Why Can't They Do It In the Road?

For two local street artists, the law giveth and the law taketh away

The street can be a risky place; movement is the only constant. So Marcia Gelbart Walkenstein took it in stride when, two weeks ago, a work crew finally scraped off the mosaic of hundreds of photographs she'd pasted on the side of a building at Washington Avenue and Fifth Street. In its short street life of about a month, the striking exhibit, titled Faces of South Beach 1977 -- 1992, had attracted a lot of attention, including that of the city's code enforcement officers. They called it illegal signage.

"That's all right," says Walkenstein, a small, swift woman who has been photographing the people and places of South Beach for the past fifteen years, "because nice things came out of it." Among them: the Bass Museum of Art, which includes some Walkenstein photographs in one of its current shows, purchased more, she says. And she is seeking funding to mount a more permanent version of the display on Lincoln Road. Even though nearly all the pictures on the Washington Avenue wall were destroyed, she retains the negatives, mostly images of South Beach street people and habitues of the area's clubs and shops. Everyone was there: drug dealers and cops, waitresses and artists.

Nice things resulted, too, from the recent legal tribulations of another street artist. Vincent Luca has painted lifelike shadows on sidewalks, buildings, and roadway underpasses all over the Beach and downtown Miami for a year now. (Coincidentally, his work has appeared in a couple of locations up the street from Walkenstein's sprawling effort.) Luca's form of street expression also violates Miami Beach ordinances, which define it as graffiti. But while Walkenstein was visited at her exhibit by a few friendly patrolmen who cautioned her the display was illegal, Luca was arrested twice -- in March and June -- both times in the act of shadow-painting.

In the first case, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to community service. In the more recent case, he pleaded not guilty -- claiming his quirky, graceful black forms were protected by his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression. At a September 24 trial, County Judge Raphael Steinhardt decided he would require Luca to perform 100 hours of community service and to abstain for six months from painting any shadows on public or private property without permission. Then, if Luca complies, the criminal-mischief charge against him will be expunged.

To fulfill his 100 hours of community service, Luca's lawyers suggested he paint shadows within the confines of the courthouse. Steinhardt agreed, adding that he would personally supervise the shadows' execution. (Steinhardt had earlier allowed another artist, a painter arrested for DUI, to paint a mural in the courthouse.)

As Luca and Walkenstein go ahead with their artistic enterprises in relatively good standing with the law, not everyone involved has been as fortunate. To wit: the New York owners of the building Walkenstein used for her exhibit, vacant except for the legendary Fifth Street Gym at the corner. The owners, not Walkenstein, received the city's order to remove the photographs. They had to hire workers to tear them down and restore the wall's former blank, white face. The cleanup cost? "We haven't gotten the bill yet, but it's going to cost several hundred dollars," says the owners' Miami attorney, Robert Levine. "It's sort of unfair for people to take other people's property and use it as their own."

That big wall, notes Miami Beach code enforcement officer Michael Saunders, is very popular with the graffiti-scrawling and poster-plastering crowds. "The owners," he says, "have cleaned the building at least ten or fifteen times in the last two years."

Walkenstein's exhibit attracted a lot of attention, including that of code enforcement officers. They called it illegal signage.

 
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