Spray The Price
Edward M. Kratt is a writer's best friend.
Words By Jack Welles Illustration by Stay Vers
After college, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. It was the hippie era. Everyone was doing a lot of drugs, a lot of peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll, so I did a lot of that stuff. At one point, I took off and traveled to Africa. I was 21 years old. After a while, my father said to me, “You’re a smart kid. Why don’t you do something with your life? Why don’t you go to graduate school?” I resisted for a while, then he said, “I’ll pay for your law school, and if you don’t like it, drop out.” I went to law school, and the only thing that interested me was criminal law. I got straight A’s.
My first job was as a criminal defense attorney with Legal Aid in Manhattan. I did that for two years and then went into the music business. I wanted to be a musician much more than a lawyer. I played music full-time for about seven or eight years, and then my wife and I decided to have kids. I wasn’t going to be too good a father if I continued to be the type of person I was at that time—I was pretty irresponsible. So, I decided to go back into law.
Criminal law is word of mouth. In the later ‘80s/early ‘90s, some Colombians were much like Scarface—they had loads of drugs and money. I was really fortunate to have this one pretty big case. There were a lot of drugs and a lot of guns, but I ended up getting them out of it.
My first graffiti case was a Supreme Court case. A young kid decided to go into a parking lot in Tribeca and tag all of the luxury automobiles on Friday night—Jaguars, Mercedes. As he finished up, the parking guy saw him and started chasing him. He had a bag, and in that bag he had a computer, which he dropped as he ran away. They went into his computer and discovered his identity and subsequently arrested him. The damage was astronomical. This was maybe 2000 or a little bit earlier. At the time, there was a recent Supreme Court decision saying cops couldn’t go into cellphones or computers without a warrant. I got them to suppress the content of the computer, including the identity of this kid. The case was thrown out and he walked. After that, I started getting referrals.
The police have become more aggressive in going after graff writers. This administration is taking it more seriously for whatever reason. Cops are now carrying paint and are advised to spray over graffiti. They have an idea that if they crack down on nonviolent crimes, they’re going to stop a lot more crimes.
The biggest mistake I have seen clients make is admitting to certain tags. If cops arrest a tagger in the act, they will say, “We have seen your tag around.” People generally say, “Yes.” This is a bad thing to say. Generally, I advise my clients to not say anything to the police—no matter what. Don’t say, “You got me” or “I’m innocent”—just ask for a lawyer.
When somebody is found with paint or markers, their tactics are the same: “Tell us what your tag is and we’ll let you go.” Even if a tag is out there and you’re caught in the act, it’s still very hard to prosecute because there’s always the defense of a copycat or statute of limitations. They tell you to plead guilty, otherwise “We’re going to drag you around the city, and whenever we see your tag, we’re going to charge you.” Most people give up their name because they are scared of multiple prosecutions, but the reality is that it doesn’t happen this way. Under constitutional case law, cops are allowed to lie to you.
I represent a lot of kids from the West Coast, East Coast, some with backgrounds in art, some who have gone to college. I’m representing a guy now who tagged a lot when he was younger, then he got married, had a family, and recently got back into it because he loves to do it. It’s a pretty large spectrum of people who are into it. I wouldn’t say there’s a particular ethnicity that dominates.
The common thread for me is that everybody that’s into graffiti is pretty determined and serious about what they do. A lot of them see it as an artistic mission, as well as a sort of societal mission—my comparison is to Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s like civil disobedience. You have people who are into the art, expressionism, social comment, and protest—all different methodologies.
I’ve also had cases where clients have been really drunk, gone up to a restaurant window, and just decided they were going to fuck up the etched glass while people were eating, like, “Try and catch me.” I can agree that this is not a viable means of expression. Yet the rest of it, why should people be offended? I really love what the old school graffiti guys did to the trains. Just recently, I noticed that the MTA is selling ads on the sides of trains—it’s really commercial and offensive. I think, “Wait a minute… ‘vandalism’ is all in the eyes of the beholder.”