Hert's relationship with graffiti has been bittersweet, but the system of justice has really colored him badd.
Words & Photos Ian de Beer
The year I spent in prison and the aftermath has been difficult, but I want to give an objective timeline of the events as they occurred so that other writers might learn from what I’ve experienced. Simply by sticking to the facts, my hope is to showcase some of the cracks in our justice system.
On September 7th, 2010 I was sentenced to 1-3 years in prison, with an additional five years special probation to be served consecutively. In addition, I was ordered to pay back a restitution amount close to $50,000. My probation will be continuously extended until my restitution is paid in full. I was issued this sentence as the result of my conviction on several graffiti-related charges, one felony charge and 69 individual misdemeanor charges. I was 20 years old when I committed the crimes that lead to these convictions. I was 22 when I was sentenced to prison. I am now 25 years old.
Over the past three years, I’ve spent one year and seven months locked down. I served one year in prison, four months in a halfway house, another three months in a county jail, and all of the rest of the time I’ve been supervised by the New York State Board of Parole. I’m writing to you now from my mother’s home. As part of the conditions of my supervision, I must live with a blood relative. I cannot stay anywhere else except for my current residence and I must be home from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. I am not authorized to drive a vehicle, and I am restricted from owning or possessing any type of graffiti or art-making material. The parole board has refused to allow me to transfer location and serve out my parole/probation in the city of my choice, so I am essentially confined to the city I am from, a place I most certainly do not want to be. My name is Ian de Beer, and I write Hotboy Hert.
I grew up in Buffalo, NY, a small rust-belt city with a struggling blue-collar population. There is a lack of cultural awareness that bleeds into politics and the courts and that can become very dangerous. We have high crime rates, but the city is small enough that if a graffiti writer is doing his thing, he will quickly attract attention. Atak and I had a very active period from 2004-2007. We did a lot of things that have never been done in our city before and haven’t been done since. We started getting strange phone calls from police, just asking us to “stop in and talk,” and when our friend Obvios caught a big case we felt the heat and decided to leave. I moved to Pittsburgh and Atak moved to New York City.
I was actively painting graffiti in Pittsburgh for about eight months. I was eventually arrested and charged with four misdemeanor graffiti-related charges. I was in and out of holdings in one night and I wasn’t very worried about the charges because they were minor and I hadn’t been caught painting my word. About three months later, the Anti-Graffiti Task Force raided my apartment. I was not listed as a resident on the lease to avoid this problem, but I learned that the police can monitor a person of interest to establish residency. The police did not arrest me at this time, but I was now aware that trouble lay ahead. Atak called me and suggested I move to NYC.
I moved on down and would make monthly commutes to Pittsburgh for court-dates. After about a year of that, I was re-arrested in the courtroom and charged with four felonies and 69 misdemeanor charges. My bail was set at $25,000. Thanks to some very good friends, I posted bail and was out in time to catch my story on the evening news. My lawyer at the time said he would need to assemble a team of lawyers to defend me and requested $25,000 to stay on my case. I’ve never been a wealthy person and I could not afford this. I quickly found another lawyer who was willing to put me on a payment plan and quoted me $10,000 for everything. I signed the paperwork and got back on a plane for NYC to get back to work. For the next year I worked seven days a week so I could make my payments and flights to Pittsburgh for court-dates. I also painted some graffiti in NYC … allegedly.
My lawyer assured me I wouldn’t do any time. Under his advisement, I entered an open plea of no contest, which means I would not contest all of the circumstantial evidence the police had collected and, in exchange for my compliance, I would be granted what should have been a more lenient sentence. There are sentencing guidelines that judges use for reference when they are sentencing convicted criminals. My sentence is within the aggravated guidelines, meaning I received the worst-case scenario.
Whenever anyone enters the prison system, they are subjected to physical and mental tests, the results of which are used to classify the inmate and determine where that inmate will do the majority of their time. I could have been placed anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania, but it happened that I was placed in Pittsburgh at Western State Penitentiary to do my time. I was in general population and shared cells and blocks with inmates convicted of all types of crimes, ranging from drug charges to murder and rape. When it came time for my first appearance in front of the parole board to decide whether or not I would be released on my minimum date, I was nervous. I talked with parole a bit about my life and my case, and I left the room. I was followed out of the room by a correctional officer who had sat in on the meeting. As he was escorting me back to my block he turned and said to me, “You know, it’s kind of a pleasure to meet you. I’m a fan of your work. I know all about you and your friend, MF.One — you know he’s in the halfway house attached to this jail, just up front? Yeah, I never really got into it like you guys, but sometimes I still go out and paint, just characters and stuff, you know?”
