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Will jailing of graffiti artist open a big can of paint?

Friday, March 14, 2003

Minutes after the once-elusive graffiti artist known as Mook was held over for trial and returned to the Allegheny County Jail until somebody can post $100,000 straight bond for him, several of his disciples had a message for neighborhood crusaders outraged by graffiti.

"This is just the beginning," two of the extras from "Lord of the Flies" seethed to Pittsburgh City Council President Gene Ricciardi outside the Municipal Courts Building on Wednesday afternoon. "Now even more kids are going to come out in protest, so this isn't the end."

If their intent was to intimidate the nattily dressed councilman by raising the specter of adolescents descending on every blank wall in the city until Mook, aka Michael Monack, is freed, it didn't work. "You're going down the wrong path," Ricciardi said. "Do you realize you're destroying property?"

The boys met Ricciardi's paternal gaze with hard, unblinking stares of their own. Either it was the boldest of bluffs or the boys who confronted Ricciardi truly believed they could summon an army of graffiti artists who would swarm over the city's unprotected walls like rats in "Willard."

Recounting the confrontation 30 minutes later in the anteroom of his office at the City-County Building, Ricciardi was still shaking his head about the boys' "misplaced hero worship of Mook."

"Those boys declared war on the city," Ricciardi said, describing the gleam in their eyes. Asked what he was going to do about a possible resurgence of graffiti in the city, Ricciardi waved a copy of an ordinance he first proposed to Pittsburgh City Council two years ago, only to see it narrowly defeated.

"We're reintroducing legislation next week that will make it a crime for minors to buy or possess spray paint, indelible markers or etching acids and tools," he said. "This thing, whether it's a fad or an art form or pure vandalism, has to stop."

Though Ricciardi remains an implacable foe of graffiti, he isn't without sympathy for young men like Michael Monack. He insists that he understands their alienation, but he's more offended that people feel they have the right to assert their identity at the expense of property owners and taxpayers who'd rather not provide their walls for someone's therapy.

"Mook's mother came to me after the hearing to say her son was innocent," Ricciardi said.

"She couldn't believe I wasn't there to support Michael, because he's from my district [on the South Side]. No mother can imagine her child committing a crime that could land him in jail for a long time, but it happens. So it's the responsibility of society to [exert] influence over this kid, because it's obvious that his mom has struck out."

Some of Ricciardi's resentment about graffiti can be traced, in part, to a conversation he had with his then-7-year-old daughter last year. She came home from school amazed that "Mook" was carved on her desk. She was impressed to be sitting at a desk that Mook himself had graced; whether it was his handiwork or a copycat's didn't matter.

"I told her that she shouldn't hold him in awe," Ricciardi said. "There's nothing exciting about this kid. He's not charismatic. He doesn't have an idea. He's not protesting the war with his graffiti. You saw him at the hearing today; he's not doing anything to advance society or art or politics. Some graffiti is at least interesting to look at. Not Mook's."

If Michael Monack is truly innocent of the charges that have put him behind bars until his trial this summer, it will be an extremely ironic -- and cruel -- twist of fate. Because of his notoriety and past misdeeds, he will always be a prime suspect whenever a wall or bridge is defaced. He's a prisoner of his bad reputation whether in jail or not. It is primarily his fault.

A legacy of presumed guilt is too heavy for anyone with sense to bear willingly. In the weeks since he was arrested on the 10th Street Bridge, many of his friends and some of his critics have raised the possibility that Mook may be the unluckiest of patsies. Some wonder whether the true culprits are, indeed, the kids now threatening to scrawl their defiance of the law on walls all over town in Mook's name.

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

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