The Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara was arrested on February 27 for drawing graffiti in a New York City subway station. The artist, 49, best known for his cartoon-like drawings of girls with glaring moon-shaped eyes, was stopped by police at 3:30 am, when he was using a marker to draw a small face, a few centimeters across, on the tiled wall of the Brooklyn-bound side of the First Avenue L-train station in the East Village. Nara, who was with his assistant, was charged with resisting arrest, making graffiti, criminal mischief, possession of graffiti tools and damaging property. He was released after spending the night in jail. Nara’s assistant was also charged. A Manhattan district judge ruled that the charges would be dropped if Nara does not get into further legal trouble for one year.
Nara’s arrest took place the day before the opening of his solo exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea, which he attended following his release from police custody. Though the gallery has reserved comment, Guy Oksenhendler, Nara’s lawyer, speaking to the tabloid the New York Post, said it was, “a great gallery opening,” and “an extremely successful night.” The artist’s sculptures and paintings were listed between USD 125,000 and 500,000.
“It probably would have been worth ten grand if you or I got our hands on that brick,” adds Oksenhendler, referring to Nara’s graffiti, which was immediately removed upon his arrest. Though just another petty crime for the New York Police Department (NYPD), the significance of Nara’s drawing was not lost on the owners of Niagara Bar, an East Village establishment visited by Nara just hours before his arrest. The artist, who was winding down from a full day installing his exhibition at Marianne Boesky, went on a drawing spree that covered several walls of the bar. One set of drawings includes his signature little-girl characters as a rock band, shouting “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” and various other exclamations. The bar opted to preserve these drawings, signed and dated by Nara, by covering the walls with plexiglass.
The news of Nara’s arrest was first reported by the New York-based magazine Art in America (AiA) in an article titled “Nara Arrested for Graffiti Before Boesky Opening,” published on AiA’s website on March 1. In an unexpected development a week later, the artist, back in Japan, refuted the AiA story in a series of irate blog posts. With no formal statements issued since his February arrest, Nara broke the silence on his official Japanese-language blog, “Nara Voice,” on March 10, with the entry “On the Facts.” [http://harappa-h.org/modules/xeblog/]
“The news articles covering this incident have all based their stories on the AiA article, which itself is based on what I told a reporter (who did not mention that it would be written into an article) during the opening of my exhibition,” Nara writes. “This reporter wrote the article based on what I told her in my broken English, and did not confirm the details with the police.”
Nara goes on to criticize AiA magazine for misreporting the name of the subway station in which the arrest took place, the duration of his detention, and the subject of his graffiti—which were falsely reported by AiA as being the Union Square station, two days of detention and a scrawled portrait of his two friends—and also for the article’s failure to report the immediate reduction in the charges. The artist also lashes out at the NYPD. “In New York, people can get arrested based on one cop’s judgment,” Nara protests, claiming he was never properly questioned by the police, neither prior to nor following his arrest. “The police are not all heroes,” he lamented.
Despite criticizing the media and the police, Nara concludes the blog entry with a display of deep self-remorse. “This act that I committed light-heartedly has garnered much attention and is causing trouble to many people and I would like to apologize for causing them such inconvenience.” From now on, Nara promised, he will, “not even finger-draw on a surface of a dirty car parked on the road, or a fogged window of a train in the winter.” Nara vowed in the future to try to channel his spontaneous urges to draw into sketchbooks, or onto paper or a canvas.
Nara posted a follow-up entry on March 12 entitled “Postscript 1,” in which he gives a detailed walk-through of his passage through the New York legal system—from being taken into police custody, to having his charges dropped at a Manhattan courthouse. “I am by no means trying to justify what I did, and I do think that what I did was wrong,” he writes. “However, I just want to clarify that the news coverage has not been entirely accurate,” he adds, taking the opportunity to refute the media once more.
Two days later, Nara put up yet another entry on his blog, titled “Postscript 2,” in which he explains the reasoning behind his decision to take up the matter in detail on his blog. “The news coverage in Japan, as I have written on the 10th, is based on a web article by a magazine called AiA,” he laments: “A short web article was routinely being reported as fact by newspapers and news agencies, and I had questions about how that was being believed at face value.”
With the mainstream media coverage in Japan focusing on his arrest, Nara has caught the wider attention of the Japanese public. According to a Japanese television crew member who spoke to the local NY media, Nara’s arrest will gain the artist “big notoriety” in his homeland. In Japan, where even a misdemeanor charge can destroy an individual’s reputation, numerous bloggers have expressed their disapproval of the artist’s actions, as well as his statements online—although many commentators admit not knowing of the artist prior to the incident. Whether his arrest bolsters Nara’s visibility as an artist—or renders him infamous—remains to be seen.