• November 7, 2005
  • Posted by Marc

Alyce’s Night In Jail

For months we’ve been writing about how difficult
it is getting in most cities to put up street art without getting arrested. Each
day at least one person asks us how stiff the penalties are in New York City if
you get caught. To give you an idea, here’s a story that took place last
Thursday night. The crime - putting up a sticker on 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street in

Friday, November 4, 2005

Night in Jail/upsidedown LIFE

Last night was one of those glorious
crystal clear autumn evenings in New York City. I got off the F train bound from
Brooklyn and wandered up First Avenue, past a few bustling punky-hipster bars,
past the tiny dj booth/storefront (what IS that place anyway??), past a
multitude of pizzerias, taquerias, and laundromats, and past the row of
bizarrely-decorated (disco balls, chili pepper lights, Christmas garland) cheap
Indian restaurants. One of the Indian markets had moved it’s wares out onto the
sidewalk, and I stopped to admire tables stacked with bags of spices, teas,
dried beans, candy-coated fennel seeds, and dried fruits. It made me happy to be
a New Yorker, where I could stumble upon orange flower water, black sesame
seeds, and homemade mango chutney on a street corner.

After a lovely
little meeting with some friends at a bar on Second Ave, I was meandering back
to the train while keeping an eye out for appropriate spots to place a few of my
upsidedown LIFE stickers. I’m always on the look-out for those little gems,
spots that already have some renegade markings in spray-paint or stickers, where
the blocky red upsidedown LIFE might serve to complement an already-evolving
composition. That’s the addiction for me with graffiti…it’s like a musical
improvisation, everyone playing off the notes that others add.

/>Sometimes you get to know a local player, and relationships form. For example,
there’s someone who does a spray-paint stencil of Bush’s head with the circle-
slash “not” symbol around it, and whenever I spot one I almost always stick one
of my DUMP W (upsidedown) stickers nearby. Here in Brooklyn, someone with a
sticker the exact same size as my DUMP W ones (please see http://www.dumpw.com
for more on this), only with a black background (oooh…sinister…) and a large
white W with the words “the president” underneath, has been sticking their
sticker OVER my sticker!! And I couldn’t be more thrilled. There’s actually a
Bush supporter out there who not only GETS the humor, they’re actually taking
the time to engage in the game with me.

In the case of the upsidedown
LIFE, there’s one sticker in particular, a similarly-sized one only with a white
background and blue block letters that say ALIFE, that I always try to get next
to. I had no idea what the meaning of ALIFE was until just now while doing some
research for this little missive. When googling ALIFE, this is what I

“Artificial Life is a field of scientific study that
attempts to model living biological systems through complex algorithms.
Scientists use these models to test and experiment with a multitude of factors
on the behavior of the systems.

We artists here at Fusebox see these
algorithms as a starting point for a new artistic exploration where the
interactivity is not only between the user and the computer program but within
the computer system itself. We are just beginning to explore. Enjoy.”



So last night I was strolling along and spotted the ALIFE
tag at the base of a light pole (at the southwest corner of Second Ave and Third
St. to be exact). I took a moment to contemplate placement, then struck. Just
then I noticed what seemed to be an off-duty cab and three motley-looking
cabbies eyeing me. One moved closer and said with an accusatory tone in the
manner of one who is accustomed to dealing with fourth graders, “What did you
just do?” And I said cheerily, but not entirely without suspicion, “I put a
sticker on this light pole. Wanna see?” and handed him one of the remaining
stickers. The man said, again, with more sternness than seemed necessary “What
does it MEAN?” Well, you know me…I’m always more than happy to expound (often at
excruciatingly great length) upon the deep philosophical meaning behind my work.
And so I replied, “It’s like the logo on LIFE magazine. I usually place it where
there’s already some nice graffiti going on. I feel like it ties it together
somehow.” And the man said, as if I hadn’t revealed something that would make my
true criminal nature clearer in his mind, “BUT WHY DID YOU PUT IT UPSIDE

/>Please click href="http://homepage.mac.com/alyceobvious/PhotoAlbum11.html">here for more
photos of the crime scene at hand and other places where LIFE upsidedown has

By now of course I realized I was in some kind of trouble.
But I was still trying to gauge just how much. I felt like I was still ahead of
the game…the officer was asking some excellent questions…the sticker was indeed
working it’s magic as a “philosoprop”...and I felt that before long the man would
come to appreciate the concept, at least enough to let me off the hook.

/>Then the woman officer said, “We’re going to have to arrest you.” And I said,
“Seriously!? For putting a sticker on a pole?” And she said, “That’s the law,
and it’s our job to enforce it.” Then she took my bag, and handcuffed me. I was
dumbfounded. I suggested that perhaps just making me pull the sticker off the
pole and promise not to do it again would be sufficient punishment for a first
offence, but they did not agree. They ducked me into the cab, which was not a
cab at all, but a squad car. I sat in the back seat with the lady cop, while the
more subdued of the two men sat in the passenger seat and took notes. What was
my age? 37. Had I ever been arrested before? Nope, never even had a speeding
ticket. Did I have any drug paraphernalia, weapons, or sharp objects on me? No…I
assured them I was about the most innocuous offender they could possibly have
hoped to capture.

