“If they charge me, then for the rest of my life, it will be in my record as a misdemeanor that I tried to sell a pillow.”
SEE ONE–also known as “Jamel”–an artist who sells his work on the street, is going to criminal court next week… over a painted pillow. The 31-year-old Brooklyn man was arrested in July for offering the decorative item for sale without a vendor’s license, one of three he had displayed on his sidewalk table on Prince Street in Soho alongside canvasses with similar designs. But it was the $35 pillows that “two football player-like dudes”–who turned out to be undercover NYPD officers–were interested in.
“They asked if I have a tax ID to sell my artwork, which I did,” said Jamel. “They told me the tax ID is cool for all my art, but didn’t cover the three pillows I made, even though I painted them.” Crafts such as pillows, no matter how custom and ornate, aren’t covered in the guidelines established after a key ruling against the city in 2001.
Jamel was placed in handcuffs and hauled away to a jail cell where he sat for nine hours. “They told me NYC only considers something that is a flat surface and painted on a piece of art. Since I wrapped raw canvas around a pillow form instead of stretcher bars they said it’s now a product, not art,” said Jamel. “I hand painted on raw canvas then mailed it to Long Island for my mom to sew together.” (That’s not only art, that’s collaboration!)
Jamel was eventually released on his own recognizance. Unable to afford a lawyer, the artist was assigned a public defender and proclaimed his innocence. He’s been to court three times; next week he’ll find out if the case goes to trial. “The prosecution is taking me to trial for the pillows unless I pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and take one day [of] community service and a misdemeanor charge on my record for a year.” [UPDATE: The NYPD didn’t hit him with the disorderly conduct charge, the DA did.]
When asked about the merits of the case by email, the NYPD told ANIMAL that, “[Jamel] did not have a Consumer Affairs license to sell the pillows.” Which is true. And absurd.
Robert Lederman, an artist and president of vending watchdog group, A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics), is responsible for winning a landmark ruling against the city in 2001 that legally established their right to sell art work in the streets without a permit (read the guidelines here).
According to Lederman, who has been arrested 44 times and never convicted, “If the artwork is on something that has a functional purpose, then the city can still require a vending license.” If an artist paints an image on a canvas and then does the same to t-shirts, garbage cans, TVs, or other “purely functional items,” such as pillows, it is illegal to sell without a proper permit.
There is one workaround. Lederman says that those same goods are protected under a free speech provision if they contain a political reference, whether it be a slogan, message, or logo. For argument’s sake, had Jamel painted “Free Palestine” on one side of the pillow, selling it without a vendor’s license would have been perfectly lawful. “The ruling doesn’t mention a list of items. It’s purely up to the judge” explained Lederman. “Which of course opens it up to a tremendous amount of variety in rulings.”