File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1996/96-11-03.013, message 1


Date: Sun, 1 Sep 1996 12:11:06 GMT
Subject: HazArt


   The New York Times, September 1, 1996, The City, pp. 1, 8. 
 
 
   Is This Man Dangerous? The Portrait Artist In an Age Of 
   Zero Tolerance. Inside the Quality Of Life Wars. 
 
   By Jane H. Lii 
 
 
   It is nearing midnight, Saturday, and Times Square is 
   pulsating, with mostly positive energy. Tourists and locals 
   seeking to extend the night flock to the glittering lights 
   blazing Broadway. Sailors in crisp uniforms rollick among 
   vendors of love potions and three-card monte players. 
   Lovers lock lips under the flashing neon signs. 
 
   The crowd is good news for the dozens of portrait artists 
   -- most of whom are Chinese but with a good mix of Russians 
   and Albanians -- stretched around the corner of 49th Street 
   and Seventh Avenue. Some scurry around, enticing passers-by 
   with samples of their work. 
 
   Robbyn Hasberry needs so such encouragement. After a quick 
   survey of the different styles, she sits in front of Ylli 
   Harunj, her lips parted in a slight grin, her face turned 
   three quarters to him. But before Mr. Haruni can contour 
   Ms. Hasberry's cheeks or pencil in a sparkle in her eyes, 
   a police officer moves in. 
 
   "Can't stay here!" he growls. 
 
   In a New York minute, the artists scatter, leaving Ms. 
   Hasberry and other customers scrambling in confusion like 
   a flock of sheep without a shepherd. 
 
   Minutes later, as the police disappear, a sense of order 
   resumes. Mr. Haruni sets up 20 feet from his original spot 
   and motions to Ms. Hasberry to sit again. 
 
   "Why should they chase you like a dog?" the customer asks. 
   "Don't they have anything better to do?" 
 
   In many cities around the world, street artists are given 
   sanctuary in busy tourist districts, like Piazza Navona in 
   Rome and Montmartre in Paris. They are rated by their 
   ability to limn the customer's likeness on paper. But here, 
   a prized skill is the ability to sprint from the police. 
 
   In recent years, as the city and business groups have moved 
   to sweep the streets of debris and hustlers, the question 
   has been raised: Is the spontaneity and rawness that makes 
   New York well, New York, also being swept away? Should the 
   artists -- whose gravest offense may be the bruising of a 
   customer's ego -- be lumped together with hawkers of fake 
   Gucci bags? 
 
   Most nights, a cat-and-mouse game goes on. For the nomadic 
   unlicensed artists, it is both a nuisance and an insult, a 
   painful reminder to some of how far they have fallen since 
   they were respected figures in their homelands. There, they 
   maneuvered with authorities to skirt censorship. Here, they 
   work officialdom for the right to bark for $20 bills. Some 
   say they give themselves up to police on certain nights to 
   be allowed to work on others. 
 
   Relations between some officers and artists are knowing and 
   sometimes even affectionate, as if both feel victimized by 
   bizarre choreography. 
 
   To the city and business leaders, the issue is not so much 
   individual wrongdoing as it is environmental control. 
 
   "Portrait artists come when the streets are most crowded," 
   said Gretchen Dykstra, president of the Times Square 
   Business Improvement District. "These are the times when 
   the streets cannot bear that kind of immobile congestion." 
 
   Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, 
   which manages the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement 
   District, says crime is also an issue. "The relationship is 
   ancillary," he said. "The vendors create an atmosphere 
   where pickpockets can flourish." 
 
   Mr. Cusick said larceny had dropped 63 percent within the 
   B.I.D. since it was formed three years ago to cover 46th to 
   61st Streets on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street between the 
   Avenue of the Americas and Madison. He said this has paved 
   the way for business investment. 
 
   "When the vending was completely out of hand four to five 
   years ago, Fifth Avenue was a mess," Mr. Cusick said. 
   "There were going-out-of-business signs all over the place. 
   Now, there is virtually no store available to rent within 
   the B.I.D. area." 
 
   But others see all street artists, including those who do 
   portraits, as an integral part of the city's cultural life. 
 
   "There is a vitality and an unmediated relationship between 
   the artist and his audience," said Mary Schmidt Campbell, 
   the dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York 
   University and Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in the Koch 
   and Dinkins administrations. "There are not enough cultural 
   institutions in the city to contain all the talent. When 
   you eliminate the artists, you eliminate the charm of the 
   city." 
 
