Kiko Was Here

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

"New York City has come a long way in the past 15 years," Vallone said. "We cannot allow ourselves to slip back into complacency, even on crimes such as graffiti, because give criminals an inch and they will take a mile."

Martinez agrees with Vallone on one thing: There's more graffiti than ever. But that's it.

The majority of the graffiti writers are working-class, mostly Hispanic or white kids, most under 18. For them New York City isn't profitable at all, literally or figuratively. From health care to education to jobs, the city makes a mockery of the gap between the haves and have-nots. And the have-nots are registering their displeasure by marking up apart- ment buildings, bridges, walls, billboards, and store gratings.

photo: Jorge Colombo


Tune in: Interview with reporter Sean Gardiner

"What has been done for the working class in this city lately?" Martinez asks. "Repression leads to aggression. Ask Freud why."

He goes on: "They can try stopping graf but the real problem is alienation. Alienation has increased and people need something, they need an identity. They're saying, 'Fuck the way I feel. I don't want to feel like that anymore. I want to be somebody.' "

Martinez says if guys like Vallone don't understand that, fuck 'em. "Great art was never legal," he says. "Every art movement has always been met by opposition."

But never in the 40-year history of popularized graffiti has there been such a concerted opposition.

In January 2005, Mayor Bloomberg announced the creation of a new command structure in the NYPD to address graffiti. Since then, graffiti arrests have skyrocketed. That first year, arrests spiked 79 percent. Through December 17, 2006, the NYPD arrested 2,865 taggers, more than eight a day, for another 15 percent increase.

And Siandre's case sets a precedent— graffiti vandals can now get jail.

Before his incarceration, Siandre was relieved to know he was avoiding state prison, where he only half-joked, "I'd be somebody's bitch." But Rikers houses, among other miscreants, murderers, rapists, and gang members awaiting trial. Asked if he was concerned about locking a skinny, young graffiti vandal up alongside such hard cases, Vallone shrugged. "Everyone's responsible for their own actions," he said.

Last Saturday, Siandre turned 29. In addition to that birthday, he's "celebrated" Christmas, New Year's, and Valentine's Day at Rikers' Otis Bantum Correctional Center.

Some days he rises at 4 a.m., breakfast time, and scarfs down some cereal. Usually, however, he sleeps in until 8, 9, or even 10 on an uncomfortably thin mattress in a room with about 50 other inmates. Hispanics stay on one side, blacks on the other. Siandre is sandwiched in the middle.

Siandre draws, reads, lifts weights, does push-ups, and plays handball. Lunch at 11, dinner at 5. The prisoners get only minutes to eat the typically disgusting food. Lights out at 11. His girlfriend visits a couple times a week and he gets to make two phone calls a day.

The showers have individual stalls and he has no fear of being raped or otherwise brutalized. In fact, he immediately ingratiated himself by drawing graffiti-style Christmas cards for his cellmates in exchange for cigarettes. And recently jail officials tapped him to paint a mural, a No. 7 train, in a room where visitors are checked in.

Jails "sucks," he says, but mostly because it's boring and loud. A group of guys in the unit yell "Yoooooo" back and forth all day.

Once released, Siandre hopes to parlay the publicity from his case into a legitimate graffiti career, doing contract pieces for businesses and trying to sell his work in art galleries. By then, according to the city's prisoner-cost estimates, the taxpayers will have laid out just over $33,000 for Siandre's six months at Rikers.

"I could've been out cleaning up 'Kikos,' but I'm just sitting here doing nothing," he says. "It was their call."

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