Local artist, Mickael Broth, discusses jail and graffiti in his new book

Several years ago, police arrested Mickael Broth for vandalizing property with graffiti and he was sent to jail. He’s now written about the experience, with insight into how we should think about graffiti, prison, and community building.

Update #1 — April 5, 2013; 7:02 AM

Local artist Mickael Broth served ten months in prison after being convicted of vandalizing and destruction of property back in 2004 (see below). His high-profile arrest and story prompted discussions on how to best deter and punish artists who graffiti public and private property.

One of the most important voices in these conversations is Broth himself. He recently released Gated Community, the first of three limited edition books discussing his graffiti and incarceration. Only 200 copies were pressed for the first edition.

Below is an interview discussing his experience, writing, and opinions we conducted via email.

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How long have you been working on Gated Community?

In a way, this project began while I was still serving my sentence. I was on work and school release during the days and returned to jail every evening to spend the night. During that time, I created a limited edition of handmade and printed books containing art and articles relating to my incarceration.

I didn’t really focus on the experience again until about two years ago when my friend Liz Nolan was rewriting The Count of Monte Cristo in modern times. She asked me to help flesh out some details to give it a bit of authenticity. During our talk she suggested that I really focus on that time in my life and write a book. There seemed to be an interest in the topic, and I felt that enough time had passed that I could look back on the experience with some objectivity.

Tell me about the research work that went into the book

Despite the topic being based around my personal experiences, I did conduct a fair amount of research and reading related to the topics I was writing about. I started by rereading all of the letters between myself and my family from when I was locked up. I wrote multiple letters everyday, so there was so much detail I’d forgotten about over the years. That really helped get me back into the what it felt like to be locked in a box 24 hours a day.

I then began reading up on both of the institutions I served time in: Pamunkey Regional Jail and Richmond City Jail. It was a really interest contrast between the two, and something I’ll address in depth in books two and three.

I read up on other graffiti writers who served lengthy jail sentences and familiarized myself with the state of incarceration in America today. I can’t recommend Gates of Injustice (by Alan Elsner) enough. I was hoping for more scholarly research on the mentality and motivations of graffiti writers, but there really wasn’t much that I found. One book, The Graffiti Subculture, which focused on writers in England, was a decent study but not completely relevant.

Why break the work into three books instead of just one?

I decided to break the book into three parts for a variety of reasons. First, I had instinctively written it in three sections that seemed logical division points: time before jail, time in PRJ, and time in RCJ. Once I decided to self publish, doing three smaller books seemed more feasible as far as cost, shipping, editing, etc.

I’ve also always been a fan of serialized releases, like how Sherlock Holmes books were originally released in installments. In this era where you expect to be able to mainline entire seasons of a TV show over the course of a weekend, I like the idea of being forced to wait for a story to come to fruition.

What does this first book address?

This first book addresses how and why I got into graffiti when I was a teenager. It provides somewhat of a look back at what Richmond was like ten years ago (when I moved here) and points out the gentrification that has occurred during that time. I’d say the climax of the first book is my arrest at my apartment on Franklin Street, or possibly the day I was taken from court to begin serving my jail sentence.

What (if any) takeaways did you get about society as whole from your writing?

I don’t know that I had too many realizations about society while writing this book that I hadn’t already come to beforehand. I certainly understand why people have such vitriolic reactions to graffiti, but I don’t believe that their reactions are warranted. No, it isn’t nice to paint on other people’s property. But at the end of the day, it really is just one color of paint over another.

What would you like readers to come away with?

I’d hope readers would come away with a different perspective on graffiti and incarceration in general. As a society, I feel that we’re expected to accept that everyone in jail is a bad person and that they made decisions that led them to that place. It’s the only way we as a society can stomach the reality that there are over seven million of our fellow citizens in this country under correctional supervision of some variety (mostly for non-violent crimes). Despite my own involvement in graffiti, I wasn’t some career criminal or hoodlum.

