live on the MS gulf coast and were cared for by the men and women of the NYPD in the aftermath of Katrina. We know those officers who arrived to help to be wonderfully decent folks.

    That said, as secular humanists, we do try our best to not paint with a “broad brush” and fully understand that each human being is culpable for their own actions in this life.

    My prior statement shows my own failure to fully assess all the facts…friends showed me the error of my way and I accept that I was wrong.

    If you wish to contact me, our family email is HumanistFamilies@hotmail.com

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Sincerely,

    Steve Schlicht
    Biloxi MS
    HumanistFamilies@hotmail.com

  • Alankerry

    COPS ARE FILTHY PIGS.

    • Ravenswood

      That’s the spirit!!! Generalize! What is your ethnicity, age and gender? Maybe we can find an example of someone similar in those categories that has done something horrible and then proclaim all people belonging to their group (and consequently yours) HORRIBLE. AND WE’LL DO IT IN ALL CAPS, TOO!!!

  • LD

    How is it that unmarked, plain clothes cops would not understand that anyone, but especially a single female, might want proof that they are indeed cops. The news is always highlighting stories about criminals impersonating cops to get someone to do something they normally would not – hold open the front door, give personal information, get into a car, etc. You would think the NYPD would have some internal rules about how to confront someone when you are undercover and could easily be perceived as a threat.

    And the cop’s name is Dieudonne? As in, Dieu Donné – the nonprofit fine arts paper making workspace that has been in NYC for 25 years? Oh, the irony…

  • Bluzman 2

    there has been an increase of police abuse,over reaction,and tazering…….
    years back,for no reason cept maybe my long hair,i got jumped and beat up by undercover New Orleans cops….
    so i wrote this ode—
    ya’ll want us to call you cop…..but you keep bringing us down to your slop..so
    we’re still gonna call you pig cause you are what you are can ya dig!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • karaokeslayer76

    As stated by many above, this is just ridiculous, and further proof that law enforcement in the United States is in need of a serious overhaul.

    I’d like, though, to commend Steve Schlicht (above) for his apology. It’s rare and refreshing to see someone come to a new understanding of the facts, admit to being wrong, and simply apologize. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Well done, Mr. Schlicht.

  • d.eris

    She should file a lawsuit for violation of her first amendment rights.

  • d.eris

    And she’s lucky she wasn’t shot, tazed or beaten to death.

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  • Nunya

    Reading things like this makes me think of an essay I once read called “Is it time to shoot the bastards?”

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  • http://twitter.com/captainpixie Rebecca Hird

    I wonder if they’d treat a gang of 7 yr old’s in the same manner for drawing on the pavement with chalk’s! That’s disgusting it really is!

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  • Steven

    I’m at a loss for words

  • Anonymous

    She will be lucky to get her paints back intact. Police are petty above all else… which is why I have yet to hear of a single incident where artwork was confiscated by the police and NOT returned damaged.

  • Steven Weinstein

    It seems in New York, Your guilty until proven guilty!! What a total waste of taxpayers time and money.. Go get em Julie!! Your 100% innocent..

  • Pmott10

    Next appearance = 11/8/2010 in Kings County Criminal Court. Part = Jury1. Should be a good one to watch.

  • Steve Oblivion

    Contrary to fact . Cops are not and should not be above the law . whatever happened to we serve and protect. what about a code of honor. This is such total crap. cops don’t like it when their intelligence or authority is questioned. I question both. there wasn’t any proof that she painted on walls. a crime was not committed. This is why the american justice system should be changed. Cops should not be given carte blanche to do whatever they please. This totally sucks and she should win her case against their dumb carcasses and yes i said it . DUMB .you can quote me .

  • Diybritain

    what a wonderful medium to work with
    Graffiti without the damage – wish the kids could learn from this
    http://www.diyheores.co.uk

  • Maxwestart

    Sue the NYPD.

  • wow

    This is absolutely ridiculous..where do u draw the line between the “law” and common sense..

  • http://www.facebook.com/terryward7 Terry Ward

    thanks hyperallergic for the eye-opening report. yeh the authorities do indeed hate the sight of painting outdoors upon a wall. i won’t bore ya’s with the details. better to have an easel or to create on the ground. the reflexive thinking (especially now that large-size graffiti sticker-tags are such a presence) is that anything involving paint + wall = illegal. they’re not used to tags happening on the ground though —more inclined to ask and learn first rather than to assume you’re criminal. it ~is~ possible to work on large art on the ground too : use barrels or sawhorses to support planks which cross the art, then put yourself on the planks to reach the center of the art-surface without stepping on it anywhere. drip-control can be tricky that way (and its good to have a helper-friend/thug around to ward off anyone trying to take advantage of someone so awkwardly positioned). i’ve done this a few times —though also within an enclosed junkyard compound (yo, WITH permission) out of view so no cop-hassles. being very very very discreet has allowed a lot of art-making with little rent-issue or interference from passersby. just a thought. offering that hint doesn’t mean i’m not alarmed about the arrest. without having been there to see, it sure sounds like only a patrolman’s power trip and maybe aggrievated violation of his ego. there should be some monetary payback for the damaged artwork (hell, imagine if they’d crumpled i picasso?) and for the art-making time lost due to no access to the supplies.

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  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    Not everyone agrees that zero tolerance was a success for New York. Check out this book for example. And some argue that New York didn’t really do anything that wasn’t being experienced across the country (i.e. a national drop in crime) and that zero tolerance was not necessary.

    I think this case irks people because it illustrates some of the worst tendencies of bad policing, namely not being sensitive to the community and its needs. In the case of Ms. Torres, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have expected the police to simply talk to her and ask what she was doing.

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