Unsanctioned Art’s Guilty Pleasures

Shepard Fairey Pleads Guilty: Five Other Art-Related Crimes
by Dale W. Eisinger
International Business Times
February 27, 2012

When we reported Shepard Fairey pleaded guilty to charges of contempt in Manhattan federal court Friday, it closed the book on an admittedly strange battle that Fairey initiated, and then tried to cover up — the 42-year-old artist ended up forging documents in an attempt to steer clear of legal problems altogether. Now he faces jail time and fines.

A lively discussion is still bubbling around whether or not his use of an AP-licensed photo of President Barack Obama was “fair use”” or not, but the fact is: dude’s in deep do-do. However, I find it kind of admirable he’d go to such a great lengths to conceal and deceive and commit crime for his art. With that in mind, here are a few risk-laden art endeavors, some of which went off better than others.

In one of the most bizarre, preemptive, wonderful art pranks of all time, proto-feminist literarian Virginia Woolf boarded a ship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought, in an English bay with a gang of pals. They dyed their skins and put on costumes and somehow got word to the British Navy of their imminence. The prank? Woolf and her cronies impersonated the Emperor of Abyssinia (the name of Ethiopia at the time, 1910) and his diplomatic party. The circled face in the photo is none other than Woolf, wearing a solid fake beard.

Keith Haring was a New York City artist whose work in painting came to prominence in the early and mid ’80s. His deeply political focus on issues of identity, health and drugs were particularly timely as he watched the AIDS and crack epidemics’ inception throughout the city. He took his work to the streets to bring consciousness to issues close to him more prominence. The 1986 “Crack is Wack” in East Harlem, Manhattan, is undoubtedly his most famous, or at least last surviving piece. He was served a $25 summons for the now-legendary painting before dying of AIDS in 1990.


I’ve been citing this Soy Bomb clip pretty often these days, but only because it’s so ridiculous. What’s going on here? Performance artist Michael Portnoy was hired to dance in the background of Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammys performance. Well, Portnoy had bigger aspirations than that and rushed forward with his shirt ripped off, the words SOY BOMB printed on his chest as a demonstration of what he thought art should be: “dense and explosive.” Portnoy never even fazed old Bob but was detained pretty quickly. The Grammys ended up not pressing charges, but didn’t pony up Portnoy’s $200 dance fee.

Street artist REVS is likely best known for his absolute graffiti dominance in New York City with partner COST throughout the late ’80s and ’90s. He continues working in a number of public media, including paint and sculpture. But his most intimate, personal work went/will go unseen for years and years. REVS would take to the subway tunnels under New York City to spraypaint page after page from his journal onto walls that would go unseen by almost 100 percent of other people. When he was finally apprehended in 2000 coming out of a tube on a setup from another writer, his methods became revealed: He had an MTA employee smock to wear when entering and exiting the metro.

I don’t care how many fellowships you’ve won; nothing says “important, dangerous, thoughtful, provocative artist” like the government trying to erase your existence from the planet. That was exactly the case in 2011 when China’s most important figure of free expression Ai Wei Wei was held for 81 days. His crime? Mostly just speaking his mind, as the lock-tight censorship of the Chinese government sees his wanton political behavior as threatening to the tight control the government has on information there. His frequent use of Twitter is apparently the most subversive aspect of his art. Free AWW!