My experience in jail is what the average middle class person would be likely to go through if they were incarcerated. It’s something that very few people consider, but really should, if they are fine with how many people are being jailed.

Has your attitude about how graffiti artists are punished changed since you were jailed?

I obviously never felt that jail was an appropriate punishment for graffiti. But I also won’t claim to have a perfect solution or response. Incarceration at the cost of taxpayers is just nonsensical. Put nonviolent offenders to work on community service projects–and not some bullshit task like stacking books at the library. I think the main thing that needs to be addressed is getting people to understand how their actions have an impact on their community. Feeling like you are an important part of your community is essential to preventing people from painting graffiti, slinging drugs, or getting drunk and peeing on somebody’s front porch.

I know it might seem illogical or logistically difficult, but people should feel compelled to attend neighborhood association and planning meetings in order to gain a better understanding of how their actions affect those around them. And naturally, for graffiti, you should be paying restitution.

Gated Community is available for purchase online.

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Original — August 05, 2011

A young man convicted of defacing property with his graffiti stands before you in a courtroom. You are the judge. What is your sentence? Do you send the man to a year’s worth of probation? Community service? A combination of the two? Or do you send him to jail to teach him, and all like him, a lesson? If you were a judge in the summer of 2004 in either Hanover County or Richmond City, Mickael Broth would have stood before you, gazing up at you sheathed in your black robe and years of experience, awaiting your decision as to his immediate fate.

As with any city, Richmond is rife with graffiti. Even those who appreciate the artistic merit of graffiti will admit that art lettered onto someone else’s property without that someone’s consent is nothing short of a crime. The question then is not, is graffiti criminal? (it most certainly is), but to what extent should law enforcement pursue graffiti artists and subsequently punish them?

"Refuse" tag (Richmond, 2003)

One former graffiti writer based in Richmond, Mickael Broth, fought the law, and the law won quite handily. Some, however, consider his punishment to be excessive and reached beyond the severity of his crimes. His experience prompted him to begin working on a book that will discuss not only his experience as a graffiti writer but the local criminal justice system that halted it.

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They awoke him on the morning of March 30, 2004 when they banged on his Franklin Street apartment door in the Fan, mere blocks from VCU. Mickael had been asleep in his bed, laying next to his girlfriend, Brionna. Two Hanover County Detectives (one being David Klisz), the Richmond City Police graffiti task force officer (Debbie Allen), a CSX railroad investigator, a VCU police officer, and a several other law enforcement officials barged in–some with their guns drawn. The shocked and nonplussed couple, still in their underwear, stared at the menacing eyes and drawn guns that starred at them right back.

Someone handcuffed Mickael. Another presented him with a search warrant. Over the next hour, authorities squirreled away items–evidence–in plastic bags. In the meantime, officers moved Mickael into his kitchen. They told him that his friends, who lived across the street, would also have their apartment raided. According to Mickael, he and the officers brokered a deal: his friends home would not be raided and he would not be taken into custody, so long as Mickael turned himself in later that day. He did. Not knowing this at the time, he was about to commit himself to the inner-workings of a criminal justice system at its wits end with graffiti writers and to the city’s penal system.

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Mickael, who at the time was a dean-listed Fine Arts major at VCU, knows what led police to make a case against him. “It was a CSX railroad bridge,” he says, in an email correspondence. He wrote the words “REFUSE” on the railroad bridge which stretches over Interstate 295 just east of U.S. 301. The writing covered four lanes of traffic. “It was the real motivation,” says Mickael, “for the police to build a case and track me down.”

Many jurisdictions do not have statutes that deliberately mention the act of graffiti, relying instead on existing statutes such as property damage and vandalism. Michael was originally charged by Hanover County prosecutors with two felonies for vandalism damage, which were reduced to misdemeanors as a result of a plea agreement (in Virginia, property damage that exceeds $1,000 is an ipso facto felony). He was sentenced on July 20, 2004. Mickael describes that day: “My family was there,” he says, “and I just felt an overwhelming sense of sickness for what I was putting them through.”

