A Guide To Not Getting Arrested For Graffiti In NYC

July 7, 2014 | The Law

It is a sad state of affairs when would-be graffiti artists get caught by the police in a city as big as New York, where there is plenty of real crime vying for the NYPD’s attention. So, please take the following advice and you will save us and yourself some late nights at the courthouse.

The first thing you will need is a decent plan, nothing elaborate. Pack only what you need and refrain from bringing extraneous items; no extra colors, stencils, markers or weed. Do not bring a sketch of your piece with you, unless you are prepared to eat it.

Consider a lookout. Pick someone who doesn’t look like a fucking criminal and is not carrying anything illegal, especially not spray paint. You should not dress like what the NYPD thinks a thug dresses like. A button down and khakis are more inconspicuous than the ubiquitous hoody. Whatever you do, do not write your plan down.

You will need to choose your spot carefully, which will likely involve a reconnaissance mission for just such a purpose. You should be mindful of whether the property is public or private space. If you are Banksy, or a similarly well-known artist, you will always choose a privately owned building. In fact, privately owned property is the better choice for any street artist — the police will have to find the owners of the building before they can charge you with graffiti and criminal mischief. Note that they can charge you with possession of graffiti instruments regardless.

Another consideration: As alluring as that pristine wall looks, it’s better to tag somewhere that already looks like crap. That way, at trial, your smug legal aid lawyer can whip out the photographs of the slumlord’s building and claim that your tag did not cause any damage to substantiate the criminal mischief charge. They might even argue that you figured it was okay to tag that particular wall since countless others had done so before and after you.

But if you must choose a roll down or that space near the billboard, at least don’t pick a neighborhood full of self-righteous, meticulous Republicans. They always make it to court and they will insist to the prosecutor that you get the maximum. Choose a neighborhood wisely. Poor people hate going to court, as does anyone who has to go to work every day.

So, let’s say your best-laid plan goes awry and a police officer approaches. Your lookout gives the agreed upon signal. (I am partial to a bird sound but a well-played distraction such as dropping something and cursing loudly could work. Be creative.) You immediately get rid of any contraband on your person. If you can run, then do so. If you can’t run or get rid of the paint in your backpack, zip it up! All the police need to see is your paint and they can search the bag and your done. It might be good to whip out your phone and pretend to be talking with your mom or have your earphones in. This all goes back to having a plan. Girls, whip out some lip gloss. (Play that sexism to your advantage, keep it “vacuous.”) If the officers ask you your name, you can tell them. If they ask you what you are doing, make something up. If they ask you what’s in your bag, ask them why they want to know. Under no circumstances consent to them looking in the bag. The police can only look in your bag if they have probable cause to arrest you or if they have reason to believe you are armed.

It is unlikely that police will get search warrants for your home and computers unless you are very prolific. If that’s the case, don’t keep any photographs around your apartment or on your hard drive. Otherwise, don’t have photos of your work on your phone, camera or Instagram feed, especially the latter which has become quite an invaluable too for the Vandal Squad. If you must take photos, immediately send them and erase.

Now, what if you are standing right next to a dripping wet piece and you have paint on your hands and you didn’t run? Frankly, you deserve to be arrested. Don’t make it worse by saying anything to the police, that just gives us more evidence, dummy.

  The Law works within the New York City legal system.