   Rise of the Peddler Squad 
 
   The chase has gone on for decades. But in recent years, the 
   city has put restrictions on vendors -- and has placed 
   portrait artists, and those who sell art prints, in that 
   same category. This, combined with the Giuliani 
   administration's "zero tolerance" policy, has made it 
   easier for the police to arrest the artists and confiscate 
   their tools. 
 
   The street artists, led by Robert Lederman, a 
   Brooklyn-based painter, are appealing a Federal decision 
   that upheld the city's policy. The case is gathering wide 
   attention as a collision between quality-of-life issues and 
   First Amendment protection. 
 
   "Drawing on the street is a form of freedom of expression 
   protected by the First Amendment," Mr. Lederman said. "By 
   requiring artists to get a license, the city is abridging 
   that freedom." 
 
   In 10 years, the Peddler Task Force, which works from the 
   Battery to 59th Street, river to river, has ballooned from 
   one sergeant and a half-dozen police officers to one 
   lieutenant, six sergeants and 34 police officers, said 
   Lieut. J. J. Johnson, its commander. Their working hours 
   have expanded, too, from eight-hour shifts to 24 hours a 
   day, seven days a week. Regular uniformed officers and 
   plainclothes detectives also pitch in. 
 
   Also pitching in are security guards hired by B.I.D.'s. The 
   guards comb the streets nightly and report any portrait 
   artists sightings to base offices, which then alert the 
   police. The guards linger until either the police arrive or 
   a emergency elsewhere pulls them away. The artists are 
   chased nightly, given summonses and sometimes thrown in 
   jail with prostitutes, drug dealers and thieves. 
 
   But, if a week on the streets with artists is any 
   indication, accommodations are made. 
 
   Police officers say they do their best to be reasonable; 
   they often serve coffee in station houses after arrests. 
   One recent evening, a young officer walked up to a group of 
   Times Square artists and all but begged for them to stay 
   away until his shift was over. 
 
   "I don't want to arrest any of you guys," he pleaded. "Do 
   me a favor. It's 11:30. I get off at 12." 
 
   The artists packed up and shuffled down the block. On his 
   way back to the station house, the officer waved goodbye. 
 
   Recently, an artist from China who insisted on anonymity 
   regaled her colleagues with details about a recent trip to 
   the station house. 
             The woman said the officer had first apologized for 
   arresting her, then filled in a fake name on the arrest 
   sheet, thus effectively avoiding a court date, a possible 
   fine and community service. But by not showing up for 
   court, she forfeited her chairs, charcoal, paper and frame, 
   which would later be auctioned off by the city. Before 
   releasing her, the officer handed her 20 red roses he had 
   confiscated from a flower vendor arrested in the same 
   sweep. 
 
   "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," the artist said. 
   "It was awful to be among the prostitutes and drug dealers, 
   even for a couple of hours. But I don't hate him at all. He 
   was really very nice. This is the first time someone gave 
   me so many roses." 
 
   For the most part, the artists say, there is an implicit 
   give-and-take that has worked well for both sides. 
 
   The artists say they sometimes sacrifice themselves on 
   certain nights to satisfy a police quota, although the 
   police deny there is a quota system. In exchange, they say, 
   police officers give them a break on nights when business 
   is good, especially on weekend nights, when they would have 
   to be taken to Central Booking and spend the weekend there, 
   much preferable to a few hours in a precinct. Since many 
   artists rest on Mondays, most of the arrests take place 
   between Tuesday and Thursday, afternoon and night. Asked 
   about these arrangements Lieutenant Johnson would say only 
   that the police are vigilant every day of the week. 
 
   It is impossible to obtain a permit to work on the streets 
   -- no new general vending applications have been accepted 
   since 1993, says Pat Cohen, spokeswoman for the Consumer 
   Affairs Department. The Parks Department has showed more 
   flexibility. 
 
   For decades, some 30 portrait artists made a little piece 
   of land, West Fourth Street and the Avenue of the Americas, 
   their home, said Annette Lombard, who began her career as 
   a street portrait artist 38 years ago in the Village. But 
   the explosion of craft peddlers and artists from Eastern 
   Europe and China created tensions between the old-timers 
   and the newcomers and the Village community became upset, 
   too. After fierce battles with local merchants and 
   Community Board 2, the artists sought refuge near the Wein 
   Walk near the Children's Zoo in Central Park. The status 
   quo lasted until the early 1990's, when the number of 
   artists made it impossible for pedestrians to make their 
   way to the zoo. 
 