Among the various inmates I came to know, one of my cellmates was a large, well built man in his early 40’s who seemed fairly intelligent and definitely was not comfortable in prison. I made a phone call and had a friend on the outside look up his information and learned that he had been a police officer for 13 years. He was drunk-driving one night and hit and killed a young man. He fled the scene and was only arrested and charged two years later because another police officer who was with him on the night of the incident had a guilty conscious and eventually gave up the information that lead to the arrest. He was sentenced to 1-2 years in prison, and granted early release and a restitution of $15,000 to the family of the young man he killed. I was serving a longer and more expensive sentence than this man whose negligence had resulted in the death of another person.
I was granted parole upon my minimum release date but, because my last address prior to my incarceration was in NYC, there were issues. You cannot just walk out of prison and do as you please. Parole is considered a program, and the objective is ostensibly to keep ex-cons from committing new crimes. The only residence that was allowed to me was my mother’s home up in Buffalo. I was told that I’d be released from prison in Pittsburgh and transferred to a halfway house in Erie, PA, where I’d wait a couple weeks to be transferred to my mother’s. My stay at the halfway house ended up being four months long, and for those who aren’t familiar with what a halfway house is, it is basically a jail that you are allowed to leave from to go to work. In a small city that I’d never been in, I was forced to get a job and to pay rent to live at the halfway house — meanwhile I was subjected to the conditions of the facility, which banned me from owning a cellphone, from driving, or from being anywhere at all where I was un-contactable by a land-line phone. I had to submit my weekly schedule to a counselor and ask for permission to do things like go food shopping. Looking back, it was actually harder to function in these conditions because you’d have all of the responsibilities and temptations of the outside world, yet you are not given the freedom to navigate your way. Also, you still sleep on the same steel bunk beds as you would in a prison or jail, and you share rooms with several other inmates. Each week I was also ordered to attend AA and NA meetings even though my crime had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, nor do I have a documented history of any use of drugs or alcohol.
Once I finally made it into New York State via Buffalo, I was immediately told that I could not transfer my parole to NYC. This is the point where I began to lose touch with friends from the graffiti community, my then-girlfriend ended our relationship and I seemed to be continuously faced with new problems. Special conditions had been added once I was successfully transferred, so on top of your standard parole conditions I had some just for myself. These conditions included one in particular which would become a major issue for me: I am not allowed to own or possess any art-making materials including, but not limited to, spray paint, latex paint, acrylics, watercolors, graphic design materials, markers, crayons and even chalk.
I served over a year on parole in Buffalo and never had any issues, until that fateful day in early February of this year when my parole officer came to my home for a random curfew check and found me doing a painting in the basement. The result was that I was incarcerated in the county jail in Buffalo as a parole violator. When a parolee who has transferred from another state has violated parole, his or her paperwork is sent to the state in which he or she was convicted, and it is reviewed and there is a decision made as to whether or not that inmate should be returned to the originating state. The process takes 3 months. Since the condition under which I was charged as a violator was not on the original conditions of my parole in Pennsylvania, I knew that I would not be sent back to the state, and that the three months of my life that I was losing were simply because of a technicality.
It was a difficult time for me, my family and my girlfriend. We all struggled with understanding the purpose of what I was going through. During this time, the local police force worked with my parole officer to try and find new graffiti to charge me with. While strong efforts were made, no new charges were filed. During this three-month period I never saw a judge and, to this day, it has not been found that I was actually guilty of an offense of any kind.
At present, I am still months away from completing my parole conditions, after which I will be transferred to probation. After my most recent release from jail, I immediately retained a new lawyer in the hopes of avoiding another term of incarceration. My struggle with the constraints of my life on parole is still ongoing, and I do not expect my experience with probation to be much easier. Among the misdemeanors I was convicted of, one of them is a more serious charge, possession of an instrument of crime, and even though the instrument they are referring to is spray paint, the charge is the same as it would be for someone in possession of a tool used in an assault or murder and it results in a very strict form of probation. Right now, my main objective is to get my parole transferred to NYC, where I can join my girlfriend and my friends again. I want my freedoms restored to me, and I want to get some of these things I’ve built up inside me out.
Respect to anyone who has felt the harsh impact of a faulty system. Free MF.One and stay free Large!