They wanted to know more about what was behind the
criminal mind. Why was the sticker placed upside down? They passed around
polaroids of the crime scene. Oh, they were so precious, so perfect…artwork as
evidence! I wanted to hold them, but couldn’t, because my hands were cuffed
behind my back. Before I realized how it might sound, I said, “I’ve never been
handcuffed before.” The men chuckled awkwardly, then the one driving said, “I’m
not gonna touch that one!” and the lady cop said, “Yeah, you better not.”
I explained that I was actually a pretty legitimate artist, and if they
wanted to check out more of my work they could see it on my website. They seemed
impressed. The driver immediately called a friend (from a hand-held cellphone…I
believe this is illegal in most states?) and had him look up my website while we
were driving. Sure enough. The guy could see a picture of his friend’s prisoner,
along with pictures of her work, including…the upsidedown LIFE.

just about how crazy things are in the world right now…everything’s a mess,” I
said. And they agreed. They reminded me again that they don’t make the laws,
they may not even agree with them, they just enforce them. They said that they’d
just come out of a meeting with Mayor Bloomberg, and that one of his big
campaign mottos is “A Clean City is a Safe City.” I grumbled.

arrived at the precinct in Alphabet City, on Ave C and Eighth St. They took me
into the room with the cells. There was a sign on the wall saying, “Search your
prisoner carefully!” They removed my belt and jacket. Nothing with cords or
strings allowed. I could keep my shoes, since cowboy boots have no laces. I was
also allowed to keep my book…. “Mexican Spanish”...which I studied pretty much
incessantly during the time I was incarcerated. I could make one call using my
cel phone, so I called my room-mate to let her know that I would be late getting
home because I was in jail.

They shuffled a bunch of men out of one
of the cells, uncuffed my hands, led me in and shut the door behind me. I was
locked in. Locked into a concrete and metal room behind bars. For putting a
sticker on a pole. I was acutely aware of the absurdity of the situation.
Fortunately, due to the circumstances, it was more amusing than horrifying. But
I suddenly had a new awareness of the fine line between the two. The fact
remained that I had been jailed for virtually no reason. What about others
wrongly accused of much more serious crimes, others much less socially
privileged than myself? What about people in other countries who don’t get to
make their one phone call, who are locked away without hope of a fair trial or
even humane treatment? I stared at my book, studying Spanish vocabulary between
thoughts. How would I have been feeling without the refuge of my book? Would I
have been able to quiet my mind, to remain calm with absolutely nothing as a
comfort or distraction?

I was removed from my cell for
fingerprinting. I put my palms on a scanner. The officer (the one who’d been
driving…the one wearing a sweatshirt that said “DANGER: EXPLOSIVE: KEEP BACK 500
FEET” on the back) rolled each of my fingers across the glass as I watched my
prints come up on the screen. Then he took my mugshots with a digital camera. It
was all I could do not to burst into laughter. Mugshots!! I was returned to my
cell, and assured that they’d try to expedite my case as quickly as possible. I
thanked the man, who seemed to have warmed up considerably, and went back to my

The lady cop came and asked me if I wanted a soda. I said no
thanks, but I’d love some water. She went off to the vending machine and came
back apologizing that they were out of bottled water. She said she didn’t want
me drinking the tap water because it might make me sick. She assured me that I’d
be out within an hour, and offered me a piece of gum.

Then some other
officers brought in a young woman, maybe 19 or 20, strung out on something or
other, crying hysterically. My cops came over and advised me just to ignore her.
The girl came in and sat on the other end of the single wooden bench, leaning
her head against the concrete, sobbing. After a few minutes I asked her what she
was in for. She said trespassing, that she’d been squatting and had gotten
caught on the roof of the building trying to escape. She asked me what I was
there for, and I said graffiti. She asked me what kind, and I explained. She
said that she’d been making her political statement by squatting, and that she
was an anarchist. And I thought, this is all too perfect…first the ultimately
sort of kindly trio that brought me in, and now I’m sharing my cell with a
teenaged anarchist with pink satin thong underwear showing. She rudely demanded
a cigarette, which her arresting officer eventually brought, and we shared it.
She fell soundly asleep with the cigarette still burning between her fingers.
An hour and a half went by, and the officers fumbled with paperwork and
chatted about cat food at a table not far from my chamber. Once in awhile Mr.
Explosive would turn to me and say, “Just a few more minutes!” or his cel phone
would ring and it would be his buddy on the internet with more questions about
my work. They’d discovered the sonic fabric and wanted to know more about my
connections with the band Phish.