"REFUSE" on a CSX bridge over I-295; the piece that led to Mickael's arrest (Richmond, 2004)

He stood before Hanover County Circuit Judge John Richard Alderman (who later that year, would be convicted of a DUI charge). In the middle of Mickael’s courtroom apology, Alderman interrupted Mickael.

“How many others [i.e. graffiti pieces] did you do?”

“Quite a few,” said the defendant, wearing a thrift-store suit.

In Virginia, legal statutes 18.2 137-143 concern themselves with the vandalizing and destruction of property. The Commonwealth also offers voluntary sentencing guidelines, a mathematical formula that judges are free to use, but to which they are not legally beholden. According to Tracy Thorne-Begland, Deputy Commonwealth Attorney for the city of Richmond, judges typically considers the nature of a defendant’s offense, the amount and cost of the damage, as well as the defendant’s prior offenses. Mickael was charged with damaging state property within Richmond in 2002, a charge that was later dismissed in April 2003 after he completed 15 hours of community service.

Judge Alderman announced his decision. He sentenced Mickael to roughly five months in prison. “My sentencing is still somewhat of a blur in my mind,” says Mickael. Alderman also forced Mickael to pay $7,060 recompense the county for the costs of cleaning the defaced railroad bridge stretching across I-295.

For Mickael this was only the beginning.

— ∮∮∮ —

“I was immediately taken to the bullpen”, he says, “which is the holding cell they have behind all court rooms and chained together with a few other inmates who were there. We were then loaded onto a transport vehicle and driven the short distance to Pamunkey Regional Jail. There I was strip searched and traded the thrift store suit I had purchased the previous week for a set of blue coveralls that would serve as my uniform. New inmates were kept in a cold, solitary cell the first night without bedding or shoes.”

For the first two months officials moved him between a barracks-style housing unit or a double man cell. Shortly after his incarceration, Mickael was tried in a Richmond City courthouse, where he was convicted for vandalism offenses within the city and sentenced to additional jail time. He would spend a total of roughly 10 months in prison.

Two months after full-time confinement in the Pamunkey facility, Mike began a work-release program “basically working doubles six days a week at Tobacco Company Restaurant in Shockoe.” He would be released around 6am. After finishing work, Mickael returned to the jail by midnight. “I would generally be left sitting outside for at least an hour after using the intercom to notify the guards that I had returned. The longest I ever spent waiting to be let back in was four hours, meaning I work about 14 hours only to return to jail, get roughly four hours of sleep, then work another 14 hours.”

A drawing done while incarcerated at Pamunkey Regional Jail (Hanover, VA 2004)

In 2004 local prosecutors placed a high premium on deterring graffiti writers. “We had a real focus on it back then,” says Tracy Thorne-Begland, Deputy Commonwealth Attorney for the city of Richmond. Although the city does not distinguish graffiti-related crimes within the broader categories of property damage and vandalism, hence making it difficult to cull graffiti-specific data, Thorne-Begland has seen a drop-off. “I would like to believe that there was a deterrent effect.”

But did the whip-cracking of Richmond City and Hanover County go too far?

“I briefly shared a cell with someone who had served 22 years for attempted murder and had been brought back in on a parole violation,” says Mickael, recounting his jail time. He reflects upon that particular arrangement as “beyond endangerment:” A graffiti writer in the same confined space as a “violent offender who had committed numerous crimes while serving his attempted murder charge” was punitively extraneous. “Placing human beings in cages with animals turns them into animals.”

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In a rather serendipitous arrangement, Mickael’s December 2004 release coincided with his and Brionna’s anniversary. “We spent the day together and started talking seriously about wedding plans.” He also celebrated with a Newcastle, his first beer since the onset of his incarceration.

