Vandal Squad debate

Scores will be settled when street artists and retired cops rap about graffiti, the law and Joseph Rivera's controversial new book.

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RECOMMENDED: Street art and graffiti guide

Photographs: Joseph Rivera, Courtesy of Powerhouse Arena

Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984--2004 chronicles Joseph Rivera’s tenure as an officer (and ultimately lead investigator) of the Vandal Squad, a division of the NYC transit police tasked with graffiti prevention. Graffers, incensed that Rivera is turning a profit on the backs of the incarcerated, have cried foul ever since the book’s December release. This week, three former street artists and three Vandal Squaders will face off during a panel discussion at powerHouse Arena. We asked four of them for some pregame thoughts.

ket
Artist, blogger (12ozprophet.com) and author of Graffiti Planet
“The old ways [of policing graffiti] are staking places out, busting kids in the act and getting kids to inform on each other. Now they can also get search warrants. [But putting artists in jail] is detrimental to society. If there’s a dispute, have them pay fines.... I’ve just never had a problem with people writing on the streets. I want to see that JOE LOVES LINDA. It’s great that they feel so in love they’d write it on the wall. Or I’d like to read BLOOMBERG SUCKS, because then I’d know that people think like I do. It’s a class war: The people that own property are really against it and the people that don’t think it’s okay. [Of Rivera’s book:] I think it’s a waste of paper. It’s poorly written, riddled in inaccuracies and almost cavalier in its presentation of policing and of graffiti. He’s trying to make a buck and maybe make himself famous.”

cope 2
Artist (cope2.net), author of Cope 2: True Legend
“I got into writing in the late ’70s and became the king of the 4 line. When the subways died in the ’80s, I bombed the whole city: abandoned buildings, lots, highways, everywhere. But it’s not worth it to be sitting in jail for graffiti when you could put your talent on T-shirts or sneakers and make money.... The book is cool; it’s [Rivera’s] point of view, it’s how he saw it. I hated the guy at the time—I called him Joe Blow because he was a fucking blow job, arresting people and raiding their cribs. I had to let that go. If his way of feeding his family is selling a book, I respect that.... [These days] New York City does not tolerate graffiti unless it’s a mural—and not even then. I had permission [to paint] murals in the street and they tried to come down hard on the owners. Instead of the city working with us, they war all the time. Me, I’m on the legit side now so I don’t really care. I can’t get in the middle of that.”

ken chiulli
Lt. commanding officer of the Vandal Squad, 1981--1991
“In the ’70s, the city was in complete disarray. We were out of money and they laid off officers. The city put out pamphlets [nicknaming the subway] the Muggers Express. It was chaos. [Vandals] were kicking out the windows on the 6 line; on one trip they would kick out 100 windows. People were totally intimidated. I was riding the trains in plainclothes and would hear out-of-towners say, 'My God, is there any police protection?’ Do you know how vast the subway is? You would need a small army to police it. So we concentrated on one area and we were making, like, 400 arrests a month. The Vandal Squad were actually respected because we didn’t beat people up. Were we harsh on them? No, they broke the law, we arrested them. It was simple. If somebody came and painted cartoons over your house, even though they might be the best cartoons you ever saw in your life, it’s still your house and you didn’t give them permission to paint it. They have no regard for public property.”

joseph rivera
Author of Vandal Squad
“Originally I’m from the South Bronx. I used to see [graffiti artist Seen] sitting on the benches with his friends trainspotting—just watching the works go by. I used to watch it too; I mean, back then we were all in high school cutting class, whatever. It was like, 'Wow, look!’ Then I would think, like, How the hell do they get away with that? Seen actually started a T-shirt business up in the Bronx. I took over the [Vandal Squad] softball team in ’89 and wanted to get new jerseys, so I asked him if he would be interested in doing shirts. He said no problem: Business is business. [As for the panel] I’m just very curious to hear their opinion. How can they justify it? When I was out there and I did my thing, I didn’t mistreat anyone. You were nice, you got treated nice, no problems whatsoever. One time, I was sitting on a train and these guys came along and starting spraying. We got one out of the four, but for me it was the first time that I really saw these kids shimmying down the pillars of the L. I looked at it like, Oh my God, this is how they do it. When I got off the train to go after them, another train flew right by; if I would’ve taken a step out, I would’ve got splattered. That’s why there is no fun in graffiti.”

Ellis Gallagher
Artist, member of the Neo-Cons collective
“I’m still very much a part of graffiti culture, but I can’t afford to get arrested. My focus now is on shadow art [chalk] and making prints of my work for galleries and museums. It’s the next logical step. It’s almost like doing graffiti in a way: It’s in the public view and I can do it in broad daylight. [The one time I was arrested] was a pain in the ass. It made me feel like, Where are their priorities? Where are taxpayer dollars going? All this talk about economic this and economic that, and they’re wasting money policing people for chalking sidewalks. ”

READY TO GO? Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984--2004 panel discussion: powerHouse Arena, 37 Main St between Front and Water Sts, Dumbo, Brooklyn (718-666-3049, powerhousearena.com). Thu 19 at 7pm, free. R.S.V.P. to rsvp@powerhousearena.com.

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