NYC Mistakenly Buffs Entire Building of Legal Graffiti

Will the city be charged with vandalism?

Photo: Bucky Turco

Earlier this month, the City of New York painted over a fully-sanctioned, one hundred percent legal graffiti installation covering a building on the Lower East Side after assuming that all the handiwork was done illegitimately. What took over a dozen writers several days to do, a few municipal workers undid in several hours. Ironically, it was the latter who did so without the permission of the current property owner. Some might call that vandalism.

Located on the corner of Orchard and Delancey Streets, the project was the brainchild of graffiti-trained art duo MINT & SERF. They handpicked a group of writers to blast almost every surface of the three-story space—covering it with colorful tags, fill-ins and pieces over a three-day period in late June/early July.

A photo posted by Bucky Turco (@buckyturco) on

It was done as a sendoff to Wallplay, the creative firm that rented the space and programmed scores of exhibits there. The basic concept was for these aerosol bombers, many of whom are still active in the street, to paint the building as if it were an illegal spot. When completed, the whole corner looked like a throwback to the early 1980s, a highly conspicuous graffiti landmark that may have been too convincing.

Over several months, others writers added to the mural and the site was photographed countless times. Then, in mid-September, two anti-graffiti task force vans showed up in the evening and buffed the entire building back to its highly conspicuous yellow color.

Real estate developer David Escava tells Mass Appeal that he bought 118 Orchard in 2012 and since he plans to raze it in the coming months, he gave both Wallplay and the project his blessing. But he was not contacted by anyone about the work being buffed. “I did not give the city permission to paint the building,” he explains.

According to the city, someone reported the public art to 311, setting the buff into motion. However, when the agency that assists with graffiti abatement pulled the building’s file it went off the old owner’s info. “We know that graffiti can take the form of public art, not just vandalism, and we make every effort to alert property owners before dispatching a crew to clean a building,” writes a representative for the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “In this instance, our crew didn’t recognize this as commissioned work, and we had a standing waiver on file granting the city permission to immediately remove any reported graffiti from the property.”

(Image: Bucky Turco/Wallplay)

Apparently, the previous owner had signed a waiver 10 years ago, allowing the city to automatically buff the building when a complaint is received. The NYCEDC says its workers are typically very discerning about painting over murals, RIP tributes, and other works of public art.

The city’s explanation didn’t sit well with MINT. He originally brought the proposal to Wallplay and organized the writers, a feat in and of itself. It also required permitting and lifts. “It’s very strange for the city to mistake it for illegal graffiti considering that we were out there for three days with lifts painting a three-floor building,” he says. “The local police department was put on notice about our project and the local precinct was fully aware of the fact that it was legal.”

This isn’t the first time that conceptual art by MINT, SERF and their PPP crew got buffed. In 2014, a mural they did for the L.I.S.A Project was also deemed too graffiti by local residents.

ZEXOR, a streetwise writer who participated in the Orchard Street project, also wasn’t feeling the city’s reasoning. “Who the fuck is there to deem what’s a mural and what’s not?” he asks rhetorically, “Muralism derives from graffiti. It’s the same shit.”

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