The Shadow of Your Style

The shadows, those skewed flat forms that first began to appear on Miami sidewalks and walls about a year ago, have begun to catch up with Vincent Luca. He's the earnest artist in horn-rim glasses and holey cut-offs who has loosed the shadows on South Beach and downtown Miami: images of a man pointing a gun, of a prostitute loitering at a stop sign, of artists with paint brushes, bums and street kids and traffic signs -- all fixed in black paint yet shifting with the heat of the sun and perspective of the viewer.

The shadows have become slightly famous in a few parts of town, and so has Luca, sometimes known in those parts as the Shadow Man. But like the shadows, his fame has been duplicitous. In the past four months, Miami Beach police have twice arrested Luca for criminal mischief: defacing public and private property, a misdemeanor. He has asked to assert his free-speech rights at a jury trial to be scheduled in the next several weeks. No one acquainted with the case can remember a time in Dade County when a so-called graffiti artist went to trial with a First Amendment defense.

More distressing to Luca, he has attracted a copycat Shadow Man. A bad one. Someone who has been altering or violently defacing some of his shadows. And worse, painting clumsy copies. All of which has prompted the wide-eyed, 23-year-old Luca to do some reassessing. Shadows now are more likely to appear on canvases that hang in his downtown apartment/studio, or at Miami Beach's Gallery of the Unknown Artists, a showcase for local work.

But Luca is not saying he's through with outdoor expression. Like other street artists, he feels driven to the medium. To him the shadows on the walls represent the mutable, insubstantial sets that decorate the dramas of life. "They're not just artsy-fartsy shadows," he says at home in a crumbling converted hotel nearly overgrown with unruly tropical plants. Looming behind him on his white apartment wall, the shadows of two beefy workmen hold up the ceiling. A plastic toy soldier positioned on an electrical outlet has a permanent black shadow behind him. On a wooden footstool in the living room sits a glossy Brides magazine, an incongruous tool of his bread-and-butter job as a self-described floral consultant.

"The shadows," Luca continues with spirit, "are showing you that the backdrop of our life is like a play. We're just thrown into a big play of life, and the shadows are part of that."

Miami Beach police think of them more as a nuisance. "For him this is probably funzies," says department spokesman Al Boza, "but for us it's not. Miami Beach is a tourist city, and we don't want this city to begin to look like a New York subway. In a city where Art Deco is so important, that kind of graffiti does not fit in at all."

Luca was arrested in late March and again in late June, caught in the act of shadow-painting by Miami Beach patrolmen. The second time was at about 9:30 a.m. on June 29. He'd almost finished a shadow of a street sign bending around a cement pylon supporting the Alton Road overpass at Sixth Street. "It's a famous shadow," Luca says with a nod of his closely shorn head. "One of the best I've ever done."

Though he went back later to finish the shadow and add his customary signature, the work has since been painted over by the city's "graffiti buster," a building-maintenance employee who makes about $22,000 a year blotting out graffiti on public property. Prosecutors are seeking more than $200 restitution from Luca for the cost of repainting the pylon.

But are Luca's shadows really graffiti? Not to Zori Hayon, who asked Luca to paint a few at his Miami Beach nightspot, the Cameo Theatre. And not to Gary Knight, executive director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, who has contacted Luca about doing some design work for his research center, part of the University of Miami's School of Medicine. "I saw the shadows the way everyone else saw the shadows -- by driving around Miami Beach," says Knight. "I was certainly intrigued. Anytime you have an artist who can capture the attention of the public, I think it's super, because it's so very, very hard to be successful in that area."

As it happens, Luca won't be making any money for the work he'll be doing for Knight. It will be part of the 35 hours of community service he was ordered to perform after his first graffiti arrest.

After the second arrest, he and his pro bono attorney, Sergio Medina, decided it was time to plead not guilty and offer a free-expression defense to a jury. No trial date has been set, but Assistant State Attorney David Paulus says there's a chance Luca's request for a jury trial could be denied, given the overloaded dockets judges now face.

But whether Luca faces a jury or a single judge, the State Attorney's office will not take the case lightly, says chief county court prosecutor Sam Slom. And since it's Luca's second arrest on criminal mischief charges, he can expect tougher penalties this time around. At least restitution; at most probation.

"Graffiti," says Slom with conviction, "is a problem in Dade County."
But who decides what is graffiti?
"I guess it's a question for either the judge or jury," Slom says, noting that the state criminal mischief statute under which Luca is charged doesn't define graffiti; it merely includes it as an act to be prosecuted. He and the police say one reason Luca's shadows should be considered graffiti is that he never got permission to paint them where he did.

Attorney Medina, a co-owner of the Gallery of the Unknown Artists, is under no illusion his defense task will be easy, but he thinks Luca deserves his day in court. "I don't want him to be frowned upon by the court as somebody who's out to deface public property," Medina says. "He's a good citizen and a good person."

Yet Luca, his lawyer, and other shadow fans acknowledge the good measure of irony underlying this conflict. At the same time they champion the well-crafted, quirky images left by the Shadow Man, they're offended by the crudeness of his copycat. But the efforts of both are out there along with all the rest of the spray-painters and tire-slashers, outside the zone of good and bad art, where even vandalism can be vandalized.

"It's okay. I can't say he shouldn't be doing it," says Luca of the copycat. "The streets don't belong to anybody. Although actually he's giving me a bad name.

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