Early Saturday morning, at 1:06am according to police, artist Kenny Scharf, 55, was apprehended by the NYPD for graffiti in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg industrial park. It has been 30 years since the renowned street artist had been arrested for writing on the street but he says this time the system felt more chaotic and overwhelmed than the one he remembers from decades ago.
The incident occurred on 209 Morgan Avenue, a few blocks from Metropolitan Avenue, according to Scharf. “The reason why I got caught was I had a guy filming and I assumed wrongly that he was watching out for me,” he told Hyperallergic about the arrest. “When I’m alone doing that I never get caught. I got caught because I trusted someone I shouldn’t have.”
This incident was very different then his first, and only other arrest, in 1982. “[This time] the cop that arrested me, said she liked my tag, liked by mural, and asked me about Exit Through the Gift Shop, and she asked me about Banksy,” he says.
In contrast to his recent experience, the arrest in 1982 was done by undercover cops and the artist says he didn’t know they were cops until they knocked him off his bike with their car and physically abused him. “They were screaming at me and calling me stupid,” he remembers about the traumatic incident from years ago. He describes himself at the time as a scared kid who pled guilty to a trumped up charge of assaulting an officer since he was told that by pleding guilty he would be let go. “I was around 20 years old, had no money, and I was scared, so I went along with it,” he said.
The incident in the early 1980s had a chilling effect on Scharf when a little while later the same cops that arrested him were involved in the arrest and eventual death of graffiti writer Michael Stewart in police custody. “I realized that If I was black they would’ve killed me,” he says about the wake up call.
Saturday morning’s incident was very different. Scharf was taken by the cops to a small Williamsburg detention facility, and he says the staff was “pretty nice to me.” “They had a toilet that had a door, though you had to ask to be taken there,” he says.
He was kept in Williamsburg until 9 or 10am Saturday morning, at which time he was transferred to downtown Brooklyn booking, where he was shocked by the conditions.
“There was vomit and shit everywhere, disgusting, and people were sick, mentally ill. I didn’t get abused by anybody this time, but the whole experience was pretty horrible, and it has gone more downhill from thirty years ago,” he says. “They were bringing the kids in chained together. They were bringing people in and packing them in like sardines. They didn’t give you toilet paper for those who had to take a shit in front of other people.”
Scharf’s story is not atypical, and other Brooklyn artists have contacted Hyperallergic in the past few months to describe similar unsanitary conditions of illness, vomiting, dirty communal toilets, and other scenes of chaos.
He was kept at the downtown Brooklyn facility until 9pm that night when he received a desk appearance ticket. He plans to go back in June for his arraignment.
According to Gothamist, Scharf was arrested for making graffiti, a class A misdemeanor, and possession of a graffiti instrument, a class B misdemeanor.
I asked Scharf what he thought the city should do with graffiti and street art, since it appears to be a continuing focus of the city’s energies even if little has changed.
“The weird thing about things done in the street is that it is an outlet for things to get out and there are no sanctioned ways for most people to express themselves, and this is what people need for self-expression. It’s going to happen no matter what, people will never be able to keep from being controlled,” he says. “Graffiti is a big expression of not being controlled. And we’re not puppets like the government wants us to be … I think they should let it happen, and if an owner of a wall on a building or gate don’t like it, they can paint it or give it a protective coating which let’s them rub it off later. Writers will know they can’t do that again without being erased. The artists don’t want to put effort into something that will get cleaned off … [The cops] should concentrate on real crimes. It’s all the walls that no one cares about that are getting tagged up. I felt like I was improving the way it looked,” he says.
He explained that not all New Yorkers are anti-graffiti like many people assume. Once, he says, he was creating a work on a warehouse wall and the owner walked up to the artist, who thought he was going to be yelled at for his doodle, but the owner shocked him by asking him to sign the work.
Scharf expects to receive community service for Saturday’s incident.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.