Arrests for Graffiti Decrease, Except for Graffiti Artist in the Spotlight

By Maurice Pinzon
New York City Council member James S. Oddo yesterday sent a letter to presidential candidate Howard Dean, attributing the recent arrest of a graffiti artist to the publicity generated after Governor Dean used the artist’s work as a backdrop for a campaign rally.

The day after the rally in August, Council member Oddo sent Governor Dean a letter criticizing his use of graffiti art.

The artist, Blake Lethem, who is known in the graffiti art community as Keo, has most recently been exhibiting his art on canvas, a trend among some graffiti artists who have been trying to exhibit their work and even try to sell it instead of tagging public spaces.

According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Lethem was arrested for allegedly spray-painting graffiti on subway cars in August 1999.

Mr. Oddo, who is the Republican minority leader in the City Council, said in the letter to Governor Dean: “Much to my delight N.Y.P.D. sources informed me yesterday that the information included in newspaper articles that resulted from my August 28, 2003 letter to you voicing my disdain for your selection of such a backdrop provided the N.Y.P.D. with details where Mr. Lethem resided.”

Mr. Oddo went on to suggest in his letter to Governor Dean that the candidate “invite some other miscreants and criminals” to his events in New York so that they too can be captured by the police.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in a news conference yesterday to announce the continuing work on the City’s third water tunnel, said he did not believe politics was the motive for the arrest. In a telephone interview with New York News Network, Mr. Oddo said he did not initiate contact with the Police Department and that the arresting officer called him and told him Mr. Lethem had been caught. According to Mr. Oddo, “This is the officer who made the arrest, 19 years on the job in New York City Police Department’s Transit Vandalism Bureau, so the things I allude to in my release, in my letter, come directly from him.” Mr. Oddo said the officer told him that the media attention generated when Mr. Oddo criticized Governor Dean gave the vandalism unit the necessary leads to apprehend Mr. Lethem. Mr. Oddo said the unit had been pursuing Mr. Lethem since 1999.

But Mayor Bloomberg downplayed the Dean fracas yesterday. “I don’t think it was that big a deal. I just thought that Howard Dean didn’t understand how much of a blight on a big city graffiti is,” he said.

One graffiti artist, now apprehensive about speaking publicly, said he was troubled that Mr. Lethem was arrested and put in jail with violent criminals for an incident that took place four years ago. He said the graffiti community was trying to focus on ventures that make money for graffiti artists.

According to New York State Crime Statistics, over the last two years arrests for “making graffiti,” one of the charges filed against Mr. Lethem, declined in New York City, from 650 in 2001 to 390 in 2002. In the Mayor’s management report released recently, graffiti, which is categorized in the Police Department’s report under “Quality of Life violations,” was not even mentioned as a targeted crime. In fact 75 percent of all quality-of-life complaints reported through the Citizen’s Complaint Center, where quality-of-life issues have been diverted, are noise complaints. Overall, according to the report, the Police Department “issued 9 percent fewer quality-of-life summonses” from July 2002 to June 2003, the City’s fiscal year.

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