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Chalk art isn’t graffiti, it’s free speech, Spokane City Council says

A new law decriminalizes chalk art on downtown Spokane sidewalks. Rick Bocook, a prolific chalk artist, has fought various business owners and groups for the right to do his chalk art for a years. Here Bocook chalks the sidewalks outside City Hall on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A new law decriminalizes chalk art on downtown Spokane sidewalks. Rick Bocook, a prolific chalk artist, has fought various business owners and groups for the right to do his chalk art for a years. Here Bocook chalks the sidewalks outside City Hall on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Rick Bocook has a point to make.

By chalk or amplified and distorted harmonica, Bocook has been making his presence known in downtown Spokane for years. His sidewalk chalk renderings have railed against Mayor David Condon, commemorated Otto Zehm and reproduced the cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” 85 times at last count.

But his work, and assertive personality, has annoyed more than one downtown business owner, who wash off his chalk art as quickly as he puts it down. They say his work is a nuisance that can be offensive, but Bocook has always said he has a constitutional right to his impermanent graffiti.

This week, any questions about the rights Bocook and others have to do such drawing were settled after the Spokane City Council clarified the city’s law relating to graffiti vandalism. After a unanimous vote Monday, the law will say it is not an offense to use “non-permanent, non-toxic means, such as chalk or water-soluble paints” on a public right of way, as long as the sidewalk is not blocked.

Councilman Breean Beggs said he sponsored the ordinance after organizers of Art for the Park in Browne’s Addition were told by city officials that putting water-soluble paint on sidewalks was a crime. Beggs said this attempt to regulate artistic expression on public property was “probably not constitutional.”

“That’s not the way to regulate it,” Beggs said. “We were basically vulnerable to a lawsuit.”

Beggs, a lawyer, said the law change had nothing to do with Bocook or anyone he has offended, but instead stems from his legal training and sense of justice.

“It’s political, as chalk art often is, but it’s part of the marketplace of ideas,” Beggs said. “Government can’t take sides. … If you want to, you can stand on a sidewalk with a sign that says some things that are offensive to the business in the building, as long as you don’t block traffic. That’s the law.”

Bocook – a regular at City Council meetings who challenges its members on the city’s law prohibiting sitting or lying on sidewalks, sound ordinance and sidewalk art policy – said he views the issue as not just about his right to free expression, but also as an act that adds to downtown’s charm.

“It’s a good thing for downtown,” he said. “People like to come downtown and see the chalk art.”

Although the council’s vote represents only a minor change in the ordinance, Bocook views it as an affirmation of his First Amendment rights.

“In order for something to change, it has to be challenged,” he said.

Though Bocook claims victory, downtown business owners say it’s a defeat for civility, and bad for downtown.

Dru Hieber, who owns the Bennett Block and is president of the company that controls the Parkade parking garage, said Bocook has targeted her and written threatening messages.

“He seems to claim my building. He has very well stated that that’s his corner and he ain’t leaving,” Hieber said of the northeast corner of Main Avenue and Howard Street. “He has caricatures of me as the Grinch. He has used the f-word in his art. I’ve seen sexual connotations toward women.”

Hieber said Bocook has “vendettas” against her and other business owners, but says she has no ability to combat him.

“He hides behind his constitutional rights, which I find very offensive because where are my constitutional rights?” Hieber said, noting that she has asked Council President Ben Stuckart and Condon for help. “Rules need to be put into place. That’s what I tried to explain to Mr. Stuckart and Mayor Condon.”

Susan Connolly Carmody, owner of the women’s clothing store Jigsaw, echoed Hieber’s concerns.

“This is America and it’s a great thing that we get to express ourselves, but we have rights too,” Carmody said. “I think he could be a little more sensitive.”

Andy Dinnison, who owns Boo Radley’s and Atticus Coffee and Gifts, said he’s supportive of protecting artistic rights, but worried the new law could lead to personal insults.

“I agree with the ruling in principle, but where is the line when an artist is targeting a business or building owner, where their only intention is to piss someone off?” Dinnison said.

Hieber and Dinnison also mentioned the frustration business owners have at being responsible for clearing and maintaining sidewalks, and at the same time powerless to stop someone from writing something against the business or offensive to customers. Beggs notes that business owners have the right to remove the art whenever they want.

Bocook, on the other hand, said he’s being targeted because his work veers toward the political. He pointed to the sidewalk signs left over from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“There’s still three-leaf clovers all over the place,” he said. “Is that graffiti or vandalism? You tell me. They don’t seem to think so.”

Regardless, Bocook acknowledged the impermanence of his work, and promised to keep doing it just as fast as it’s washed away.

“Every time a piece of art is drawn on the sidewalk, they’re going to wash it,” he said.

Staff writer Chad Sokol contributed to this report.

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