   Rather than chasing the artists away, the Parks Department 
   last year began issuing 72 monthly permits for Manhattan 
   parks, costing $25. Sixty are for Central Park, four each 
   for Battery Park and Union Square Park, and two each for 
   Washington Square Park and Father Demo Square on the Avenue 
   of the Americas near Bleecker Street. When applicants 
   exceed the limit of 72, a lottery is held. The Parks 
   Department said it also planned to issue permits in 
   Prospect Park in Brooklyn in the future. 
 
   "This gives the artist a chance for employment, a diversion 
   for other people to watch and immortality to the subject," 
   said Henry J. Stern, the Parks Commissioner. 
 
   Pride and the Portrait Artist 
 
   For many of the immigrant artists, it is shameful enough to 
   work on the street, but twice as hard when you wind up in 
   handcuffs. 
 
   "In China, if a team of police trailed behind me, it was 
   only to provide security," recalled Shen Tao, an interior 
   designer who said he had worked on the prestigious People's 
   Hall in Tiananmen Square. "Here, I feel like a pest." 
 
   Mr. Shen said he now made a point to hold his head up high 
   after an arrest. 
 
   "I want them to see that I'm an artist, not a criminal," he 
   said. 
 
   Back home, many of the artists achieved recognition within 
   their own circles and were even worshipped. Jacob Torosian 
   Aram is known in Moscow (by his Russian name) as "Acop of 
   Arbat Street," the art district. Along the street and in 
   Moscow galleries he is credited with developing the 
   dry-brush painting technique, which uses black oil paint on 
   paper to give the work an airbrush quality and more 
   dramatic contrast. Avner Salidas was a well-known church 
   restorer in Albania. Wang Haiyan was an award-winning young 
   Chinese artist. 
 
   But none of this matters now. On the streets of New York, 
   the ability to hustle is paramount. 
 
   "When I first arrived, I just couldn't open my mouth no 
   matter how hard I tried," said Wang Jie, who specialized in 
   Chinese paintings in China. "It took me three months to 
   feel normal." 
 
   Others never get over the shame. Many say they do not even 
   tell their families back home about their jobs. Even Mr. 
   Torosian Aram, who often finishes his work to the 
   thunderous applause from an admiring audience, flushes when 
   talking about his work. 
 
   "Please don't write about me," he begs. "My job is not 
   respectable." 
 
   Mr. Torosian Aram relents only after being told by 
   bystanders that his work deserved publicity. 
 
   "Really?" he asks. "O.K. then." 
 
   The Bonds Between Artists 
 
   The immigrant artists form a close bond across ethnic lines 
   to fight their common enemies. They work in large groups 
   for protection, save their colleagues' chairs during police 
   chases and work over one another's paintings when 
   dissatisfied customers demand a refund. 
 
   At dusk, they converge on China Evian restaurant on West 
   46th Street, their own Maison Fournaise, the hangout for 
   the French Impressionist artists, for "portrait food": 
   takeout Chinese combination platters. For $5, the artists 
   get soup, rice and a meat and vegetable dish. Though his 
   generosity does not quite compare to that of Alphonse 
   Fournaise, the proprietor who took as payment the paintings 
   nobody else wanted, William Tse, owner of the restaurant, 
   does give each artist an extra container of rice at no 
   charge and lets them use the bathroom. 
 
   Dinner is eaten in the alley of a nearby office building. 
   Between slurps of hot-and-sour soup, the artists 
   commiserate and sometimes remember the good old days under 
   Communism when the state subsidized everything and all they 
   had to do was paint. But these fond memories are invariably 
   juxtaposed with tales of ruthless persecution -- forced 
   divorces, murdered relatives, labor camps. 
 
   Sometimes, business deals are made over shrimp stir-fry. On 
   this day, Mr. Haruni, a dissident who fled Albania during 
   its own version of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Ms. 
   Wang talked of setting up a shop in a mall. Mr. Wang, no 
   relation, found out about a sale at Bradlees, where for $6 
   he could replace a black nylon bag confiscated by the 
   police. 
 
