Fairey pleads guilty to vandalism charges

Apologizes to city, agrees not to carry tagging tools in Hub

Shepard Fairey must pay a Back Bay neighborhood group $2,000. Shepard Fairey must pay a Back Bay neighborhood group $2,000. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Associated Press)
By John R. Ellement and Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / July 11, 2009
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Shepard Fairey, the street artist who for decades has plastered his stickers and posters on buildings and street signs, yesterday agreed to stop leaving his mark in Boston.

Fairey, who once told the Globe he had been arrested 14 times for tagging, apologized to the city and pleaded guilty to three vandalism charges.

“People should be responsible about sharing their art,’’ Fairey said after agreeing to the plea deal in Boston Municipal Court. “That is not a transition or an evolution in my philosophy.’’

Fairey said that now that he is an established artist - an ongoing show at the Institute of Contemporary Art has drawn 100,000 visitors - he does not need to tag like he did when he began his career.

“Fortunately, I am in a place in my career where I can get sanctioned places,’’ he said. “So, it’s not an issue I will ever have to worry about again. . . . There should be more public outlets for art.’’

Under the plea deal approved by Judge Mark Summerville, Fairey agreed to publicly apologize, to publicly renounce tagging, to pay $2,000 to a Back Bay neighborhood group, and to have no tagging equipment with him when he is in Suffolk County, unless it is for a scheduled show.

The probation lasts for two years and requires him to notify probation officers in advance if he plans to be in Suffolk County, until July 6, 2011. He does not have to contact probation officials if he is passing through Logan International Airport. He must also pay a $65-a-month probation fee.

Suffolk First Assistant District Attorney Joshua Wall said the goal of prosecutors and Boston police was to send a signal that graffito is a costly nuisance.

“We are not in the business of assessing artistic value,’’ Wall said. “It is important that Mr. Fairey, or anybody else, restrict his canvas to that which he has permission to use. To use the city or Back Bay as a canvas to put up whatever somebody wants - it’s not fair and it’s not legal.’’

Fairey at one time faced more than 30 charges in Brighton, Roxbury, and Boston municipal courts. His hallmark image is a black-and-white “Obey Giant’’ stencil, which is based on the likeness of professional wrestler Andre the Giant.

Fairey will have to pay $2,000 to the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay, some of whose members have been pushing police and prosecutors to crack down on taggers.

Ann Gleason, chairwoman of the Back Bay association, said yesterday that the group welcomes Fairey’s public renunciation of his tagging past.

“I think that sets a very good example,’’ she said. “There is a process by which public art is displayed, and that is by getting permission.’’

In court, where the Los Angeles resident identified himself by his legal name of Frank Shepard Fairey, the 39-year-old admitted pasting a poster on a Brighton drugstore in 2000 and another poster on a Back Bay condo in January. He also admitted putting a sticker on the back of a traffic sign on Atlantic Avenue in January, but said he removed it when ordered to by police.

“The whole situation has been very stressful. I am a business owner and father,’’ Fairey said after the court session. “To be entangled in this with all the positive things in my life was really stressful.’’

Fairey was arrested by Boston police Detective Bill Kelley on Feb. 6 as the artist was en route to the ICA to celebrate a show of his work by being a DJ.

Kelley and Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis declined comment yesterday.

Fairey’s arrest triggered a furious debate about the line between what is art and what is an eyesore and whether public places are appropriate venues for displaying art without permission. But that did not stop the ICA exhibit from going forward.

Fairey will return July 31 to host “Obey Experiment Redux,’’ a sold-out show, the museum said in a statement. Fairey said he does not consider the investigation of graffiti “the most valuable use of law enforcement.’’ But, he said, he would urge an aspiring graffiti artist to travel a path different than his.

“I’m not a paternalist, so I am not going to tell other people what to do, but I do think it is important to be responsible,’’ he said. “Look what happened to me, you can get into a lot of trouble.’’