Chip Southworth broke the law. He knows that. He knew exactly what he was doing, painting over all those ugly-ass traffic control boxes in San Marco with (sometimes) politically charged homages to the late, great New York City street artist Keith Haring. Art exists to provoke, after all.
So in that sense, and as much as I like and respect Southworth both as a person and an artist (less his Haring homages than his other work, to be honest), it’s hard to think of him as some kind of martyr. Of course the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office — not the agency best suited to distinguishing artistry from vandalism — was going to arrest him. The JSO had been telegraphing that for months.
Still, last week’s arrest caught Southworth by surprise. The last he’d heard, the city was working on a way to let him do his thing, and he hadn’t done any work as the Ghost since December. So he figured the heat was off. But then, at 9:45 last Tuesday morning, the cops pounded on his door, collected a bunch of his stuff as evidence — art supplies, the jacket and shirt and bandana he wore in photos that accompanied stories about him, even his cell phone — and put him in handcuffs.
His mugshot made the local media rounds, and soon after, my Facebook wall was lit up with pleas to #freekeithharingsghost. Southworth’s lawyer, John Phillips, emailed that while they wouldn’t be talking to the press, Southworth’s “arrest and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s further ‘social media campaign,’ including trying the case in social media and posting his mugshot, is irresponsible, if not unjust.” (On March 19, under the headline “Graffiti Vandal Unmasked,” the JSO posted Southworth’s mugshot on its Facebook page, and said that the estimated amount of damage he’d done to the 11 boxes he’d painted totaled $1,100. The very first comment read: “You guys look like a bunch of assholes spending your time and our money on this.”)
David DeCamp, Mayor Alvin Brown’s communications director, told me last week that the city didn’t initiate the investigation or ask JSO to arrest Southworth. Nor is the city bothered by the concept of public art or even Southworth’s subject matter. Rather, the city’s concerns are pragmatic: Certain paints can cause the boxes to overheat, especially in summer. “Taxpayers paid for these things,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure their primary purpose functions.”
Provided the logistics can be worked out, the city wants to “talk about a way to do something cool,” DeCamp says, both on these utility boxes and throughout the urban core. This sort of thing has been done elsewhere: Orlando, for instance, has undertaken an ambitious public art project, including murals and paintings on its utility boxes, that has attracted world-class artists. There’s no reason Jacksonville couldn’t do the same.
If there’s anything good that comes from Southworth being charged with criminal mischief, a felony (really?), it’s this: We now have a full-throttle and much-needed conversation about public art. As one gallery owner told the Times-Union, “I like what Chip is doing because he’s making people talk.”
Chip isn’t a martyr. He is, however, a provocateur. This city needs more of those.