Kiko Was Here

A would-be Basquiat goes to prison in a misguided graffiti crackdown

In an attempt to uncover mitigating circumstances, attorney Frank Rothman sent Siandre to two psychotherapists. One, Michelle Kennedy, found Siandre's need to tag to be "almost like an impulse-control issue, but it appears to be something he can control when his mind is occupied on something artistic," like making jewelry. She said Kiko was a by-product of the emotional and physical abuse Siandre suffered growing up. Tagging at his age may seem immature to many, but Kennedy sees it as a defense mechanism.

"Oliver is this meek, hurt person and Kiko is this strong, 'look at me,' powerful person that everyone looks up to. I think he needs to be that person sometimes,'' said Kennedy. She recommended Siandre receive alcohol rehab and community service doing something like "teaching art in schools."

Assistant Queens district attorney Michael Bovner wasn't moved. When Rothman asked about a deal, Bovner told him one to three years in state prison—the kind of time for clubbing someone over the head with a pipe.

photo: Jorge Colombo


Tune in: Interview with reporter Sean Gardiner

Meanwhile, Vallone continued to apply political pressure.

"After he was arrested, I spoke with District Attorney Brown," he said. "We kept on top of this case to make sure this one didn't slip through the cracks."

Vallone was hoping Siandre's case would serve as a warning for other "graffiti punks." But 17-year-old Ralph Bay Lan, who tags as "RUF," said Siandre's arrest just energized the "toys."

"That only encouraged more little kids like 'SOJO,' " he said, pointing to the tags of a 13-year-old that cover a building near Athens Square Park. "When Kiko hit the (newspaper) covers everybody started to get hyped up about writing."

For a year the case bounced from judge to judge until, on October 19, it came before Queens Supreme Court Judge Barry Kron, who, given the circumstances, gave Siandre what amounted to a break. Instead of state prison, the judge offered six months in Rikers Island jail, five years probation, and $25,000 in restitution. Given two months to get his shit together, Siandre worked, partied, hung out with his girlfriend, saw the Borat movie, and generally tried not to think about what lay ahead.

Siandre also sprayed one final "Kiko," white and orange with the word "free" running down the first "K." The tag was done at 5Ptz, a five-story factory turned artist loft near Queensborough Plaza, where writers are encouraged to display their work. Pieces at 5Ptz usually only last a couple of weeks before getting painted over. Perhaps as a salute, "Free Kiko" is still up.

"I just want to leave my mark," says Siandre, whose eyeglasses have tiny flecks of white paint on them. "So one day when I'm old, I'll pass by some place and see 'Kiko' up there."

On December 7, Peter Vallone Jr. arrived at Judge Kron's courtroom 45 minutes ahead of Siandre, who was late for his own sentencing. The councilman asked to give a victim impact statement on behalf of the 170,000 residents in his district. Over Rothman's objection, Vallone read his statement, ending with the request that after completing his jail sentence, Siandre be forced into community service cleaning up because "the community members that will have to clean his tag cannot reach some of the places he painted it."

The plea agreement having long been worked out, Kron ignored Vallone's request. The judge, uncharacteristically, addressed members of the 114th Civ-Op in the audience, assuring them Siandre's punishment was "substantial."

"He doesn't leave this courtroom today as a graffiti artist, he leaves the courtroom today as a convicted felon. And that speaks for itself."

Kron added that if Siandre violates probation, he'll serve another two and a third to seven years in state prison.

Speaking to the Voice after the sentencing, Vallone insisted he never sought the spotlight on this issue. He was self-deprecating about his title as "The Man Who Hates Graffiti," as a fluffy New York Times piece dubbed him last fall. Instead, his role as anti-graffiti crusader was thrust upon him, he claimed, after he stood up to the vandals and the corporations looking to profit by glorifying tagging. (Hours after telling me this, Vallone issued a City Council press release, extensively quoting himself, titled "Kiko Heads to Rikers.")

With relish, Vallone listed the personal attacks over the past two years: His address was released on a graffiti website with the suggestion to "redecorate" his home, "Fuck Vallone" was painted on a billboard, someone tacked up subway service interruption posters that included a line calling him a "punk," and so on.

"If you make criminals angry, you're doing something right," Vallone said.

Because subways, once the prime target but now comparatively graffiti-free, were such visible targets, it's generally thought that graffiti's heyday has passed. But many, including Vallone, believe there's more graffiti now than ever. For him the reasons are simple. With about 3,000 fewer cops than a few years back and added anti-terrorism duties, the NYPD is not able to address quality-of-life crimes as it once did. At the same time, he said, "graffiti is being glorified by irresponsible corporate organizations," drawing more kids to it. To him, graffiti is the beginning of the slippery reversion to to the bad old days.

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