Pick a fight with graffiti artists and you can expect to see your name plastered around town.
New York’s graffiti artists and their supporters have tagged City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. as their archenemy. And they are making their disgust plain by putting his name everywhere — in graffiti, on Internet message boards and in court papers challenging his crackdown.
Vallone has made graffiti his signature issue since he was first elected in 2001. He has pushed through laws that raise fines for graffiti offenders — he calls them “punks” and “miscreants” — and penalize landlords who do not clean the paint from their walls.
The former prosecutor also won passage of a law that bars the possession or purchase of spray paint, broad-tipped indelible markers and etching acid by anyone under 21.
“Art, I like. But this is not art — this is vandalism,” Vallone said one recent evening as he drove through his district in Queens, where spray-painted angular scribbles and multicolored block letters wrap around buildings and underpasses.
Several young artists who say they use the restricted art supplies for legal artwork filed a federal lawsuit over the new measure, saying it violates their First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
It is a debate with a long history in New York. Those who have fought to erase graffiti over the years, including 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, the transit agency introduced paint-resistant subway cars, robbing graffiti writers of their preferred canvas.
For some, the ‘visual dialect of a generation’
Graffiti artists — or graffiti vandals, as some call them — say their work is a legitimate form of art intertwined with city history and urban American culture. They decry the attempt to associate graffiti with crime and gangs.
Graffiti is “the official visual dialect of a generation,” and demonizing it “takes away their legitimacy,” said fashion designer Mark Ecko, who has led the legal challenges to Vallone’s laws.
In January, on a giant billboard near the Manhattan Bridge, graffiti artists spray-painted in enormous bubble letters a four-letter insult followed by the councilman’s name.
Also this winter, a graffiti cleanup group’s trailer — which read “Sponsored by Peter Vallone Jr.” on the side — was stolen, robbed of its paint buckets and rollers, and abandoned miles away in Staten Island.
Graffiti writers on Internet message boards angrily vent that “this guy seems as if he’s full of himself.” Some listed Vallone’s district office address and noted that “the door is pretty clean.”
Last year, the well-known graffiti artist Cope2 called Vallone’s council offices and spewed obscenities and threats on his voice mail. Cope2, whose real name is Fernando Carlo, was picked up by police but was let go when Vallone declined to press charges.
For the councilman, not a problem
Vallone said he does not mind being the target of attacks.
“My first reaction is that if I’m making criminals upset, I must be doing something right,” said 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 for littering. Besides writing anti-graffiti laws, he rails against companies that use graffiti in their marketing, which he says romanticizes illegal behavior.
He wants to tighten the laws even further, and recently introduced a bill that would require a license to buy etching acid. The material, sold in art supply stores, is commonly used in artwork to etch glass, but vandals apply it to subway windows.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg created an anti-graffiti task force last year. A special police unit uses infrared cameras to catch vandals, and uses a database of photos and “tags,” or graffiti artists’ distinctive signatures.
The 38-year-old Carlo warned recently that Vallone is 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,” he said.