Volume 75, Number 29 | December 7 - 13, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

A new graffiti mural by A. Charles of rapper Fifty Cent’s new movie — showing a handgun sticking out of the rapper’s pants — has offended neighbors and graffiti artists who are calling for its removal.

On 3rd St., rapping about graffiti’s pros and cons

By Sara G. Levin

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and an elderly woman is awakened by aerosol fumes wafting through her ground-floor window on E. Third St. near Avenue B. Penny, who did not wish to give her last name, said asthma makes her sensitive to the paint, and that she was enraged last month when she woke up to find a young man photographing his freshly painted bubble letters underneath her sill.

A couple yards away on the same block, a handgun glimmers in a “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” mural spray-painted around the same time of rapper Fifty Cent’s new movie. Though some locals might not take much notice of graffiti tags that have long been a street-side decor of the block, or an advertisement mural, other renters said they are frustrated. According to them, the tagging — in which graffitists write their street names — is only getting worse and the new mural worsens graffiti’s image by promoting an amoral message to neighborhood kids.

“I think it should come down,” said Antonio Garcia, a veteran Lower East Side graffiti artist, better known by his tag, Chico. Garcia said he went to complain to the Police Department two weeks ago. And if the mural is still up when the weather turns warmer he plans to paint over it with a more positive message — whether allowed to or not. Garcia’s murals and memorials have adorned Downtown streets since the 1980s, most recently featuring the late Pope John Paul II on E. Houston St. and Avenue B, and Thomas McKinney, 24 — shot to death in September outside Mission nightclub on the Bowery — on the roll-down gate of the Burkina hip-hop store at E. Houston and Allen Sts.

“What kind of message is that for kids?” Garcia said, referring to the Fifty Cent mural by graffiti artist A. Charles. “You can’t put disgusting things on walls like guns. When you walk down the neighborhood you want to see color. Make it bright, not depressing.”

Barbara Woods, a mother of three who lives in the area, said she agrees with paying local artists to endorse things that people are interested in. She disagrees, though, with tags and the Fifty Cent mural, which she says encourages fast and easy money.

“You don’t want art to take away from the quality of life,” Woods said. “Children can be led to improve if we give them an opportunity to move up,” she added, opining that instead of spending city funds arresting graffiti writers, these might be better spent supporting the graffitists with a positive message. If people from the area were encouraged to paint creative murals, she said, they might, in turn, want to protect the walls from being defaced by random tags. “Maybe if the kids painted their own murals, they would defend them,” she said.

Andre Charles, 36, who goes by the tag A. Charles, and is recognizable by his signature baby drawing, said he voluntarily painted the mural without being paid.

“The wall wasn’t done to hurt nobody, it wasn’t done because of the guns,” he said. “It was done out of respect for the movie and how far Fifty Cent got…especially as a black man.” Charles, who does street advertisements, T-shirts and even snow globes, said he admired the film and its marketing campaign. When he saw that the wall on the corner of Third St. was burned (a Con Edison explosion scorched the wall in early August) and covered in tags, he asked the superintendent of the building if he could put up a mural.

“I keep the walls clean,” Charles said, adding that most of his murals around the city, which range from local retail advertisements to “Stay in School” messages, are tag-free because people respect them. “If I see a tag on them, I’ll paint over it,” he said.

Though many people disagree with Fifty Cent’s message, Charles said he himself got his start as a young businessman by promoting a positive image — selling his baby symbol on a T-shirt that read, “Don’t make a baby if you can’t be a father.” He said the baby was a symbol of a baby boom among young people in the South Bronx where he grew up, and is named after his nephew, Brandon.

At any rate, Charles said he planned to paint over the Fifty Cent mural on Tuesday and replace it with something with a more “positive spin.”

It seems that the favored targets of most graffiti writers are old tenement buildings, especially doorways, like the art-deco inspired entrance at 254 E. Third St. There, metal rays that decorate the glass are almost hidden among marker and acid burns. Unlike No. 222, a new building with a security camera and a doorman a block away, No. 254 stands unguarded.

Sharda Chaitanya, who owns Lalita Java on Third St. between Avenues B and C, had kept her 1977 Volkswagen parked outside her shop for seven and a half years without anyone defacing it. Last Thanksgiving, though, a couple of graffitists decided to tag on the van, which has since collected hundreds of names which now cover almost every inch, including the windows.

“I wouldn’t mind if it was actually good graffiti, but it’s crap,” Chaitanya said, disgusted. But Chaitanya has never called the police to report anything because doing so would be futile, she said. “How can they can they catch them? It’s like trying to catch people who throw their cigarette butts on the street.”

Penny, who bought herself a bucket of paint remover, but didn’t call police either, agreed.

“What are [police] gonna do?” she asked. “By the time they could come, he was already on the second one two minutes later down the block,” she said, describing the assailant as a 20-something white man with blond hair.

However, according to the Daily News, graffiti-related arrests in Manhattan rose 87 percent this year and the East Village’s Ninth Precinct made the most arrests for graffiti — a total of 87 — in any precinct in the five boroughs. More arrests have been the result of combining task forces to concentrate on graffiti in 2004 and creating a vandal database, which keeps profiles of prolific graffiti writers. Yet, as tagging subcultures only grow Downtown, some people think arresting perpetrators might not be the right answer.

“It becomes a status for kids to get caught,” Woods said. Her brother was a graffiti artist growing up and has been teaching her son how to draw graffiti. “Kids aren’t always derelicts. We need to get more support for artists with a good message to make it a legitimate outlet,” she added, referring to politics and funding.

Garcia, whose work is ofton commissioned by building or store owners, agrees that a new approach must be taken.

“The city is spending millions on taking graffiti away, but if they don’t work with people who know about [the graffiti world], more people are going to do it,” Garcia said.

Garcia now works for the New York City Housing Authority as a caretaker, sometimes cleaning up the walls of buildings. Still, he feels community arts projects should supplant major police efforts to curb graffiti. He was indignant that many of the tags come from people from other neighborhoods, the suburbs and even tourists from other countries who tag on the Lower East Side because of its recognition. Charles also blasted “suburban” wannabes for graffitiing in the East Village.

Another local resident, who refused to be named, had a different opinion. “It’s self-expression for young people and can keep the property values down so we can all live here,” he said.

Yet many people on Third St. between Avenues A and C agree that they would support graffiti if it were what they considered artistic — but not scrawled tags.

“I notice it, but it costs too much to fix it,” said Scott Barnes who works at Urban Roots, a store on Avenue A near Third St., which has tags thrown up on the top of its awning. Barnes is from San Francisco, which he said has more graffiti on the street than New York City. But, it’s a different kind of graffiti, he said. “They’re more artistic, even though they still want their name on the streets,” he said. “Whereas here, I don’t think it’s artists who do it.”

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