Although at times “caged” with animals in prison, Mickael is no animal. He is married, owns a home, and now wants to document his unique experience in a book, an idea encouraged by his wife and a friend. “It got me thinking about the relevance of what I had experienced and the broader context of incarceration in America. I hope the book will at the very least provide a counterpoint to the notion that involvement in ‘street culture’ is somehow an easy ticket to an easy career in art.”

“Outside that media interest,” says Captain Michael Trice of the Hanover County Sheriff’s Department of the publicity that accumulated in the aftermath of Mickael’s arrest, “…we haven’t had an overt crack-down [on graffiti].” When asked if there were any known, current graffiti writers vandalizing property, Cap. Trice says, “I’m not aware of any in Hanover.”

A "REFUSE" tag on an abandoned building

Ample time for reflection, with all the introspection that comes from taking the long view has built a metaphor in Mickael’s mind to describe graffiti: addiction.

“The feeling of exhilaration that comes from ‘getting away with it’ provides a physical rush,” he says, “while the planning that goes into paints, spots, and stealing supplies becomes an all consuming lifestyle.” While he does not explicitly regret the years he spent as a graffiti writer, Mickael has become incredulous as to the art’s long-term upsides. “Knowing the risks involved is like the opposite of playing the lottery; instead of being sure you will win, you delude yourself into thinking you are bound to get away with it.”

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To help foster and fund his book project, Mickael has partnered with United States Artists (USA), a public charity that aims to connect people with artists through tax-deductible contributions “to projects in the performing, visual, media, and literary arts.” The book is tentatively titled Gated Community. “I had shown some of my drawings and letters from jail in an art show in New York shortly after my release in a show I called ‘Gated Community.’ The title has stuck with me as an amusing and logical way to address the idea of serving time. It puts an odd spin on the term, considering that most of the people in jail are those that gated communities are built to keep out.”

He hopes that the book will be more than a mere graffiti-related memoir. “I want to address the privatization of what were formally public services in America, specifically the prison system. The main thesis of his book has been tapped to be an examination of public and private jail facilities. As more services are privatized, the government begins to lose not only it’s relevance, but its ability to regulate or fill the void, should private industry fail at providing a service adequately. However, private corporations are often much better equipped to provide quality services than the government. I witnessed both sides, and I saw value and danger in both.”

He has already begun drafting the book; the money raised through USA will afford him the ability to take on the book’s writing as a full-time endeavor. “While I will be able to discuss my personal experiences well enough, I know the story needs to fit into a broader context. That will require research and planning.”

— ∮∮∮ —

It seems that Mickael’s book is not meant to justify his behavior, but to explore its many nuances and repercussions. Mickael’s assessment of graffiti, after all, is different than that of much of the public, to say nothing of the police and courts: “Painting on brick or metal does not damage it; it is not destruction of property,” says Mickael. “It is simply one color of paint over another.” But he does not hold the opinion that graffiti writers should vandalize with impunity, just that their judgement is commensurate with their offense.

“Graffiti writers are a menace in the same way that people who litter are. Their crimes are rude and ignorant, but they should be punished in a manner that fits their crime. They should pay restitution and serve community service, and this does not mean painting out other graffiti or stacking books in a library, it means they should be put to work painting murals and doing outreach with at risk youth.” Currently, there are no such measures in Hanover County or in Richmond.

Mickael knows better than most the public’s perturbation toward the presence of graffiti writers, especially those who, as Mickael did, go to extraordinary lengths to scrawl that presence on a building or bridge. “In a society there will always be those individuals who want to exist outside of the established norms,” says Mickael. “In a way, that makes them just as much a part of society.” Their cavalier compositions do more than merely tickle admirers or annoy detractors; they help establish what we, as the public, label both proper and improper.

“They help define what is considered normal.”


photograph of Mickael Broth by Greg Bethmann, all other photographs courtesy of Mickael Broth

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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