The woman cop and Mr. E. left to go
check the computer to see if my prints had come back from the main office in
Albany. That left the quiet guy, the one with the Yankees sweatshirt, to keep an
eye on me. I asked him about the water situation, and again I was advised
against drinking the tap water, and reassured it wouldn’t be long before I’d be
out. I asked him if he’d been doing this job long, and he said 12 years. I told
him it felt strange being locked up, but that I felt pretty confident, being in
the United States, that nothing too terrible was going to happen to me. I told
him that I trusted completely, for example, that if I really needed water that
someone would bring me some, and how kind of ironic it was that the reason I had
none was because they were trying to find me the bottled kind. He told me that
he’d been in the military for 8 years before becoming a cop, and how during that
time he developed an appreciation for the things we take for granted in this
country, like clean tap water and electricity. We agreed that Americans, as a
whole, are pretty spoiled. I told him I’d always wondered what it was like to be
in prison, and he said that, though I was the one behind the bars, that he
couldn’t exactly leave his post either, and in fact was serving his second 12-
hour shift in a row. He said he never expected to be a cop, it just happened
because he needed to pay the bills. He said he doesn’t even agree with a lot of
the laws he enforces…he’s just doing his job. I suppressed the urge to ask what
he would do if he felt he had a choice.

And I thought to myself, this
is turning into a dialog from a play by Beckett or Sartre. Suddenly this poor
man is the prisoner, and I am as free as a bird.

I’d been brought in
at a little after 9pm, and now it was after 2am. I’d been studying during pauses
in the conversation. Mr. E. was getting increasingly apologetic about the amount
of time it was taking to free me…the computers in Albany were down. I assured
him that I was fine, just a little thirsty. It would be no more than another
half an hour. Prisoners came and went in the cell next to me, but I couldn’t see
them, though I could hear them. One had been yelling for quite some time that he
needed to go to the hospital. Others were singing. Another man was being asked
by an officer if he was a US citizen. He said no, but that he was a legal
resident. The officer asked him where he was from, and he said Bangladesh. The
officer said, “Where’s that?” The man explained very patiently and politely in a
voice completely devoid of foreign accent, adding that he’s lived in New York
for over 10 years. The officer replied, “Well, it looks like you’ll be going for
a ride then.” The man said, “Sir? What do you mean by that, Sir?” And the
officer said, “We’ll be shipping you back.” And then there was silence.

/>I read, and thought about what was going on all around me. The anarchist girl
would be staying all night, since she’d been picked up without ID. I would be
getting my paperwork from Albany, and would have to appear in court on December
fifth. My officers assured me that I’d be let off on “time already served”, as
long as I showed up in court. Otherwise, there would be a warrant out for my
arrest. My contact lenses were dry. I was thirsty. I’d been locked up for 6
hours. What about diabetics who find themselves suddenly in jail without
insulin, or people who have children or pets, or those who have to be at work on
time? What about people in other countries, travelers, people far away from
home? What happens to prisoners in an earthquake or other natural disaster? I’d
put some LIFE posters up in Mexico over the summer. One day I traveled across
the border from Texas by myself, and no one even knew I was there. How naive and
ignorant I’d been.

I asked once again for water. The man with the
Yankees sweatshirt said, “Really, Alyce, it will just be a few more minutes
now…please…stop reading…just rest.” I shut my eyes and leaned back against the

It was 3:30am when he came with the key to let me out. The
lady cop had gone home, but the two men brought me out into the precinct where
there were lots of other officers milling around. The Yankees guy handed me the
paperwork and stood close by, flipping the pages and pointing out where to sign.
Mr. E. reminded me several times not to forget to show up for my court date. I
thanked them as I walked away, and smiled and waved as I walked through the
revolving door out onto Avenue C.

I felt strange. Blonde relatively
innocent white girl ejected onto desolate unfamiliar city street in a not-so-
great part of town at nearly 4 in the morning. Thank goodness the police are
around, keeping things clean and safe. I walked toward a cluster of bars,
figuring the odds of getting a cab there would be greater than they’d be
directly outside the jail. A cab came, and I hopped in. The driver and I talked
about how magical the city looks in the middle of the night, and about how easy
it is to get around without any traffic. I couldn’t identify his accent. It
wasn’t until we were around the corner from my house that he asked me what I’d
been doing in that part of town at 4am. I told him I’d been arrested for
graffiting, and explained a little about the stickers. He made some witty
comment while the machine tallied up the fee for the ride. $15. I handed him a
$20 and told him to keep the change. He handed me back a $5 and said, “No way,
you’ve been through enough tonight…I wish I could do more”. I tried to give it
back and he pushed my hand away. I told him I wished I’d had some stickers to
give him, but my supply had been confiscated. We laughed, and said goodnight.
I unlocked the door to my apartment at a little after 4am. I took a
shower and put on the teakettle. I stood at the counter waiting for the water to
boil, laughing out loud as I imagined the next morning, explaining to my parents
that I’d spent the night in jail. My poor parents have been through so much with
me, their only child, always off on some crazy adventure, or misadventure, as
the case may be. Thirty seven years old, in jail for putting a sticker on a

I drifted off to sleep in my own room, in a bed with a pillow
and covers.

alyce santoro,
november 4, 2005