The city’s crackdown on sidewalk chalk “vandals” is officially out of control! It was bad enough when the Sanitation Department threatened the parents of a 6-year-old Park Slope girl with a $300 fine if they did not remove the offensive “graffiti” — her sidewalk chalk drawings on their own front stoop.
But after we ran our front-page story about Natalie Shea and her chalk “vandalism,” a Cobble Hill chalk artist who had never been arrested before suddenly found himself in handcuffs and spending a night in the lockup.
Coincidence? Not likely, considering that the artist, Ellis Gallagher, had been quoted in the original Brooklyn Paper piece — a story that the desk sergeant just happened to be reading when Gallagher was brought in.
“The cops had spent about half an hour debating whether to arrest me, so they finally called the sergeant who said, ‘Bring him in,’” recalled Gallagher. “And when I get to the 76th Precinct [stationhouse], sure enough, the sergeant is reading The Brooklyn Paper and laughing at me.”
While we’re not surprised that the sergeant was reading Brooklyn’s real newspaper, Gallagher was stunned to be arrested and held overnight because of a few benign comments in our Oct. 13 issue:
“Cops stop me all the time when they see me drawing on the sidewalk,” Gallagher had said at the time. “But once they see it’s just chalk, they always let me go.”
On Oct. 17, Gallagher was at the corner of Smith and Warren streets, creating one of his trademark shadow drawings — in chalk! — for the PBS show “New York Voices.” He says that two cops in a patrol car stopped and asked if he had permits to do his work, but, like so many times before, Gallagher showed off his chalk and expected the cops to be on their way.
But not in the current climate — not when chalk-bearing 6-year-olds are running wild!
The cops referred to their penal law codes and then flagged down two more officers, who joined the sidewalk debate over whether to arrest Gallagher, whose work consists solely of outlining the shadows of objects in chalk.
Gallagher was ultimately charged with making graffiti, possession of graffiti-making materials and criminal mischief.
After spending the night on a hard bench, Gallagher’s case was dismissed at the Red Hook Community Court.
Now, this is the part of a normal column where the writer would call some free speech lawyer for the suitably appropriate condemnation of the arrest. But you don’t need to be a lawyer to feel that somewhere between Natalie Shea’s innocent, child-like drawings and the arrest of Ellis Gallagher, something has gone off the rails in this city.
Even the NYPD told me two weeks ago that what Shea and Gallagher are doing is not graffiti because chalk doesn’t even last through a minor rainfall. But that didn’t prevent the city from sending Natalie’s parents their warning letter. And it didn’t keep Gallagher out of jail.
His mission now is to get the law changed so that chalk is explicitly exempted from the current city graffiti law, which is vague on whether scrawls made from impermanent materials can be considered graffiti.
He’s looking for a good lawyer or a Councilmember willing to stand up for art, children’s sidewalk scrawls and future generations of hopscotch players everywhere.
Sounds like child’s play, no?