artist's war against NYC's "street sweeps" mayor: interview FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 19 Aug 1998 11:49:44 -0700 (PDT)
=46WD  New York Press  (7/8-14/98) via OPENAIR-MARKET NET


     An interview by Andrey Slivka, Adam Mazmanian and Russ Smith

=46orty-seven-year-old artist Robert Lederman has been making news recently
as perhaps the most voluble and persistent thorn in Mayor Giuliani's side.
Lederman, whose large-scale satirical paintings of Giuliani often depict
the mayor in dunce caps or Hitlerian regalia, is president of the advocacy
organization A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics),
which he founded to counter the Giuliani administration's harassment of
street artists. He's been arrested 33 times since 1993 for issues related
to his daily anti-Giuliani protests; his Giuliani portraits are currently
on display at 437 Madison Ave. (49th St.). Last week, Lederman-wearing a
Giuliani =3D Police State t-shirt and bearing a sheaf of insulting Giuliani
pictures-dropped by NYPress' offices to talk about his experiences as the
mayor's most hated adversary.

ANDREY SLIVKA: Respond to the following: "Giuliani corrects years of rule
in which murderers ran free; he'll be gone soon, and he's not worth getting
worked up about."

=8AWhat he's spent five years doing is cracking down on what he calls qualit=
of life issues. And quality of life is a point of view. There're people who
think NY Press in a box on the corner is ruining their quality of life.
There're people who think street artists are the worst thing that ever
happened to New York City. There're people, obviously, that think a
squeegee guy saying, "Can I wash your window?" is the same thing as
somebody breaking into your house and trying to murder your family.

But I don't think objectively any of those things are crimes=8A What
Giuliani's done is taken things that people don't like-because of their
psychology, their upbringing, whatever the reason is-and made them criminal
activities. Dedicated an army-38,000 cops-to doing whatever he can, legally
and illegally, to stop those things. And he's made some people very happy.
I do meet people who say that New York is great now.

There's no squeegee guys=8A Like this idiot cop who tried to murder this guy=
It's a matter of opinion. Giuliani certainly has every right-and the
responsibility-to stop murder, rape, robbery. And to the limited extent
that he's had any effect on those things, you can't fault him on that. But
what he means by stopping crime is stopping freedom. Stopping the Bill of
Rights=8A And anybody that the rich real estate people who put him in office
don't like to have around. Is it worth your getting arrested 33 times?

Before I was born, I'm sure that there were people-Jewish people-sitting in
Berlin in 1933, going, "Well, okay, he's elected president, he's got four
years. We'll make it through. He'll be gone." I don't know that I have to
sit on a hot stove for three and a half years waiting for Giuliani to move
on to maybe becoming president. I don't see that as something to look
forward to=8A

The thing that I'm putting out is impeachment. There's no need to wait.
This is not just that we don't like the guy's policies. I didn't like
Dinkins' policies. I didn't like a lot of things that Koch did. I wasn't
thinking about impeachment. I don't like almost anything Clinton's doing.
I'm not in favor of his impeachment. Giuliani is a criminal=8A He's ordering
thousands of false arrests every week. That's a crime. That's more than
enough reason to be impeached. I get arrested for holding up a protest
sign. Which isn't a crime. He should be arrested for the serious felony and
constitutional crimes he's committed.

How does it feel to have become the focal point for anti-Giuliani sentiment
in this city? It seems to be all funneling through you.

It's partly just an accident of timing and being in the right place. It's
partly that I've been doing this since 1993, and I guess persistence pays
off. I certainly had no kind of plan to become the point man for
anti-Giuliani. I didn't even want to be anti-Giuliani. The first couple of
years of street artist struggle, there were members of my group that were
much more anti-Giuliani than I was, and I was telling them, look, this guy,
if we could somehow convince him to be reasonable, I mean, it doesn't
really pay to make this guy hate our guts and to make it a really bitter
kind of a thing=8A And as time went on, more and more cops were coming to me=
High-ranking officers, saying, "Giuliani is forcing us to make these
arrests. He keeps saying, 'I want more artists arrested.'"

So I said okay. If that's the way you want to play, I'll play rough too. I
started attacking him=8A And the reason that it suddenly got a lot of
attention-it always got some attention-was that he himself made some
incredibly stupid mistakes.

