Mixed reactions to graffiti artist Shepard Fairey's charges in Detroit
Detroit — Some call them street artists. Others say they're vandals.
After world-renowned artist Shepard Fairey was arraigned Tuesday on destruction of property charges for allegedly tagging buildings without permission, some questioned why police and city officials spend time pursuing graffiti violators in a city with the highest violent crime rate in the nation.
But police insist attacking seemingly low-level violators can improve life for residents and prevent more serious crimes — a strategy known as the "broken windows" theory of policing.
"It's not that we're not going after violent crime; we're going after all crime," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said Tuesday.
While Craig would not discuss the ongoing Fairey case, he said residents have told him they want graffiti artists arrested.
"When I talk to people in the community, they tell me these are the issues they want us to address: Quality of life issues like trash and graffiti," he said. "I believe cutting down on those kinds of violations will have an impact on violent crime."
Fairey was hired to put up a 184-foot-tall mural on the east side of 1 Campus Martius, formerly known as the Compuware building, owned by downtown building magnate Dan Gilbert. He also legally put up his art on a large billboard on East Grand River, a water tower bearing the artist's trademark "Obey" logo and several temporary murals.
But police say he also affixed his trademark stickers onto 14 other properties without the owners' permission.
Sgt. Rebecca McKay of the police department's general assignment unit, which handles quality of life issues, said eight property owners who did not give Fairey permission to tag their buildings wanted to prosecute him.
McKay said her unit has arrested 13 people for graffiti violations so far this year.
"We're extremely serious about this," McKay told The Detroit News when a warrant for Fairey's arrest was issued last month. "If we ignore graffiti it sends the message to people we don't care, and it projects the image that an area covered in graffiti is not safe."
Detroit residents contacted by The News had mixed feelings about police cracking down on graffiti violators.
"They're trying to paint a picture that Detroit is safe to come downtown, but I don't think they really care about the people in the neighborhoods," northwest Detroit resident Walter Burton said. "If this guy (Fairey) is such a problem, then why did they pay him to paint buildings downtown?
"I don't see a problem if he comes in and tries to make an old, raggedy abandoned building look better by tagging it," said Burton, 55.
Al Woods, 61, who lives near Burton, had a different perspective.
"I don't care if it's an abandoned building or not; you're tagging up and destroying other people's property without their consent," he said. "I think the police should enforce that. If you go through the whole city tagging, what's that going to lead to?"
According to the "broken windows" theory, blight leads to more serious crimes. In 2012 and 2013, the Manhattan Institute's George Kelling, one of the originators of the "broken windows" theory, worked with Detroit officials to put the theory into practice on the city's northwest side. After 18 months, the targeted neighborhoods saw a 26 percent drop in home invasions.
"It's a proven strategy," Craig said. "If you look at some of our problematic gas stations, a lot of the issues stem from things like those areas being unkempt, and people loitering. When you have that kind of environment, it leads to more serious criminal activity."
Last week, Fairey was arrested by customs agents at Los Angeles International Airport after returning from a trip to Europe. He spent the night in a Los Angeles jail.
Fairey was arraigned around 11 a.m. Tuesday before 36th District Magistrate Renee McDuffee on charges of malicious destruction of property.
The artist received a bond of $75,000, 10 percent, according to court officials. If he posts bond, he must notify the prosecutor's office of any travel plans.
Fairey is due back in court at 8:30 a.m. July 21 for a probable cause hearing, then again at 9 a.m. July 28 for a preliminary examination.
Mayor Mike Duggan has long taken a hard line against graffiti violators, during his mayoral tenure and when he served as Wayne County prosecutor. In 2003, as prosecutor, he charged two out-of-towners with malicious destruction of property; and after being elected mayor, he launched a crackdown on graffiti artists.
Fairey's case is the most recent high-profile case involving taggers. 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.
If Fairey is convicted, punishment for the offense carries up to five years in prison and a fine three times the monetary damage of the crime.