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Who killed El Barto?

New law could ruin the future of street art

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El Barto appeared on the side of Salon 1226 in early June.
  • El Barto appeared on the side of Salon 1226 in early June.

"If graffiti changed anything it would be illegal.". — Banksy

Over the past few months, he's been one of the most talked about people in our city. He's a hero to the people, a menace to landlords and lawmakers are trying to kill him. He's El Barto.

El Barto first appeared early one morning in May atop Reggae Central — a wheatpaste image of Bart Simpson with his pants down, mooning all who passed on Central Avenue. (Fun fact: The same image of Bart mooning can be seen in an episode of The Simpsons in which Mayor Quimby states that Charlotte used to be called "Hitler City.") In true art-nazi fashion, the city called his yellow butt "offensive" and removed it immediately.

The Hero We Deserve

He returned just as quickly as Bartman, donning a purple mask and cape, and a teal shirt with a Queen City crown emblazoned on his chest. Plaza Midwood residents called him the hero they deserved. The neighborhood was in the middle of a fierce debate about gentrification. A fight was brewing as Tommy's Pub, a decades-old neighborhood bar was being rezoned to make way for a monstrous building full of high-rent apartments. In addition to the Bartman paste-up, a huge aerosol-painted piece that read "No More Condos" had appeared on Independence Boulevard.

Suddenly, the community movement had a slogan and, El Barto — however unintentionally — had become its mascot. There were even talks on social media about a Bart march, and Common Market pledged to order and stock Bart masks for the occasion.

City officials weren't happy. They said the Bart art had not been approved by building owners and they were footing the clean-up bill with tax dollars — a bill that had already run them about $60,000 so far this year. The graffiti was classified as misdemeanor injury to property. If caught, El Barto would most likely face fines and community service.

But the state was cooking up a harsher punishment. At the same time El Barto has just made his presence known, the North Carolina Senate was debating a bill (H.B.552) that slaps a felony charge on anyone who committed five acts of graffiti vandalism within a 60-day period.

To put that in perspective, a kid who went on a tagging spree one night and marked up five different locations, could become a convicted felon. He or she would be stripped of their rights to vote and bear arms, and likely see their future college and job possibilities destroyed. This version of the bill had already passed the House unanimously.

El Barto, either in response or with impeccable timing, put up another Bart in NoDa. This time he was dressed in black and white stripes with a jailhouse face tat of a crown. He appeared to be escaping from prison.

And just like the others, Jailbreak Bart disappeared quickly. The city uses private graffiti removal services to take down unauthorized street art and crappy tags alike. The owner of one of these companies (who asked to remain anonymous for this article, so as not to affect his city contract) said of Jailbreak Bart, "That was a tough one. It couldn't be painted over because the building it's on is historic. Nor could a high setting on a pressure washer be used because it would damage the patina. On top of those two issues, the (artist) used a much better adhesive than before. What's left of the piece now are tiny shreds of paper that will eventually weather off."

He also had a tongue-in-cheek message for El Barto: "You're a talented artist and clearly you have a bright future. I, however, am an old man. Can you start doing first story installations? And by the way, you left your stolen ladder. Geez."

Three Strikes And You're Screwed

The bill in the Senate was eventually amended to target only repeat graffiti offenders. A person's first two convictions for graffiti would result in misdemeanors. The third time would be a Class H felony with a minimum prison sentence of four months. For comparison, other Class H felonies include abusing the elderly, giving someone date-rape drugs, trafficking cocaine, burning a cross on someone's lawn, rioting and looting, dog fighting and (I'm not making this up) "possession of a weapon of mass destruction by someone previously acquitted of certain crimes by reason of insanity."

Because street art is as dangerous to society as a murderous lunatic with a dirty bomb.

All Mecklenburg senators, except N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson, voted in favor of H.B. 552. The bill passed and was sent to Gov. McCrory for his signature.

"When enacting new felonies, we should ensure that there is as little ambiguity as possible," Jackson said. "Unfortunately this bill contains a lot of ambiguity and it would likely target a group of people who have the most to lose from becoming felons. I also think existing laws sufficiently address this problem."

I Will Not Be Interesting

Two days later, on June 5, Bart was back in Plaza-Midwood on the side of Salon 1226 beside Pint Central. This time, he was depicted scrawling a massive message across his iconic chalkboard:

"I will not write on things that aren't mine. I will not show my butt in public. I will not get tattooed. I will not create thought provoking art. I will not hop fences. I will not self medicate. I will not incite riots. I will not wear all black. I will not fornicate with co-workers. I will not pick my nose in public. I will not drink on the clock. I will not post nipples on Instagram. I will not skateboard on government property. I will not expose the ignorance of the faculty. I will not experiment with drugs. I will not urinate in public. I will not ignore the terms + conditions. I will not challenge authority. I will not express myself!"

– We Are El Barto!"

Pint Central was delighted and posted its support on Facebook: "Quite the surprise this morning when we saw Bart hanging out on our wall. We are honored to have him pay us a visit especially in this magnitude."

Besides the paint, and the scale, something else was different about this piece — it was signed. Turns out, El Barto is the work of two artists named DLRG and Despicable D. The two prefer to let their work speak for itself:

"The fact we're doing what we're doing says all we have to say," says DLRG. "When street art isn't connected to an ego, it belongs to everyone."

Despicable D is a transplant from Phoenix who says he's been "adopted by the Queen (City)." DLRG is more of a mystery. When I asked him how long he's been a street artist, he rattled off a list of local street artists who have done it longer and said they deserve all the cred around here. His list included artists like Dr. Caligari, Smokey Bear, Obsoe and Miss Lotus.

Indeed, we have a decent street art scene in the Queen City and we have for a while. The artists he mentions get up all over town. And sometimes further out. I once saw an Obsoe drawing while vacationing at Linville Falls and for a split second became homesick. Dr. Caligari has a sticker design that incorporates the sun medallion from Eastland Mall. It fills me with hometown pride. And who doesn't get excited when they spot a new Smokey or Lotus in the wild, like they just uncovered an Easter egg?

Lawmakers didn't write the law to differentiate gang or delinquent tagging from street art that's culturally valuable to our city. And because of that, we'll likely lose the good stuff, either to prison or fear or perhaps even law enforcement officers' propensity to use lethal force against fleeing felons.

H.B. 552 was signed into law on June 11 by the governor and will take effect December 1, 2015.

El Barto hasn't made another appearance since the law was signed (aside from this week's CL cover). Could he be our first casualty?

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Jeff Jackson voted in support of H.B. 552. In fact, he supported earlier versions of the bill but voted against the bill in its third reading.

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