The taxi cab thing. Myself included. I wasn't an advocate for taxi drivers.
What do I care about taxi drivers? I'm almost getting run over by them
every day. But all of a sudden I see the Mayor's not going to let these
Indian and Pakistani taxi drivers even walk down the street and do a demo.
So I said, "Hey, this is what he does to me every day. I'm going to go down
there and help these taxi drivers." And as a result, the day of that first
taxi demo, I met those guys with all these paintings of the mayor. I didn't
know any of them, they didn't know me. I thought, they're going to look at
this and just keep going. I spread out those posters and they dived on
them, like starving people if you put out sandwiches. They lifted them up.
They ran down the streets with these paintings. This was the most exciting
moment of my artistic career.

What's a typical day like for you now? How are you making a living now that
this is almost a full-time affair for you?

I still make a living selling my work on the street. Lately I'm selling
paintings of Mayor Giuliani, which is a shock to me. So this has been
really good for business. It's not really good for business. I'm not making
as much as I was making, let's say, before all this crap started. I'm
barely paying my bills. But I am making sales with these protest signs. I
mean, these are painted on cardboard salvaged from the garbage can. They
were certainly not made to be collectibles=8A

ADAM MAZMANIAN: Who's buying them?

A lot of [buyers] are lawyers, who either knew Giuliani when he was an
attorney and hate his guts. Some landlords have bought them. Musicians.
People who you'd expect to be anti-Giuliani: club owners. I'm getting
requests from different clubs and restaurants. They want to show them,
because they hate the crackdown against cafes and clubs. These guys all
really despise the mayor.

SLIVKA: What's the arrest process like at this point? What happened the
other day [when Lederman was arrested for the 33rd time]?

[It's] already dismissed. They dismissed it without even arraigning me. I
didn't even get up to the judge. They called my name, "Case dismissed!"
Just like that.

You represent yourself?

I didn't even get a chance to represent myself.

In the past?

In the past I have, sure. With some success, apparently. Yeah. Never lost.
I actually lost a couple of cases and won on appeal, that I wrote myself.

Mazmanian: What are they charging you with, exactly?

Disorderly conduct's the most common charge=8A If you look at my cases-forge=
what my lawyer would say or what I could say. Look at the police testimony
in my cases. It's ludicrous. "Lederman was standing on the sidewalk with
300 other artists obstructing the sidewalk." So they arrest me and leave
the 300 people there for three more hours. I guess I wasn't really
obstructing the sidewalk. And that's why every case is dismissed. There's
no basis to any of these charges. I've been arrested numerous times now
while holding one of these portraits of Giuliani. Literally holding it. Not
hitting somebody with it. Not going, "I'm going to cut your throat with
this painting"=8A It's ridiculous. And the charge is disorderly conduct=8A

What I'm doing is not even civil disobedience. I'm following the law.

I'm on the curb. I'm standing there holding a sign. There's no law against
that. It doesn't even enter the realm of civil disobedience. I've never
damaged any property. Never assaulted anybody or threatened to in any of
these. Never threatened violence. Never blocked the door, and never blocked
the sidewalk.

SLIVKA: So you're essentially getting arrested for standing on the sidewalk.

That's it. How do the cops treat you? I would say that by and large at this
point the police treat me very respectfully. Many of them have
expressed-and this has gone on since '93-a total solidarity with what we're
doing politically. They hate Giuliani more than homeless people or
squatters do. They despise him. They've got their own reasons. It's
generally not because he's an enemy of the Constitution. It's because he
cut their pay and disrespects them.

He built himself up totally by what they did. If there was a drop in crime,
certainly they did it, not him=8A Thousands of them signed a form that says
they don't even want him at their funeral if they get killed. Which for a
cop, that's like having President Clinton come to your funeral if you're in
the Army. It's the highest honor. And for them to put that on paper is the
most insulting thing they could possibly say about him. They despise him.

And I'm often arrested in a shirt like this [points to his Giuliani =3D
Police State t-shirt]. I'll be sitting in the holding cell for many hours,
often in handcuffs. The whole time I'm there, cops are coming by going
[makes thumbs-up gesture]. "We're with you. We hate him. We wish we could
demonstrate with you."

How do you feel about the way the media's treated you? The media's treated
me very well. Out of hundreds of articles that have been done, there's been
a couple of snide comments, often from your paper. And even those I've
enjoyed. I've got no complaint about it.

