7 Artists Who Were Arrested for Their Art

From Spencer Tunick's nude flashmobs to the artist who ate his election ballot.

France 1 (Biennale de Lyon) 2005 Image copyright Spencer Tunick/Naked Pavement An icompendium Site

Chris Burden, From Deadman, November 12 (1972).
Courtesy Galerie Sho Contemporary Art.

Chris Burden
In 1972, visitors attending Burden’s show at Mizuno Gallery in Los Angeles were treated to what appeared to be a crime scene, with a covered cadaver lying on La Cienega Boulevard, surrounded by police flares. In fact, it was the artist himself “making a piece of sculpture,” as he later put it. He was arrested for sparking a false emergency, and after three days of deliberation the jury failed to reach a decision and the judge dismissed the case. In the end, the ordeal granted Burden a degree of infamy that ultimately helped his career.

Spencer Tunick
Since the 1990s, Tunick has shot over 75 installations of nude crowds around the world, leading to at least five arrests in New York. After an arrest in 1999 in Times Square, he filed a Federal Civil Rights Law Suit against the city to protect himself and his participants from future arrests. In 2000, the Second US District Court sided with Tunick, recognizing that his work was protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court also ruled in favor of Tunick. This allowed the lower court’s decision to stand and Tunick to organize shoots on New York City streets once again. However, the city has been unwilling to grant him the necessary permits and he has not created work in New York in over ten years, instead choosing to create his installations abroad.

France 1 (Biennale de Lyon) 2005  Image copyright Spencer Tunick/Naked Pavement An icompendium Site

Spencer Tunick, France 1 (Biennale de Lyon) (2005).
Image copyright Spencer Tunick/Naked Pavement An icompendium Site.

Takeshi Miyakawa
Miyakawa, an artist and furniture designer, was arrested in 2012 when a public art project he conceived went awry. Intended to be a display of love for his city, he hung white plastic bags featuring Milton Glaser’s iconic “I ♥ NY” logo and lighted from within on trees and lampposts in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This scared some local residents who believed the project to be a series of bombs. Charged with reckless endangerment, criminal nuisance, and “planting a false bomb,” Miyakawa was at first given a 30-day sentence on Rikers Island and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation. Thanks to the Internet, he became a cause célèbre among art and design enthusiasts as well as people sickened by what the New York Times called “the city now devouring its creative capital.”

in 2013, well-known French street artist Invader was arrested outside 90 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side for a mosaic he installed on the facade of the building. The mosaic was removed, mostly intact, and the owner of the building said he planned to keep it. Invader was also arrested in Los Angeles in 2011 after creating a series of discreet installations inside Jeffrey Deitch’s street art blockbuster “Art in the Streets” at MOCA.

The mosaic at 90 Orchard Street. Photo by Mark Miller

The mosaic at 90 Orchard Street.
Photo by Mark Miller.

Jean Toche
In 1974 Jean Toche, co-founder of the situationist Guerrilla Art Action Group, mailed fliers to museums and galleries throughout New York criticizing their exhibition policies as bourgeois and exclusionary. The fliers called for the “kidnapping” of museum curators and directors—which was meant to be taken symbolically, but was instead seen as a threat. At the behest of Douglas Dillon, then-president of MoMA, Toche was arrested and forced to undergo a psychological evaluation (we’re seeing a pattern here), though charges were eventually dropped.

Víctor “Crack” Rodríguez
In March of this year Rodríguez, one of El Salvador’s most celebrated contemporary artists, walked into a ballot station during the San Salvador general elections and announced, “this is an artist action.” He then proceeded to eat half of his ballot in front of polling station onlookers before casting the remaining half. Within hours, a video of the act went viral. But soon, the Salvadoran authorities reacted and he now faces up to six years in prison.

Steven Cohen performs "Cleaning Time". Photograph: Marianne Greber

Steven Cohen performs Cleaning Time, another controversial piece.
Photograph by Marianne Greber.

Steven Cohen
Performance artist Steven Cohen arrived at the Eiffel Tower in Paris dressed like a bird, and wore high-heeled platform shoes, a garter, stockings, and long red gloves. The problem was that he was also sporting no pants and had a live rooster tied to his genitalia. The piece, entitled Coq/Cock, is par for course amid Cohen’s oeuvre—provocative performances in public places that often involve aspects of his identity as a gay, Jewish, South African man. After about ten minutes of the performance, he was arrested and interrogated by French authorities for nine hours. According to Cohen: “I made a work using French national symbols—the cock, the Eiffel Tower, the Folies Bergère—as well as a very South African approach to using public space with political consciousness.” Judgment in the case will be passed down in May 2014, and the artist faces a fine of up to €1,000 if found guilty. The rooster was unharmed physically (although any emotional damage remains unassessed, as far as we know).

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