Two Detroit Artists Face Up to Four Years in Prison for Political Graffiti

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by Matthew Irwin
August 12, 2016

As a founding member of the Raiz Up Collective in Southwest Detroit, Antonio Cosme, 28, has been an outspoken critic of the city’s redevelopment regime: speaking at public meetings, interrupting the mayor’s state of the city address, and using his own body to prevent officials from shutting off a pregnant woman’s water supply in the middle of Ramadan. Recently, however, Cosme has also become a subject of the emergency management system he’s been criticizing. He and fellow Raiz Up artist and activist William Lucka, 22, are facing up to $75,000 in fines and four years in prison for allegedly painting “Free the Water” in large block letters up the side of a water tower in Highland Park. Accompanying the text is a black graphic of a fist covering the height of the tower.

In November 2014, police confronted Cosme and Lucka at the bottom of the tower, but nearly a year and a half had passed before police contacted them again about the incident. Then, a Detroit graffiti task force — a newly formed special unit charged with tracking and prosecuting taggers and graffiti artists — took over the case, claiming the cost of cleaning the tower would range from $45,000 to $75,000, Cosme says. Police raided Lucka’s home, taking many of his art-related materials, and eventually brought a slew of new charges against him, using one of the task force’s key tools: an expanding graffiti database. Cosme describes it as a “badass” archive of local street art despite its nefarious purpose. Using the database, the taskforce linked Lucka to multiple appearances of the tag “Astro,” which appeared on the water tower with “Free the Water.”

Because Cosme and Lucka’s arrest coincided with the formation of the task force, Cosme sees the charges as a publicity stunt to show off the special unit and promote the city’s agenda. In June 2015, the taskforce also made a big show of issuing a warrant for the internationally known street artist, Shepard Fairey. After completing a commissioned 18-story retread of his brand “Obey,” Fairey wheat-pasted several other versions of his brand illegally in public spaces, including a water tower. He turned himself in and now faces charges and up to $10,000 in fines.

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