By Anna Pulley
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Make Art, Not War
Attorney helps artists fight restrictions on street sales
By Claudia Rosenbaum
To the two eagle-eyed San Francisco police officers, it appeared that someone was holding up artwork on Haight Street. Closing in to investigate, they could make out an unknown subject waving an 11-by-14-inch drawing above the heads of the steady stream of pedestrians in front of Ben & Jerry's.
The cops probably did not notice that the black-and-white print was a self-portrait that artist Joseph Clark had drawn of himself at a bus stop, or that Clark was beaming with pride as he eagerly showed off his newest work and tried to sell it to passers-by.
The cops ticketed Clark for peddling art without a permit. "What country is this? What about freedom of expression?" Clark says he asked one of the officers. "I told him it was his job to protect me from people who tell me to put my art away."
After a few terse words, the police arrested Clark and put him in the back of a cruiser. He was booked, and spent eight hours in jail before being released at 4:30 a.m. on his own recognizance and given a court date. His artwork was returned to him with identifying initials written in big black permanent marker across its front.
That arrest, in October 1996, would prove to be only the first for Clark. Prosecutors decided not to pursue the charge, but since then Clark has become something of a serial illegal art peddler, at least in the eyes of the police.
A 27-year-old San Francisco native, Clark has continued trying to sell in the Haight, and police have kept arresting him, or issuing him countless tickets for peddling without a permit. Ten months after his first arrest, Clark once again found himself in the back seat of a police cruiser headed for jail, although again prosecutors declined to press the case.
Several months later, he was hauled in for a third time. When he retrieved his artwork from the police evidence room after the most recent arrest, Clark says, he found that most of his prints had been ruined by an open beer can the arresting officer picked up off the street and tossed into Clark's backpack. That case is also on the back burner, but Clark does face possible fines of up to $1,000 for tickets he has received.
This time, however, through a stroke of luck, Clark has an attorney on his side who is willing to take on the city's laws that strictly limit the ability of artists to peddle their wares on the street.
When he showed up for a recent hearing on his tickets, Clark says, he was sitting on a bench inside the Hall of Justice when he decided to see if he could enlist some help. Clark started asking any-one dressed in a suit if he could "spare a lawyer." He caught the ear of Danny B. Schultz, an attorney who works for Tony J. Serra's law office, which specializes in civil and criminal rights cases.
Standing in the hallway, Schultz listened to Clark's tale of woe, and agreed that Clark's First Amendment rights were being vio-lated. After doing some legal research, Schultz concluded that the San Francisco law against street artists peddling without a permit was unconstitutional.
Now, Schultz is representing Clark, and other artists, for free in a battle to undo the law. Schultz says he'll make a federal case out of it if he has to. Schultz and the artists he is now trying to help say the city's myopic laws on street sales aren't just illegal, they're inane.
"I didn't go out to break the law," Clark says. "I went out there thinking I was an American. For this country to say that I have this right and for this city to take it away ... to me, that's treason."
Clark is by no means the only painter afraid of selling on the street. There are those who, after being arrested several times in the Haight, gave up and now discreetly sell downtown without permits. Other artists say they have been harassed off the street altogether. Adam LaBay, 22, who draws highly detailed ink work, says he quit selling in the Haight after receiving five tickets, $1,300 in fines, and the threatened loss of his artwork (one drawing typically takes him three months to complete). He now works at Juice World and displays his drawings at the City Art Gallery in the Mission.
"There's a reason why a lot of great artists don't come here and instead go to New York or L.A.," LaBay says while taking a smoke break on Haight Street in his red Juice World apron. "What kind of effect does it have on a kid, if she looks outside and sees someone being arrested for selling or displaying their art?"
Both Clark and LaBay say they looked into getting permits to sell their art in the Haight. But they learned that the city does not issue permits for that neighborhood. Street artists can only "legally" sell in areas around Fisherman's Wharf, the Embarcadero, or downtown. In those touristy locations, artists must have permits and sit in assigned spots behind regulation booths.