LAST October, a fleet of New York City police cruisers prowled the neighborhood of Soho.
The officers nabbed 16 scofflaws, slapped them in handcuffs, and confiscated trunk loads of contraband.
But these suspects weren't the usual batch of drug dealers, gang operatives, and purse snatchers. Instead, they marked a new type of remorseless ne'er-do-well: the renegade artist.
In the last year, police in Manhattan have made more than 100 arrests of artists for peddling their original paintings, sculptures, and woodcarvings on city streets without permits. In response, 20 New Yorkers have formed a group called, fittingly, ARTIST (Artists' Response to Illegal State Tactics).
Last month, a dozen ARTIST members carried signs and chanted ``No Art, No Freedom'' on a sidewalk in Soho where the group's leader, Robert Lederman, was once arrested. The protest, one of several recently, was aimed at halting what Mr. Lederman calls a ``campaign of harassment'' by neighborhood associations and politicians.
``Selling your own work is what free enterprise is all about,'' Lederman says. ``Government programs give artists grants to help them make a living. Here's a group of artists that's out making a living for themselves, and the government is doing everything they can to stop them.''
Painter Matthew Brzostoski, an ARTIST member who says he has sold 6,000 paintings on the street, accuses Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of masterminding the latest wave of arrests as part of a campaign pledge to clean up the street. ``The new mayor is trying to get everyone off the streets; the bums, the window washers, the hustlers, and the artists,'' Mr. Brzostoski says. ``We get treated like drug dealers, but we're the good guys. We attract tourists.''
Balderdash, says Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Avenue Association. ``No one is taking away [Mr. Lederman's] right to make his art; this is not about content. These people line their paintings up against the walls of buildings, even tape them to the walls sometimes, spreading them out over huge geographical areas. There need to be some controls on how the streets are used.''
So far, no artists have been prosecuted, but many have had their artwork confiscated. Marc Agnifilo, an attorney with the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, is currently defending Lederman on four separate charges of ``unlicensed vending'' that may be adjudicated. He argues that the statute under which Lederman was arrested is flimsy at best, and the New York District Attorney's office knows it.
``The D.A.'s office gives the police orders to arrest street artists,'' he says, ``but they always drop the charges because they're afraid the statute might not be constitutional.''
Mr. Agnifilo says that the City Council, worried about the law's constitutionality, passed an exception to the statute in 1992 that allows the free sale and distribution of ``printed matter'' such as books and pamphlets. He says that arresting street artists violates their First-Amendment rights to free speech and, because he considers art a form of printed matter, their 14th-Amendment right to equal protection under the law.
``The D.A.'s office is using police resources and then not prosecuting cases because they're afraid that a judge will find it unconstitutional,'' Agnifilo says. ``It's an intellectually disingenuous position.''
Although artists are allowed to apply for vending permits, Agnifilo says he finds the process ``problematic. They only give out a handful every year, and even if you can get a license, I've been told it takes five years.''
While the street-vending problem exists throughout the city, the conflict is especially heated in Soho. This upscale neighborhood in lower Manhattan has become a thriving artist colony by instituting a special zoning regulation that permits only artists to live there.
According to New York City Council representative Katherine Freed, Soho's success has brought immense complications. ``Soho has hundreds of thousands of tourists,'' she says. ``It's suffering from too many people taking up too much space. There isn't a square inch that isn't taken up on the weekends. When people go to their apartments, they trip over street artists. Residents tell me they find people changing clothes in the foyers of their apartment buildings. It's becoming difficult to enforce health and safety requirements.''
Ms. Freed called for hearings last year to discuss street art. After several unproductive sessions, Freed says she has given up on the issue, largely because of what she says is ARTIST's complete unwillingness to compromise. ``When anybody talks about setting aside designated areas for them, the artists say they're being ghetto-ized. They want a specific certification that lets them sell anywhere,'' Freed says.
``I'm so fed up with with these guys and their attitudes,'' she continues. ``They think they can blithely walk in and do whatever they want. They're like babies, they want everything their way, but they don't pay rent, and they don't pay taxes. They're like parasites.''
At a recent protest, a Soho resident, who declined to give his name, decried the effects of street art on the neighborhood. ``I came to Soho in 1963, and it was a peaceful place to live. Now look at it, it's a mess. I'm an artist myself, and this stuff on the street is not art.''
Nevertheless, along West Broadway in the heart of Soho, most business owners support the street artists.
``They're absolutely right,'' says Giuseppe Giubilaro, manager of the Vacciria coffee shop. ``The art you buy here is as good as what's in the galleries, but there, you have to pay thousands.''
Robert Ellis Patterson, a consultant with the Martin Lawrence Galleries, says although times are tough for galleries, the street artists still benefit the art market by bringing more buyers to the area. ``Soho is known as an art center,'' he says. ``The street artists add color, and their art is legitimate. Many of the artists in this gallery got their start on the streets, artists like Keith Haring. In fact, I sold some of my own art on the street yesterday.''
Tommy O'Brien, another associate at Martin Lawrence, sums up the Soho residents' opposition to street art more succinctly: ``They're stuck-up yuppies,'' he says.