Artist keeps up six-year First Amendment battle with NYC

Friday, October 15, 1999

Street artist R...
Street artist Robert Lederman paints outside Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1998.

With the attention of art enthusiasts and free-speech advocates focused squarely on the Brooklyn Museum of Art during recent weeks, the man who describes himself as New York's most frequently arrested street artist might have enjoyed a break.

No chance.

As Robert Lederman toted two of his latest portraits of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to the Oct. 2 opening of the museum's embattled “Sensations” exhibit, New York police arrested the artist for disorderly conduct.

Lederman contends police singled him out from among hundreds of protesters because of his paintings, including an acrylic piece called “Giuli-anus” that depicted the mayor with dung on his face. But police officials said they arrested Lederman because he refused to stand behind barricades they arranged to ease the record flow of 7,000 people for the exhibit's first day.

The Brooklyn Museum aside, Lederman has endured — some would say relished — his status over the past six years as a sort of de facto cause celebre for those opposed to art censorship. He claims to have been arrested no fewer than 40 times since 1994, a figure the New York Police Department disputes.

“I had no appreciation for the Bill of Rights until Giuliani became mayor and began taking my rights away,” Lederman said. “In some way, I owe a lot to Giuliani. He's helped me with my art. He's helped me understand politics and the law. He's helped me to become well-known. And he's given me an opportunity to help other people.”

All this has also enabled the 49-year-old artist to fetch upwards of $400 for one of his unflattering portraits of a Hitleresque Giuliani. Over the years, Lederman's artwork portraying a mustachioed mayor has appeared on street corners, on protest placards and even in reputable art galleries.

“It amazes me that people buy these paintings,” Lederman said. “They're not something I would like hanging in my living room.”

He dismisses criticism that he latched onto the Giuliani-as-Hitler theme to make money, noting that his career as a street artist stretches back into the 1960s. He says he can cite more than 40 official showings of his work before Giuliani ever became mayor of New York City.

Lederman says that he, at times, would like to walk away from the notoriety and return to oil paintings of jazz musicians and movie stars. But he says a sense of obligation to other street artists and vendors forces him to continue his fight, even though he risks arrest every time he displays his art.

“I take it as a compliment personally,” Lederman said. “If the police and Giuliani just ignored me, I would probably feel that I'm not accomplishing that much.”

In fact, through most of his career, New York officials left the artist alone to sell his paintings on city streets.

“I grew up watching my father do his commercial artwork,” Lederman said. “So being an artist seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.”

A young Lederman dreamed of a film career and, at age 12, began gathering reels of old silent films to study the editing techniques of D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But the $15 price tag for a single, 8 mm reel taxed the boy's dollar-a-week allowance.

Lederman instead turned his attention to art, making his first attempt as a street artist in 1962. The success of his initial street showing near DuBrow's deli in Brooklyn shocked the boy, who sold several watercolors of movie stars and of Venice's Grand Canal in less than an hour.

“From that time on, I basically continued to sell work on the street,” Lederman said. “It's always been a way to make a living but at the same time be free from having a boss and free from having a 9-to-5 job.”

For 20 years, Lederman said he sold his paintings — mostly impressionistic takes on jazz artists &3151; on the streets of Brooklyn without incident. Even when police questioned his right to sell art in Greenwich Village in 1982, Lederman said he merely raised a First Amendment argument and the matter was dropped.

He remembers little of his first arrest on May 23, 1994, save that undercover cops appeared at his art stand near 56th Street and began grabbing his art.

“When you're out there showing paintings, you don't expect to be arrested,” Lederman said. “They came out of nowhere, shoving my art into plastic bags and placing handcuffs on me.”

Although the case was eventually dismissed, Lederman, for the first time in 30 years, was scared to hit the streets.

“What makes me different from the average person is that, in response to (the arrest), instead of retreating, I came back,” he said. “Each time they confiscated my art, it encouraged me to go back the same day to the exact same spot.

“I felt that if I showed weakness – you take my art and I don't come back for several months – that encourages the process,” he said. “By going back out that same day, it says, 'You can't stop me.' “

After several arrests, economics and a rebellious nature forced Lederman to change some aspects of his art. He emblazoned paintings with “Confiscate this!” and “Giuliani = Police State.” Images of cops eating doughnuts, cops lazing in their cars and cops with their pants down around their feet began appearing on cardboard instead of on expensive canvas.

As the arrests of Lederman and other street artists continued, he helped form ARTIST (Artists' Response to Illegal State Tactics) to protest crackdowns on artists and street vendors.

The group eventually prevailed in 1996, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bery v. City of New York that the city could not require street artists to obtain permits before selling their work on sidewalks. Such a law would violate freedom of speech, the court said. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the city's appeal.

Despite the ruling, the city drafted another permit law that limited the number of sidewalk vendors outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art to 24. Lederman and three other artists filed a $300 million civil rights lawsuit against the city, contending that the new permit law was unconstitutional.

Lederman says that he and other vendors and artists continue to be arrested in New York. He noted that in August 1998, he was even arrested for selling newspapers without a permit.

Last November, a Manhattan Criminal Court judge threw out 24 cases against Lederman, saying that “licensing is not a permissible restriction on vending of written material under any circumstances.”

Four cases, including the one involving the most recent incident at the Brooklyn Museum, remain pending, Lederman says.

New York police officials contest Lederman's arrest claims, describing the numbers cited by the artist as “delusional.” A police spokeswoman says officers have issued the artist several summonses for disorderly conduct but have never actually arrested him.

“The First Amendment aside, he's more interested in generating publicity for himself,” Marilyn Mode said. “Beyond that, I'm not going to contribute to this.”

And despite Lederman's free-speech claims, many civil liberties groups haven't been quick to defend him. The New York Civil Liberties Union, for one, has criticized the Hitler comparison as irresponsible, baseless and repugnant.

But Lederman defends the Hitler-Giuliani connection as appropriate, drawing similarities between comments from the Nazi dictator and the New York mayor concerning art, culture and freedom.

“Certainly here in New York, you don't have to sell that idea to anybody anymore,” said Lederman, noting that several former mayors, a few New York newspapers and magazines and others have latched onto the Hitler references.

As for the comment from the police that they have never officially arrested him, Lederman said: “That's like telling people that the sun doesn't come up in the morning.” He quickly cites a dozen arrests and refers questioners to his Web site for more extensive documentation.

“This mayor has a long and very well-established habit of violating freedom of speech, retaliating against his critics and selectively enforcing the law,” Lederman said. “His understanding of the art inside the museum or outside on the sidewalk is as defective as his understanding of the First Amendment.”