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Boston Vandalism Charges Stir Debate on Art’s Place

Boston Vandalism Charges Stir Debate on Art’s Place

BOSTON — This may be the only place in America where Shepard Fairey, the street artist whose omnipresent portrait of Barack Obama has become a touchstone, is not fully feeling the love.

Mr. Fairey appeared in two municipal courts here this week to fight a cascade of vandalism charges accusing him of pasting his work on public and private property from the Back Bay to Roxbury. While this is not his first encounter with the police — Mr. Fairey has been arrested more than a dozen times for posting his art on whatever surface catches his eye — it appears to be his biggest legal tangle to date.

By Wednesday, Mr. Fairey, who lives in Los Angeles, had pleaded not guilty to one misdemeanor and 13 felony charges; his lawyer said the police were pursuing 19 more counts.

In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Fairey accused the police of “gratuitous piling on” and suggested he was being punished for advocating that public space “should be filled with more than just commercial advertising.” On the advice of his lawyer, Jeffrey Wiesner, he declined an interview request.

Mr. Fairey’s court appearances came a month after he was arrested on Feb. 6 as he arrived at the opening-night party for his retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art. His cab was approaching the museum when the police stopped it, handcuffed him and took him to jail overnight.

At the time, the police had two warrants on graffiti charges filed against Mr. Fairey, accusing him of posting an image on a railroad trestle in 2000 and hanging posters on property owned by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in January. He was released after pleading not guilty, moving on to speak at the New York Public Library and to create a mural in Hollywood for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Only this week, when Mr. Fairey returned here for pretrial conferences, did he learn that the police wanted to charge him in more than two dozen other graffiti offenses, Mr. Wiesner said.

The case has prompted debate here about what separates street art from graffiti. Some residents have condemned Mr. Fairey, 39, as a rampaging punk; others say the case is proof that the city is stodgy and uptight. Greg Selkoe, whose company, Karmaloop, sells T-shirts stamped with Fairey images, lamented Boston’s “puritanical anti-art zealousness” in a letter to The Boston Globe and predicted that the arrest would keep creative types away.

On the other side are people like Anne Swanson, who heads a committee of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay devoted to spotting and removing graffiti from some of the city’s most affluent blocks. Mr. Fairey’s images appeared all over the Back Bay as his museum show approached, Ms. Swanson said, and her group alerted the police.

“This is clearly just chronic vandalism,” she said. “I voted for Obama, too, but I still don’t want to have to remove his face from 30 traffic signs.”

Ms. Swanson said the postings were of several Fairey designs and ranged from stickers to billboard-sized pieces.

In his statement, Mr. Fairey denied responsibility and suggested that others could have downloaded his images.

Mr. Wiesner said the police appeared to have no witnesses or evidence. The chief investigator, Detective William Kelley, was not available on Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

Mr. Fairey is also battling The Associated Press, which he sued after the organization said it owned the image Mr. Fairey used for his Obama poster. The A.P. countersued Wednesday, saying Mr. Fairey had copied the image and was profiting from it.

The court fights are probably helping attendance at the Fairey exhibit here. Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, said more than 37,000 people visited from Jan. 1 through Monday, up from 13,000 in the same period last year. As part of the museum show, more than two dozen works were posted, with permission, on outdoor property around the city.

“He’s raising important issues about consent and who decides what we see in public spaces,” Ms. Medvedow said. “It gives Boston an opportunity not just to engage but to help lead that debate.”

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