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4 times graffiti artists and police became unlikely allies

Police graffiti in Tucson, AZ.
Police graffiti in Tucson, AZ.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Graffiti artists and police officers aren't known for getting along. Street artists claim that police officers are overzealous about enforcing graffiti laws — often dangerously so, as in a recent case where a street artist was struck and killed by an unmarked police car. The police, meanwhile, believe graffiti degrades quality of life and leads to more crime (the famous "broken windows" theory of policing). To the police, street artists, taggers, and graffiti artists are all vandals.

But occasionally, the two parties become unlikely allies, brought together by some common purpose. Here are four strange examples through history where that's happened:

1) In 2013, police escorted Justin Bieber through Bogota to create hamster graffiti

Justin Bieber tags

Justin Bieber tags at the premiere of Believe. He's a longtime graffiti enthusiast. (Getty)

Colombian authorities have generally been more tolerant of graffiti than police in other cities. But even by those standards, Justin Bieber's 2013 visit to Bogota stands out — not least because it helped lead to a shift in how Colombia treated graffiti.

Bieber is a known graffiti fan (he had a tagging wall at the premiere of Believe) who has taken graffiti trips to Ecuador and Brazil. But his romp through Bogota drew the most attention because the metropolitan police escorted him while he tagged various walls around the city. Ever the faithful Canadian, Bieber's art included a Canadian maple leaf, a portrait of a marijuana leaf, and a tribute to his late hamster, Pac.

Anything Bieber-related may seem frivolous, but his international fame sparked a larger debate about the evolving relationship between the police and graffiti, especially as Colombia's street art community was still reeling from controversy around the shooting of a local artist. Street artists protested Bieber's gilded treatment and quickly painted over his art with their own new works. In the aftermath, some claimed that Bieber's tour ignited a graffiti revolution, and in 2014, Colombian authorities said they would stop removing graffiti. Now, the practice is legal but regulated, and the capital has cemented its reputation as a world center for street art.

2) In 1987, graffiti artists mourned Harold Washington — and cops let it slide

Graffiti for Mayor Harold Washington

A graffiti tribute to Mayor Harold Washington (Chicago Graffiti)

Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago's first African American mayor, was a unique figure in the city's history, and his 1987 death by heart attack was a surprise. That may be why the notoriously anti-graffiti Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) allowed a graffiti tribute to the late mayor.

According to interviews in The History of American Graffiti, after the mayor's death, artists SLANG, SKID, WARP, and others tagged two CTA cars with the late mayor's name. The CTA typically kept graffitied cars in the yard so taggers wouldn't get the city-wide exposure they craved, but the day after Washington's death, they let the tribute cars tour the city in his memory.

The reprieve was only, temporary, however. The next year, the CTA doubled down on anti-graffiti measures.

3) One NYPD officer was outed as a possible graffiti legend in 2009

The NYPD is notorious for its anti-graffiti efforts, and its vandal task force is well-known. But with almost 50,000 people employed by the NYPD, some employees inevitably stray from the company line — including the occasional cop who has a secret life as a graffiti artist.

A tagger named Neo was notorious in New York circles for his work in Queens and along many different train lines during the 1980s and '90s, which made it all the more surprising when Steven Weinberg was targeted as the real identity of the tagger in 2009. That's because Weinberg had been an NYPD cop until 2001, when he suffered a leg injury and retired.

Weinberg denied that he was behind the new Neo tags popping up around the city, claiming that he stopped when he became a cop in 1995. However, he was found guilty of criminal mischief and was sentenced to three years probation. He was also required to attend a ten-week graffiti rehab program intended for teens (it encourages them to try legal art and is called "Painting Straight"). After the trial, Weinberg continued to deny his guilt, but Queens prosecutors said he bragged about the crime on his MySpace page.

4) New Orleans police stopped an anti-graffiti activist in 2012 — for going too far

Banksy depicts The Gray Ghost

Banksy's depiction of The Gray Ghost in New Orleans. (ArtByMags)

New Orleans residents may not know Fred Radtke by his real name, but they probably know him by his pseudonym: The Gray Ghost.

Radtke uses gray paint to paint over the work of graffiti artists, ranging from run-of-the-mill taggers to international street artists, and his work has made him infamous (Banksy even created a portrait of The Gray Ghost painting over graffiti, seen above). For years, Radtke was a nemesis to street artists everywhere, until he went so far that the police had to intervene.

In 2012, Radtke plead no contest to painting over a mural. He was arrested because the wall's owners, Southern Coating and Waterproofing, had given the artists permission to paint it. For once, the police helped slow down one of the greatest enemies of graffiti artists in New Orleans. Needless to say, the alliance was only a temporary one: Operation Clean Sweep, Radtke's graffiti removal company, continues to battle street artists in New Orleans.

But alliances between police officers and graffiti artists rarely last

In 2014, taking a cue from The Gray Ghost's technique of graffitiing over graffiti, NYPD cops were told to carry their own cans of spray paint (black, red, or white were preferred). Unlike The Gray Ghost, they had a more narrow mandate: remove tags by spraying a square around them and filling it in.

Alliances between taggers and cops may happen on occasion, but they're unlikely to last long due to the deep hostility between them (as well as the obvious legal obstacles). As one officer described the spray paint initiative to the New York Post, he showed that there's still no love lost between the two.

"It’s supposed to discredit their work," he said, "and break their manhood."

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