Arresting an artist for making fun of Rudy Giuliani is hardly the worst of the police department’s recent sins. At least Steven Powers is alive to promote himself. But it’s truly scary to think that if you invite people to throw artificial dung at a portrait of the mayor—especially one that resembles the infamous Madonna packing them in at the Brooklyn Museum—the police will raid your apartment. And if they spot a set of brass knuckles hanging on the kitchen wall, they will bust you for possessing a weapon.
That’s what happened to Powers on December 3, just a day before his “Doody Rudy” event was staged in Washington Square. On that bright Sunday afternoon, you could toss a faux turd at the city’s maximum leader for a dollar a poop, with all proceeds going to the mayor’s favorite AIDS charity, Housing Works. As it turned out, however, the hurlers were outnumbered by reporters and plainclothes cops. Such is life in the new, improved metropolis, where fame is the love child of publicity and the police.
If Powers were merely a bad-boy painter with an eye on Page Six, he might have joined Mary Boone in the pantheon of art martyrs and had his case dismissed (as hers was). Instead, he faces an investigation that could lead to multiple misdemeanor charges, all stemming from his oeuvre as ESPO. You may have seen that tag adorning metal store gates in the art-and-latte zone. When asked what he’s up to, Powers explains that he’s with a company called Exterior Surface Outreach. His mission is covering up graffiti with a coat of silver paint and then “adding a quart of black to make it say ESPO.”
Promo in the name of beautification is a concept any artist in Mary Boone’s stable can grasp. But this line doesn’t play in the graffiti world, where many consider Powers a media-fed simulation of the Real Thing. Nor has it impressed the Downtown condoscenti. Complaints from a community group objecting to ESPO’s “renovation” of an old street mural (“I had nothing to do with that,” Powers insists) reportedly alerted the police. But they didn’t actually tail him until last July, when Powers published The Art of Getting Over, a personal homage to graffiti. Though the book is more a scrapbook than a true history, it’s lively and loaded with jargon—the perfect stocking stuffer for the wigger who has everything. Also the perfect occasion for a police raid.
“Every once in a while, usually while you’re waiting in the back of a cop car with the bracelets on, you know the power of your work,” Powers notes. It’s a sentiment Al Sharpton might share. Still, Sharpton has never been subject to a seizure of his files, his correspondence, and even the contents of his hard drive, as Powers has. The police also made off with paint, brushes, and markers, as well as back issues of his graffiti-driven magazine On the Go and several copies of his current tome. At the station house, Powers claims, they ragged him about mocking cops in print—a quality-of-life offense second only to mocking the mayor. “Steve’s mistake was to write a book,” says his attorney, Ron Kuby. “Anybody who views graffiti as an art form will pop up on Rudy’s radar screen.”
There’s an upside to being a celebrity offender. It can generate more press than a pack of hungry flacks. And Powers is quite the young hustler, taking business calls while holding forth on “urban semiotics” and the art of marketing. “Instead of selling a product, I sell vapors,” he says, using a hiphop locution referring to the aura of celebrity. “One of the things we learned with On the Go was how to position ourselves to translate what was happening in the street to elite corporations.” Right now, Powers is pursuing a movie based on his book. Streetwise he may be, but at 31, he’s also hip to synergy.
It doesn’t hurt to have a collaborator as savvy as Joey Skaggs, who’s been dubbed “our favorite media hoaxster” by Page Six. At one point in the interview, Skaggs breaks in with a bulging press kit featuring everything you ever wanted to know about his performance art. “Steve was erroneously given credit for ‘Doody Rudy,’ ” Skaggs explains. “He did the painting, but the concept was mine.” So was the idea of sending forth a thousand press releases (some of which may well have reached the police).
Of course, there’s nothing novel about a street artist with a royal sense of himself—that’s why the crown is such an enduring symbol in graffiti. In fact, it’s an oxymoron to say the words tagging and modest in the same breath. But what galls the boys of graff (at least a large faction of them) is that Powers has parlayed his street cred into an art career, like his friends Barry McGee and Phil Frost.
There are wonderful painters, most of them Latino, who have stuck with graff for 25 years, honing it into a vector of liquid color and dynamic line. But they have yet to sell a piece. Other writers found their niche in commercial design after a deeply disillusioning moment in the Soho sun back in the early ’80s. But just as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat got over by mastering the tropes of the white art world, today’s galleried vandals know what it takes to score a one-man show.
Powers has yet to achieve the notoriety that greeted McGee’s recent installation at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery. But he’s determined to get art-world respect, as befits a boy from Philadelphia who, in the 10th grade, set out to “create a synthesis between Futura and Diago [sic] Rivera that would be more powerful than either.” These days, he’ll settle for a movie deal, or at least a dealer willing to show his work.
Not that he hasn’t thought about the appropriation issue. “I see a lot of missed opportunities,” Powers says. “There are plenty of artists you’ll never see in the gallery because they won’t play the game. I put on the beret and smock just like everyone else. When I’m creating work, I think of the four white walls and the concrete floor. I don’t see anybody working the space better than Barry and Phil [McGee and Frost], and I guarantee that anybody creating work on that par is not going to be denied.”
Class privilege is a funny thing. It can blind you to the real reason for your success, and lull you with the illusion of a safety that doesn’t exist. Powers seems to have forgotten the fate of DESA, a writer from the cemetery belt between Brooklyn and Queens with much less access to the media. No reporter noticed when DESA was sent up for two years after police assembled a case from photos of his work. Powers could be subject to the same fate despite his Downtown ways, since, like any proper conceptual artist, he has documented his graff. “It’s finished,” he says (perhaps disingenuously) of his career as ESPO. “It’s been over for some time now.”
But keeping the street ESPO-free may not be all the police are after. By insisting for the record that they are conducting “an ongoing investigation,” that they searched his apartment “for evidence in an ongoing investigation,” and that they won’t “comment on an ongoing investigation,” the authorities are making sure that this artist lives day and night with a gnawing feeling of uncertainty. And beneath the bravado you’d expect from someone whose official bio boasts that “this is his first book, although not the first time he’s been booked,” it’s fair to say from the look in his eyes that Powers is scared.
He should be—and so should anyone who contemplates dissent. Like the artist Robert Lederman, who suffered dozens of arrests for hectoring the mayor, or the protesters who’ve been busted for heckling Giuliani at parades, every critic is a potential offender now. If you’re going to advocate an idea deemed dangerous—or just make fun of the authorities—you’d better cross at the green, not in between. And if you’re not squeaky clean, shut up.
Research: Jason Schwartzberg