The worst things people have said about me-if you include the Post-[are
that] I'm an obnoxious twerp. This is what they have to say. Obnoxious.
Yeah, I keep getting in people's faces with the stuff about Giuliani.
That's the point. I'm trying to annoy people into understanding what's
going on=8A

In the early days of the street artist issue, we'd be getting arrested and
people would be trying to buy pictures from us while we're standing there
in handcuffs. They were that oblivious to what was going on. And I said,
"Lady, we're under arrest." And she'd go, "Really? Are those real
handcuffs?" You know, people just didn't understand it. So I made that jail
cell and I got louder and more visible, to force people to say, "This is
actually going on right on my street. They're arresting artists here every
day while I'm going to the art galleries=8A"

I'll say this: I've had numerous reporters over the years tell me, "You
know, I want to do more stories about this and I'm threatened by the NYPD.
They'll cut off all access to One Police Plaza if I do another story." Or
people whose names I'm not going to tell you who have literally written
story after story and it was killed. Not junior reporters, established
people at the dailies. So there's a huge amount of pressure from the
mayor's office to kill any story about me, about street artists. And of
course many other stories.

Were you always a smartass? Were you the kid in fourth grade who couldn't
lay off the teachers?

Yeah. I was definitely a wiseguy. To some extent you've got to enjoy this.
Put it this way, I'm good at it=8A[but] it's certainly not relaxing to be
Rudy Giuliani's most public enemy=8A Cops have told me, "We know where you
live," when they're arresting me=8A Back in Soho, '94, '95, they were going
store to store telling people I'm a drug dealer. Kathryn Freed was putting
out information that I'm a stalker, that I'm funded by the Chinese
Communists. Bizarre stuff=8A One of the reasons I've pursued a high profile
is that I've always felt that it would protect me=8A I also would have to
tell you that what I'm doing is a good thing to do. It's not just something
that I want to do, and as a result I have a certain amount of protection
from the universe. I don't think that God is too thrilled with Rudy

MAZMANIAN: Have any city politicians reached out to you? Offered you a
hand? Are you in contact
with anybody?

Well, I'm in contact with quite a few, and I have been since '93. Lots of
them have said they would like to do things. They're all scared. The people
that wanted street artists arrested, that pushed Mayor Giuliani to do it,
are real estate people. They pay for all these politicians to be in office.

Has anybody helped at all?

Tom Duane's always been supportive; Ruth Messinger at one period was
supposedly going to step forward and do something for us; but the most
supportive has been Council Member Stephen DiBrienza.

RUSS SMITH: One question I have that's probably unrelated. What do you
think about the Supreme
Court ruling about the NEA?

I would say this in general about the NEA. I'm an advocate for First
Amendment freedom. The one thing artists absolutely need is First Amendment
freedom. If you have the right to sell your paintings on the street you
don't need a grant from the government. Other artists obviously feel
differently. They think that the government has an obligation to support
the arts.

Why? Why do they think that?

To me that inhibits art.

Right. That's exactly what I think. If you have to wait for a grant, you're
going to be first of all influenced by what you're trying to create to be
attractive to them. And then you're giving the government some control
about what you're doing. So you're taking a Republican point of view. Or a
libertarian point of view.

I guess more of a libertarian point of view. I'm certainly not against the
NEA; I'm certainly not opposing it. And, on the other hand I would have to
say this: I can certainly sympathize with taxpayers that resent that their
money is going to art that they absolutely abhor. It's one thing if you
don't think a Picasso painting is worth anything or you don't like Van
Gogh. It's another thing that you know your tax dollars are going to fund
the kind of art that promotes something that you despise, that you think is
immoral. That's a rough thing for people to swallow and I can understand
why they get agitated by it. But, again, what I'm an advocate for is, get
the government out of having any say over what's in art or what's not in
art. Let artists have their constitutional right to show and sell their
work in public as long as they're not blocking anything and there's no need
for a grant of any kind. There's 400 people in my group. Every one of them
manages to support themselves=8A

SLIVKA: Where is the ACLU on this? Where are all the First Amendment
champions? Have you gotten any turnout from them?

I'm in touch with a lot of people like that.

Have they gone down to the wire for you?

SMITH: They're not necessarily the right people to be in touch with.

On First Amendment rights=8Apeople like Kathryn Freed are a fucking
nightmare. Obviously Kathryn Freed for years was our biggest opponent.

SLIVKA: Have you been gratified by their support?

None of it's been all that wholehearted. Certainly in the early days of
that struggle, every day people would say, "Why don't you call the ACLU?"
Like they're going to run down here and stop these arrests. And I would
send them faxes and call them and nothing would come from it.

SLIVKA: Why aren't they running down there and stopping these arrests?

