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Painted as a menace, graffiti artist 'Mook' is held for trial

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Days of reckoning don't get much lousier than the one 20-year-old Michael Monack, the graffiti artist and daredevil vandal known as Mook, had yesterday at City Court.

Standing before Magistrate Dan Butler, Monack looked nothing like the incarnation of evil he's been painted as by the coalition of neighborhood groups and property owners who came to court hoping to see his comeuppance.

Sporting handcuffs and ankle shackles that forced him to shuffle before the magistrate, Monack barely made eye contact with his lawyer, Erika P. Kreisman, and barely glanced at the crowd of reporters who hovered a few feet behind him.

Monack listened intently as Kreisman insisted that her client just happened to be cruising the Armstrong Tunnels on his bike at 4:30 on a Sunday morning when graffiti broke out.

"I know it looks bad," Kreisman conceded, adding that coincidence and circumstantial evidence have conspired against her client, a convicted graffiti artist who made his reputation scaling bridge suspensions and highway underpasses to spray "Mook" in places where even angels fear to tread.

If Kreisman heard the snickering of the community activists from Mount Washington, Carrick and Lawrenceville, or their barely concealed sighs of disgust, she didn't acknowledge it. Monack kept a straight face, too, with only the circles under his eyes betraying what must have been, up to that point, a slowly dawning realization that he was in jeopardy of doing some serious jail time.

In October 2002, Common Pleas Judge Robert E. Colville sentenced Monack and three associates to community service and thousands of dollars in fines in exchange for guilty pleas to criminal mischief and defiant trespass. Monack could've faced several felony counts.

He was ordered to desist from graffiti as a condition of his probation. Since October, several warrants have been issued for Monack's arrest for violating parole.

Kreisman made a valiant but futile effort to undermine the testimony of the arresting officer, Bryan Sellers, who recounted the events of March 3 with an exactitude that painted a damning picture.

Responding to a passing motorist's call that three individuals were defacing the walls of the outbound tunnel, Sellers came upon Monack and three juveniles outside the tunnel.

Sellers and Patty Chavez, a Pittsburgh Public Works employee, testified that the graffiti in the tunnel was fresh. According to Chavez, the drawings on the wall included two penises and several words. The name "Mook" was not among them, a point Kreisman seized upon.

Because some of the drawings were deemed obscene, they were quickly removed by public works. Consequently, there was a dispute between the defense and the prosecution about the color of the markings, whether they were "fresh" or old and whether they were painted or etched into the wall. The bottom line was that public works spent $912 removing them.

Sellers testified that Monack was apprehended by another officer after trying to flee across the 10th Street Bridge on his bike.

Monack was charged with criminal mischief, conspiracy, possessing an instrument of a crime and corruption of a minor for being the group's "ringleader."

"My client lives on the South Side," Kreisman said, attempting to provide a geographic context, if not a full rationale, for Monack's nocturnal biking. "He had just come from the Greyhound station and was on his way home when he encountered the [juveniles]. They asked him for a lighter."

The magistrate's expressions alternated between incredulity and bemused skepticism. When Kreisman moved to call two of the three minors who were arrested with Monack, Butler objected, citing the possibility that the boys, who appeared in court with their mothers but without lawyers, would implicate themselves.

"If you were their lawyer," Butler said, "wouldn't you tell them to shut their mouths and go home?"

Without the testimony of the boys, Kreisman insisted that it was impossible to establish that her client was an innocent bystander.

Because of the circumstantial evidence against Monack and the likelihood that he could present a danger to public property if released, Butler held Monack for trial later in the summer and imposed $100,000 straight bond as a condition for release from the Allegheny County Jail.

Monack's mother, Maryellen Monack, wept in the courtroom. Neither she nor Monack's elderly grandmother have the financial resources to post bond.

Applause broke out in the gallery, led by Pittsburgh City Council President Gene Ricciardi. Several community activists joined him.

"I applaud what Magistrate Dan Butler did here today," Ricciardi said. "He sent a powerful signal to graffiti artists. I want to thank him for standing up for stiffer penalties."

"We're obviously distraught," Kreisman said after the hearing. "Michael is innocent of the charges in this case. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I know it looks bad given his history, but that doesn't mean he's guilty."

Perhaps warming up for the summer trial, Kreisman floated another notion, doomed to be taken lightly in Pittsburgh: "These people view what they do as artwork, a political statement," she said. The phalanx of reporters surrounding her looked even more skeptical than the judge, prompting her to smile before rushing off for another case.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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