Graffiti artists tag NYC councilman as enemy No. 1

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK — When you're a graffiti artist unhappy with the one lawmaker set on wiping the city clean, what do you do? Write to your councilman, of course.

New York City's graffiti-makers and their supporters have tagged City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. as the nemesis to their art. And they're spreading their disgust by plastering his name everywhere — in graffiti, on Internet message boards and even in court papers challenging his crackdown.

Since Vallone was elected in 2001, graffiti has become his signature issue. He has pushed laws that raise fines for graffiti offenders — he calls them "punks" and "miscreants" — and penalize landlords who don't clean the paint from their walls.

The former prosecutor has also sought to limit access to graffiti supplies, like spray paint, broad-tipped markers and etching acid. The new restrictions prompted several young artists, who say they use those tools for legal artwork, to file a federal lawsuit last month. They allege the law violates their First Amendment rights and accuse him of trying to stifle art.

"Art, I like. But this is not art — this is vandalism," Vallone said one evening last week as he drove through his district in Queens, where spray-painted angular scribbles and swaths of multicolored block letters wrap around buildings and peek out from highway underpasses.

It is a debate with a long history in New York City. Those who have fought to erase graffiti over the years, including former mayors Rudolph Giuliani, David Dinkins and Ed Koch, say it is a symbol of blight and urban chaos that invites worse crimes and is often a tool of gang communication.

During the 1980s, transit authorities began installing paint-resistant subway cars, robbing graffiti-writers of their preferred canvas.

They say their work is a legitimate form of art intertwined with city history and urban American culture. The artists argue that the attempt to associate graffiti with crime and gang wars is a political tool that criminalizes an entire community.

"You don't want that instilled in your kids — when it's the official visual dialect of a generation, it takes away their legitimacy and it preemptively censors and discriminates," said Mark Ecko, a fashion designer who champions graffiti as a form of art and has led the legal challenges of Vallone's laws.

The courtroom is only one place where graffiti artists are pushing back against the Democratic councilman.

In January, on a giant billboard near the Manhattan Bridge, they spray-painted in enormous bubble letters a common four-letter insult followed by his name.

Also this winter, a graffiti cleanup group's trailer — which said "Sponsored by Peter Vallone Jr." on the side — was stolen, robbed of its paint buckets and rollers, and abandoned many miles away in Staten Island.

Graffiti-writers on Internet message boards angrily vent that "this guy seems as if he's full of himself." Message posters, who also put up photographs of their graffiti around the metro area, listed his district office address and noted that "the door is pretty clean."

Last year, a graffiti artist named "Cope2" called Vallone's council offices and spewed rambling obscenities and threats on the voice mail.

"We're graffiti artists, we're trying to make it in this world," Cope2 said on the tape, which was played for the Associated Press. He used several epithets to suggest what Vallone should do to himself.

Cope2, whose real name is Fernando Carlo, was picked up by police after making the calls, but was let go when Vallone declined to press charges. The 38-year-old artist, who says he gave up illegal graffiti long ago, told the AP this week that the feud was behind them. But he warned that the councilman was waging a losing battle.

"They're not going to wipe graffiti out — it's impossible, it's not going to happen, because it's a worldwide thing and it's never going to stop," Carlo said. "He's starting a beef with kids that he's not going to win."

Yet he acknowledged that anti-graffiti laws can be difficult to beat.

"Times have changed, you know?" said Carlo, who sprayed his first graffiti on the subways in 1979. "There are a lot of kids that want to be hard core, but when you get caught, these laws that are passed now are pretty tough."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg created an anti-graffiti task force last year. A special police unit uses infrared cameras to nab vandals, and uses a database of photos and tags to track repeat offenders.

Vallone wants to tighten the laws even further, and is preparing a bill that seeks to outlaw etching acid except for those who obtain licenses. The material, sold in art-supply stores, is commonly used in crafts or artwork to etch on glass, but vandals have adapted it as a tool for tagging subway windows.

Vallone says he doesn't mind being the target of graffiti-writers' attacks.

"My first reaction is that if I'm making criminals upset, I must be doing something right," says the 45-year-old father of two.

Graffiti has irritated Vallone since he was a child — the kind of rule-abiding kid who would glare at people if they littered on the street. And these days, besides writing anti-graffiti laws, he also rails against companies that use graffiti in their marketing, which he says romanticizes illegal behavior.