'Barrel monster': Is it a crime, or is it art?

Even the owner of the purloined orange traffic barrels urges the D.A. not to prosecute.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A May 31 handout photo released by Joseph Carnevale shows a sculpture made of traffic barrels by Carnevale in Raleigh, N.C.. Carnevale says he didn't have a grandiose point to make when he chopped up orange-and-white traffic barrels and turned them into a massive statue of a hitchhiking roadside monster. But the North Carolina college student has become a celebrity artist of sorts since city police charged him with possession of stolen goods.
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Only months after the arrest of Shepard Fairey, the Obama "Hope" poster artist who's battling the Associated Press over copyright issues, another guerilla artist is facing charges – this time for creating a hitchhiking "monster" out of stolen orange traffic barrels.

A worldwide outpouring of support for the soft-spoken and billy-goateed Joe Carnevale – whose very last name hints at anti-authoritarian whimsy – has put pressure on a district attorney in Raleigh, N.C. to drop larceny charges.

With more than 3,000 people from as far away as Korea and Brazil joining a Facebook group calling for charges to be thrown out, Mr. Carnevale's monster stunt touches on the growing legitimacy and celebrity of guerrilla artists. In many ways, sympathy for Carnevale stems from a cultural resistance to authority and the celebration of harmless fun in the face of overly serious prosecutors.

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"It's easy to see why it would be very hard to come down emotionally on the side of police on this one," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University, in New York. "This wasn't a 'get us out of Iraq monster,' it's a hitchhiking monster, and it played on the irritation that most people feel when they see traffic barrels, which usually mean a traffic jam."

He adds: "One of the dangers of being a guerilla artist is that you might get arrested. One of the dangers of being a prosecutor is that you occasionally have to prosecute people who are popular."

But the question for law enforcement is a bit more serious. One immediate question: Could moving the barrels have put drivers in danger?

Susan Farrell, who runs the pro-graffiti blog Art Crimes doesn't buy that. "The sculpture probably does a better job preventing people from driving into whatever it is than the original barrel configuration," she writes in an e-mail.

Still, police say they've expanded the investigation after seizing "ropes, binoculars, a traffic vest, cameras, a walkie-talkie, several laptops, a cellphone, and an iPod" from Carnevale's apartment, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

More interesting, without Carnevale's arrest, his monster would have been a local story, at best, argues Mr. Thompson. "The story is so compelling because everything is a perfect and delicate balance. If the charges are dropped, then it's not so interesting, and if the company would have simply given him the barrels, you don't have the same appeal. This is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat."

Carnevale, whose bottle-top-festooned car is a regular sight around Raleigh's hipper neighborhoods, says he got the idea for the barrel monster while sitting in class at North Carolina State University on May 31. He plotted out his plans like a structural engineer. He completed the project that night on the side of Hillsborough Avenue, one of Raleigh's main thoroughfares. He was arrested on two misdemeanor charges of larceny on June 10. He is set to go to court July 21, although the D.A. is now reviewing the case.

The president of Hamlett Associates, owner of the barrels, has urged the city not to prosecute. The cost of the barrels – $385 – has been redeemed by the fact that Hamlett Associates may now be the only such company to be known around the world. The company wants to use the barrel sculpture for promotion.

"I love the barrel monster," says Ms. Farrell. "Guerrilla sculpture is rather rare in street art and is generally stolen and hoarded as fast as it's produced. Played right, the city could have a new souvenir that sells like hotcakes on the Internet, but I'm sure they won't be that smart."

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