Can a ghost have a ghost of his own? For 12 years, Fred Radtke — aka "The Gray Ghost" — has been the arch-nemesis of local taggers and graffiti artists. Radtke and his organization, "Operation Clean Sweep," have rolled gray paint over thousands of graffiti throughout New Orleans, but some have accused Radtke of obliterating legitimate art on buildings without the owner's permission. In May, Radtke pleaded no contest to criminal trespassing after painting over a mural in the Bywater, and was given a 60-day suspended sentence and agreed always to secure an owner's approval before painting. Still, even with this judgment against him, whenever gray paint suddenly appears on a building, covering up a graffito or a mural, most people think the ghost has struck again. But the Ghost may have an imitator.
On October 9, Junior League of New Orleans president Erin Leutkemeier received a phone call informing her someone was spray-painting on the side of Bloomin' Deals, a Freret Street thrift shop the nonprofit operates. Several days before, a video producer had contacted Leutkemeier about shooting a video, starring local rapper BG, outside the store. She gave her consent to the video, not to a mural, but as Leutkemeier arrived at the store on the day of the shoot, an unknown artist was putting the final touches on his street art.
"Once it happened, there was no going back," Leutkemeier says, who had just paid more than $14,000 to have the building painted. "We just decided to take a more positive approach to see if it could become some good for all of us." The producing company had agreed to pay to have the wall repainted, but, she says, people in the neighborhood liked the mural, so she was considering leaving the artwork. BG had grown up in the area, and Leutkemeier hoped he would collaborate with the Junior League on one of the organization's fundraising events for local children. But before Leutkemeier could make her decision, someone swiped a swath of gray primer over the "BG: Back 2 The Money" spray-paint fresco.
"A lot of people said it could have been the Gray Ghost," Leutkemeier says, "but I also know there's a couple of other people in the city that do that, so I really didn't know who did it."
Was it the Gray Ghost, or was this the work of an imposter, an admirer, or maybe someone out to smear Radtke's reputation? And what about his anti-graffiti mission? Has its original intention been blotted out by Radtke's approach, which some consider overzealous and unchecked that makes no distinctions between art and vandalism, or is he being unfairly criticized for what most would agree is a dirty job?
"What's happening now is about perception. The perception of crime is not having a clean city," Radtke tells a group at a French Quarter Business Association (FQBA) luncheon at Bayona. The Ghost is giving a speech about graffiti, which he says leads to more crime. To underscore his point, he has passed out photocopies of his handwritten notes on the 279 tags he found during a survey of the Quarter. He describes an unending assault by taggers, who spray-paint everything from walls, light poles and newspaper boxes to trashcans, houses and even drainpipes. As Radtke explains to the friendly audience, even though taggers commit the crime, it is up to property owners to cover the graffiti within 30 days of a city notice or face a fine of up to $500. (Less than two weeks after his speech, the Quarter was tagged with several graffiti urging the release of two convicted Louisiana-born rappers; the group of six taggers were apprehended on the spot by New Orleans police.)
Even worse than the potential penalties is what the tag signifies. Allowing graffiti to go unchallenged encourages criminal activity. It's Radtke's extrapolation of the Broken Window theory of battling crime, which has been practiced in a number of U.S. cities, most notably in New York City in the 1980s and '90s: one unattended broken window, goes the theory, leads to more busted windows and creates an environment suitable for criminals. Fix the window — or cover the tag — and you prevent crime down the line. Ignoring graffiti, Radtke suggests to the business owners, will not only hurt tourism but also gives tacit approval to the vandals.
"It lets those people out there know they own the French Quarter," he says.[iamge-3]
Radtke tells the group that he and his volunteers will eradicate the graffiti — sometimes with cleaning solutions, but mostly with gray paint — and that the police, the health department and the city's 311 phone service refer graffiti complaints to him. Since he's been doing this since 1997, the taggers know him, and his constant battle with them has made him unpopular. "That's why a lot of people out there don't particularly like me," Radtke says to the association members. "I don't take it personally."
But Radtke does take it personally — at least it seems that way during an interview following his speech. Since he started his campaign, Radtke has gotten his share of positive press and praise from the police and politicians, but he doesn't take kindly to any publicity he construes as negative. He blusters at the mention of his arrest in October 2008, after he and some volunteers rolled gray enamel paint over a mural at Burgundy and Press streets — without getting the owner's permission. Radtke says his team had blurred out 45 blocks of graffiti in the Bywater that day alone, and adds the property owner didn't have a city permit for the mural. He says The Times-Picayune's art critic Doug MacCash, who wrote about Radtke's arrest and trial, never reported any of this, and suggests MacCash might have it in for him.
"Not an enemy, but the point is if he has something personally against me ... I don't know," says Radtke, who pleaded no contest to criminal trespassing and received a 60-day suspended sentence in that case. "It's none of my business. When you're out there doing something for the public, everyone has an opinion. I can't make everybody happy."
Radtke has certainly made a lot of people unhappy. "Varg," a local artist and blogger (www.thechicory.com), has described Radtke as a bully and a vigilante in posts such as "Why Fred Radtke Sucks." At www.humidcity.com, blogger "Loki" celebrated Radtke's day in court, writing, "While I would love to see him incarcerated for his various sins, this is a good start. It is also the first time he has been taken to task for repeatedly trespassing and slathering his gray on other people's property."
The Gray Ghost says he cares little about these critics, but he would like a few answers from them. "I'll ask any blogger out there: Do you own property? Do you pay taxes?" Radtke asks.
As for copycats, at first, he says he has no opinion, but later hypothesizes that it could be a tagger looking to set him up. "Well, maybe he doesn't like me, and wants to make me look bad."
Local artist Michael "Rex" Dingler says there's no doubt that there are Gray Ghost impersonators, but he thinks someone would have to be "awfully delusional" to be out there using Radtke's signature gray paint just to get the graffiti fighter in trouble. Dingler is no fan of the Gray Ghost, though he says Radtke has improved since his trial. He says he's convinced Radtke is still destroying what Dingler considers legitimate art, and doing it without property owner's consent. He also suggests Radtke should retire the gray paint in favor of cleaning solutions and pressure washing.
"I think he's a lot more conscientious," Dingler says. "Do I think he's still a voice in crushing creative spirit in this city? Absolutely."
When Dingler began his "NoLA Rising" project, placing hundreds of hand-painted, removable signs with inspiring messages around the city ("Hello Friend," "Smile"), Radtke tried to have him arrested. Dingler was eventually charged with 1,100 counts of illegally posting the signs, which could have amounted to more than $50,000 in fines. When the case came to court, Judge Sean Early fined Dingler just $200. According to Dingler, Early commented that Radtke was the one who should have been on trial.
"Ironically, he's the greatest tagger in the city," Dingler says. "Without a doubt, he's got more up than anybody else."
While the mystery over who painted over BG's mural remains, Radtke denies it's his work. "We had nothing to do with that," he insists. Radtke says he had asked the Bloomin' Deals store manager if he wanted him to cover the street art, but the manager declined. Now both the gray paint and the mural are gone; Leutkemeier's painters redid the side of the building free of charge.
The Gray Ghost adds that if he had done the job, he would have gone much further. "If it was me on Freret Street," Radtke says, "I wouldn't take out one wall. I'd take out 20 blocks."