Artists Sues NYPD Over Graffiti Cleanup

New York City cops and volunteers didn’t check with property owners before painting over legal graffiti, a Brooklyn artist claims. 

This screenshot of the artist Kaves’ mural “Death from Above,” painted in 2008, appears in his federal complaint against the New York City Police Department filed Tuesday. (Image via Courthouse News)

BROOKLYN (CN) — The New York Police Department’s practice of unceremoniously painting over legal graffiti not only ruins cityscapes, but violates artists’ protections under free speech and copyright laws, an artist claims in a complaint filed Tuesday in a New York federal court.

Brooklyn-based artist Michael McLeer, who goes by the moniker Kaves, filed the class action suit on behalf of himself and similarly situated artists, saying the NYPD enlisted untrained volunteers to remove graffiti based on tips it received via email without first asking property owners if the artwork was done with their permission. 

“Using an undiscerning eye and an obtuse brush, the untrained crew went out to blot out art from street canvases,” reads the 26-page complaint. “As a result, the City and the NYPD has permanently destroyed valuable and recognized artwork and trampled on the reputation and rights of artists under the Visual Artists Rights act and under the Constitution.”

The city made “on-the-fly judgments about which artworks to target for its cleanup,” McLeer said in his complaint, which deliberately focuses on legal works. 

Among the casualties was the artist’s mural, a painting-sculpture combination called “Death from Above.”

McLeer created the mural in 2008 with permission from the property owner and tenant of the building. The work was the subject of several graffiti books, TV shows on BET and CBS, and a Hyundai car ad campaign. Those appearances earned McLeer more than $9,000 per licensing agreement, according to the complaint. 

On April 10, volunteers working with the NYPD’s 84th precinct painted over the work with grey paint. 

The effort was part of a community partnership initiative launched in March.

“When you look around, it’s spring, we’re coming out of Covid, but New York City needs a little sprucing up today, so that’s what we aim to do,” Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said at the time. “We think it’s a great opportunity to continue to build trust and relationships in New York City.”

But staffing the cleanup with volunteers was not an earnest attempt to connect with the community, Kaves’ complaint alleges: The city simply lacked the funds to complete the campaign, after its graffiti removal budget was cut in March of last year. 

The NYPD touted its “Community & NYPD graffiti cleanup” on Twitter, including in a post by the 84th precinct that shows the painting over of Kaves’ mural. 

“Let’s keep working together to keep NYC graffiti-free!” the April 10 post read. 

Officers did not ask or notify the tenant or property owner, nor McLeer, before blotting out the mural, according to the complaint. 

“The artist Kaves, the property owner, the tenant of the property, and many community members were shocked and enraged by the NYPD’s attack on the Mural which had been appreciated and preserved by the community for more than 13 years since its creation, and had become a community landmark,” the complaint states.

Kaves’ complaint also points out that graffiti tours in neighborhoods including Bushwick, Brooklyn, are part of the city’s $68 billion tourism industry. 

The NYPD’s “war against graffiti” speaks to its “lack of training about art, copyrights, and the value of art on the urban scape,” according to the complaint.  

“This case challenges the NYPD’s obtuse conduct, policy, and rhetoric that undermines all street art as ‘litter’ that needs to be cleaned up.” 

Representatives for the NYPD and the New York City Law Department did not immediately respond to after-hours requests for comment Tuesday.

McLeer is asking the court to stop the city’s graffiti cleanup campaign and award property loss and punitive damages for the painted-over works. 

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