I think that a lot of people are part of the system and the system isn't
really that much in favor of total freedom. The position that I've taken as
the president of A.R.T.I.S.T. is=8Asome people call it almost a radical
position=8Athat anybody should be able to sell any kind of art on the street
and First Amendment rights are so important that the government\ should not
be allowed to prohibit you from doing that.

MAZMANIAN: How has this affected your art?

It's been devastating to me. Some of the members of my group, it just about
killed them=8A

To me, it sort of had an opposite effect and I think I'm very lucky that I
chose to fight back. Because it kept me from getting
depressed by it.

I went out with it and said, "Okay, you're going to confiscate my art?

I'm going make 10 times more pictures and I'm going to make them about
you."=8A I was always a little bit uncomfortable about the whole thing about
art being a collectible, beautiful object that some rich person's going to
stick on their wall and show to their friends. That never really did much
for me. I like the idea of stirring people up with what I'm doing.

Would you like to see the rest of the arts community in New York, people
who are in the galleries, become more politicized?

It would certainly be a great renaissance of the art scene because I think
that most people would agree=8Athat it's sort of a dead end. There's nothing
happening. How many piles of bricks and dirt and bras can you look at? It's
nothing=8A There's enough social problems and issues that each [artist]=8Aco=
take one issue and spend their whole lives working on it=8A And of course it
brings back figurative art immediately. It's pretty hard to communicate
anti-Giuliani by an abstract painting.

SLIVKA: To what extent have you been sold out by the liberal mandarins, the
people who will raise Cain if some wealthy novelist doesn't get an NEA
grant=8A But when some scruffy guy from Brooklyn wants to make a nuisance of
himself screaming at the mayor the support evaporates=8A

I've=8Agotten very little support about the street artist issue from the art=
community. The reason is, they're incredibly threatened by street artists,
[who] will without question have an effect on art galleries, art museums
and the hundreds of thousands of people who are making their living serving
up art to the public.

It's a punk rock way of making art.

And it's the original way. This is not anything new. Michelangelo didn't
have an art dealer. Rembrandt didn't have an art dealer. These people had a
studio and people would hear about them and come to the studio. The door
was open on the street. It's the same thing as what I'm doing.

So there's been a problem in motivating support from the galleries.

It's not motivating support=8A They have been actively against street
artists=8A Soho Alliance filed an amicus brief against us in federal court.
Soho Alliance, a group that claims to be about artists, filed a brief
claiming that art was unworthy of First Amendment protection.

As soon as it comes to their wallets or their pocketbooks, the great
left-wing art heroes run for cover.

In fairness to some left-wing art heroes I will have to mention Chuck
Close, Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenburg all signed the amicus briefs in my
case and took very strong positions. The Museum of Modern Art and the
Whitney did also, after I pressured them a lot=8A But in general, the
official art community, while it's expressed sympathy that we were getting
arrested and losing our art, they never joined us in the street, they never
put up any big fuss. The reason is twofold: They need the real estate
people because that's who's on the board of directors of all their
institutions; the very people that are telling Giuliani, "I want you to get
rid of those street artists."

MAZMANIAN: Didn't MOMA just get $65 million from Giuliani?

That David Rockefeller needs our money for his art collection is bizarre.
That was almost pornographic in a city where kids don't have a chair in
their schools. My daughter is in high school. She was using books from when
I was in high school. History books. The names of the countries weren't
even right. The pages were falling out. Why does he have $65 million to
give to MOMA?. It's ridiculous. It's obscene. It's an embarrassment=8A

When Mayor Giuliani pretends to be an advocate for the arts, it's as absurd
as when Kathryn Freed pretends to be an advocate for the arts. He's an
advocate, as she is, for landlords who happen to have art-related
businesses in their buildings. If they were porno businesses he'd be an
advocate for that, too.

SLIVKA: This city has changed in five years more than it had in the last
30. What's going to happen in the next five years?

The reason I'm fighting Giuliani-the overall trend that I'm trying to buck
here-is the privatization of public space, the corporatization of
everything=8A They're going to put ads not only along the curb, [but] the
sidewalks themselves, I guarantee, [will carry] ads within a couple of
years. They'll=8Aredo them or figure out how to project it into them in some
way, like a hologram, and we'll be living in the equivalent of Vogue
magazine. We'll be smelling things and seeing things and hearing things
every second selling us this sameness, this crap=8A And that's what Giuliani
represents. The corporate takeover of all this public space.

(c) New York Press 1998

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.

Robert Lederman can be contacted at 718-369-2111 or by e-mail at

the A.R.T.I.S.T. Web site is: <


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