Controversial graffiti artist arrested in Los Angeles

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A well-known California graffiti artist who was charged with a felony after he allegedly vandalized Detroit properties while in town to beautify buildings downtown was arrested when he returned to the United States from Europe.

Shepard Fairey talks with students from the Detroit Academy of Arts & Sciences and shows them examples of his work on May 21, 2015.

Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, was taken into custody Monday by customs agents at Los Angeles International Airport as he returned from a lengthy European trip, said Douglas Baker, chief of criminal enforcement for the Detroit Law Department.

"Our warrant was evidently discovered as he went through customs, and he was placed under arrest," Baker said.

Fairey, 45, was charged by Wayne County prosecutors last month with malicious destruction of property over $1,000 and less than $20,000, after he allegedly vandalized 14 different buildings and walls, including two city-owned properties.

This piece of anti-consumerism graffitti art by Shepard Fairey on the side of a vacant building on Gratiot Avenue has since been partially covered by plywood on the side of a vacant building on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. The covered part contains the word 'Power' in huge letters. Photos taken on Monday, June 1, 2015.

The artist was hired to erect a 184-foot-tall mural on the east side of the Compuware building owned by downtown building magnate Dan Gilbert, a large billboard on East Grand River, a water tower bearing the artist's trademark "Obey" logo and several temporary murals.

Fairey spent the night in a Los Angeles jail while authorities checked to see whether Wayne County wanted to extradite him, Baker said.

"Per the county's policy, they don't extradite on lower-level cases like this," Baker said. Once it was determined Fairey would not be extradited to Michigan, he was released from jail, Baker said.

Baker said city officials are discussing with Fairey when he will come to Detroit to face charges.

Graffitti art by Shepard Fairey on the side of a vacant building on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit.

Victoria Yarnish, supervising director for Fairey's Obey Giant Art firm, said in an email the artist "is not available and has no comment at this time."

Sgt. Rebecca McKay of the police department's general assignment unit, which handles quality of life issues, said there are 14 different locations in the city where Fairey posted the stickers he uses to create murals. Eight property owners who did not give him permission to tag their buildings wanted to prosecute, she said.

McKay said two of the 14 properties are city owned. One is a wall on Woodward; the other is an underpass at East Grand Boulevard at Interstate 75.

If convicted, punishment for the offense carries up to five years in prison and a fine three times the monetary damage of the crime.

McKay said her unit has arrested 13 people for graffiti violations so far this year. Baker said some have gone to jail.

"Our recommendations are tailored to the offender and other circumstances, but we are not hesitating to recommend jail time, and we have some offenders going to jail," he said.

Baker declined to say whether he would seek a jail sentence for Fairey.

Attorneys in the city's Law Department have been designated as Special Wayne County Prosecutors to handle cases involving graffiti and other blight violations, Baker said. "This has sort of been our issue, since the city has had a real initiative tackling blight and graffiti."

City and police officials have aggressively targeted taggers, with Fairey's case the most recent high-profile example.

Three Grosse Pointe Woods teens were arrested and charged last year after Gilbert appealed to the public to help identify individuals responsible for defacing some downtown buildings. The girls entered a plea deal to serve 60 hours of community service, including removing graffiti from buildings, and $2,000 in restitution.

Earlier this year, two 19-year-olds were charged with vandalism after allegedly painting an image in February on a youth center building depicting an angel pointing a gun at a police officer.

Mayor Mike Duggan has long had a get-tough policy for graffiti. In 2003, while Wayne County prosecutor, he charged two out-of-towners with malicious destruction of property. Both men pleaded guilty and spent 60 days in the Wayne County Jail.

(313) 222-2134