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

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 (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 (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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