   And when the spirit is down, Mr. Haruni, who had to study 
   Chinese and Russian in Albania, livens the atmosphere by 
   reciting revolutionary slogans in Russian and singing 
   Chinese revolutionary songs. 
 
   When business is slow, artists offer discounts. To avoid 
   bidding wars, there is an etiquette involved: the first 
   artists to set up get to set the price. 
 
   There is friction with the old-time American-born artists, 
   some of whom say the aggressive sales pitches of some 
   immigrants goes against tradition. When she comes to work, 
   around 50th Street and Seventh Avenue, Ms. Lombard makes 
   sure to set up a block away from the rest of the artists. 
 
   "They are not professional," Ms. Lombard said. "They don't 
   use easels and they chase people up and down the block." 
 
   But the immigrants argue that the easel is just one more 
   thing to pack and carry during a police chase. 
 
   Ego and the Portrait Artist 
 
   While most artists take pride in their ability, the result 
   may not always be welcome, for most customers are not the 
   Claudia Schiffers or Tom Cruises they fancy themselves to 
   be. 
 
   Ms. Hasberry, whose profile in real life resembles that of 
   the actress Halle Berry, was thrilled with Mr. Haruni's 
   work. But a woman on West 44th Street, whose likeness was 
   closely captured by Mr. Sheng, refused to pay because she 
   said her nose had been drawn too flat and her lips too 
   thick. 
 
   "It's ugly," she said. 
 
   "But it's you," Mr. Sheng replied, perhaps a bit too 
   honestly. 
 
   As the woman walked away in a huff without paying or taking 
   the portrait, a colleague offered Mr. Sheng his complaint- 
   proof trade secret: long lashes, up-curved lips and a thin 
   nose. 
 
   But most artists have settled for happy middle ground by 
   mixing reality with a sprinkle of fantasy. 
 
   With wavy shoulder-length hair and a dashing face, Sunny 
   Gondel, a limousine driver, fancied himself a Pakistani 
   Kurt Russell and requested that Mr. Haruni omit the signs 
   of aging on his face. 
 
   At first, Mr. Haruni painted Mr. Gondel without the bags 
   under his eyes and the heavy shadows that hollowed his 
   cheeks. But as Mr. Gondel went on with his story of an 
   unrequited love that has tormented him for the last 19 
   years and how it eventually drove him into a life of wild 
   parties and fast women, Mr. Haruni subtly worked in a look 
   of sadness in Mr. Gondel's eyes and dusted a light layer of 
   shadows under his cheeks. 
 
   "Man, it's me," Mr. Gondel gushed as he was leaving. 
 
   "It must be hard to love this many women," Mr. Haruni said 
   afterward, shaking his head in part envy and part 
   disbelief. 
 
   _________________________________________________________ 
   [Box] 
 
   How to Pose and Maybe Scram 
 
   Here are tips for customers: 
 
   1 Wear darker tops. Light colors reflect a harsh, 
   unflattering shadow onto the face. 
 
   2 Face the artist three quarters of the way. A profile is 
   often more flattering than the Uncle Sam "I Want You!" 
   straight pose. But there are exceptions. 
 
   3 Slanted, late afternoon sun and street lights cast the 
   most flattering shadows on the face. 
 
   4 Wear a pleasant Mona Lisa expression; a toothy smile is 
   hard to hold and looks fake. 
 
   5 If you want to look better than you do, tell the artist 
   straight out and work out a middle ground. (Some artists 
   are loath to compromise their artistic integrity.) 
 
   6 To protect your ego, never say, "It's ugly." The artist 
   may counter, "But it's you." 
 
   7 Expect a session to last between 30 and 45 minutes. 
 
   8 Be prepared to run on a moment's notice. Police officers 
   and private security guards may interrupt your session and 
   you can lose your time invested. 
 
   9 Warning: Artists scatter quickly, so make sure you follow 
   the right one to finish the portrait. 
 
   _________________________________________________________ 
 
   [Six photos] 
 
   [End] 
 
   To see photos: 
 
      http://pwp.usa.pipeline.com/~jya/art1.jpg 
      http://pwp.usa.pipeline.com/~jya/art2.jpg  (2 pix) 
      http://pwp.usa.pipeline.com/~jya/art3.jpg  (3 pix) 
 
 
 
 
 
 


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