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Curbing the Message 

Anti-prison graffiti writers encounter the touch of gray.

On a quiet Barracks Street corner in the French Quarter, on the sidewalk, just past the curb, lies what might be the last piece of their work left: black spray-painted letters spelling out "No More Prisons."

A few months ago, the message was emblazoned on nearly every corner in the French Quarter and quite a few in the Faubourg Marigny. But just before Jazz Fest, graffiti remover Fred Radtke ("Fighting the Aerosol Nation," Gambit Weekly, Feb. 20, 2001) was out with his gray-paint roller making sure that visitors saw a graffiti-free New Orleans. As a result, most sidewalk corners in the Quarter-Marigny area now display a strip of Radtke's paint instead of the "No More Prisons" graffito.

But the message remains on curbsides nationwide, far beyond the reach of Radtke's prolific paint roller. The two local teenagers who painted the message in New Orleans had seen it first in other cities -- New York; Philadelphia; Gainesville, Fla.; Minneapolis; and Washington, D.C. They spoke to Gambit Weekly on the condition that we use their pseudonyms Drew Uptmore and Constance Riter.

Riter says that, to her knowledge, she and Uptmore were responsible for all of the recent "No More Prisons" graffiti seen around town. "We were inspired," she says, "by the work done in other cities. When we first did it, we did almost every corner in the Quarter and the Marigny. It doesn't look just like normal graffiti."

Uptmore explains he had been motivated, like graffiti writers in other cities, by a 28-year-old Chicago native named William Upski Wimsatt, whose slim, self-published paperback books Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons have become underground bestsellers in many cities.

"When I read No More Prisons," says Uptmore, "and found out how much money was going into the prison industry, that prisons are being built at a faster rate than schools, it spurred me to act."

Wimsatt had been spray-painting "No More Prisons" on sidewalk corners nationwide since 1999 -- in No More Prisons, he recounts how, during that year, he had been frustrated about the plight of young death row inmate Shareef Cousin, sentenced for a murder he didn't committed. In his book, Wimsatt recounts that his travels took him to New Orleans, where he painted "hundreds of sidewalks in the French Quarter and downtown." Wimsatt says he didn't want to alienate the general public and so had written "on sidewalks only, not on walls."

In following Wimsatt's lead, Uptmore and Riter traveled throughout the Quarter and other places with busy sidewalks, concentrating especially on wealthier neighborhoods. "If you put the message 'No More Prisons' in poor neighborhoods, people will say, 'We already know that,'" Uptmore explains.

Riter says that she views their work as "civil disobedience" of a sort, because the sidewalk is public property and the graffiti is "a nonviolent way to speak out." The gray paint that obscures their black writing? She says it covers up free speech.

Wimsatt, by email, says that he "commends the young people writing 'No More Prisons' on the sidewalks" and adds a few paragraphs of dense statistics about the amount of money spent building prisons compared to the "criminally underfunded" educational system of New Orleans.

Not surprisingly, Fred Radtke, reached at his Operation: Clean Sweep graffiti hotline (486-9694), takes a dimmer view of the "No More Prisons" writers. He says that he had surmised that the writing was the work of one individual. "I don't know his agenda, and there's nothing wrong with agendas, but doing it by destroying property, by making his agenda everybody else's agenda, that's not free speech -- it infringes on somebody's else's rights. Tim McVeigh, for example, his agenda was that he didn't like the way the government was run. Was his agenda free speech?"

Radtke reminds Uptmore and Riter and others armed with spray cans that graffiti is a criminal act. There's even an irony to it, he adds. "By spray-painting 'No More Prisons,' one of these days that person is going to be caught and go to prison."

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