Police chase our ‘living statue’ from park perch

BY SHARON WOOLUMS | Friday the 13th proved an unlucky day for Johan Figueroa-González, who, over the last two years has become an icon in Washington Square Park.

Standing majestically in his well-researched classical poses for hours, he delights the masses and has become the tour guides’ favorite example of the creative, ingenious artists for which Greenwich Village is known.

Figueroa-González takes two hours painting himself in front of his fans to blend in with the gray marble of the arch. He drapes a Roman-style sash around his bare-chested 84-pound body, nestling his 4 feet and 11 inches perfectly between the ledges of the arch.

Johan Figueroa-González performing on the Washington Square Park arch on a rare day of beautfiul spring weather last Friday. Police arrested him for refusing to get down off the arch immediately after being ordered to do so. The performer is now saying he will not return to the park. Photos by Sharon Woolums

Sure-footed on the bottom ledge, arms stretched to the top of the one above it, he periodically changes poses as onlookers gasp and stare in awe.

In a New York Times article on Nov. 14, 2017, “Statute Stirs to Life in Washington Square Park,” Michael Wilson wrote extensively about our “living statue.”

Figueroa-González began performing a few years ago in a plaza in Old San Juan, in his native Puerto Rico.

“He drew a big enough crowd to draw the attention of the mayor’s office, which wanted to put him to work as a city attraction,” Wilson wrote. “ ‘They try to control me, when I perform and when I’m not.’ ”

Figueroa-González decided to move to New York, and to continue performing, eventually settling on Washington Square Park as his stage. At first he would perch atop a small pedestal he brought with him, but the park’s historic arch later became his preferred setting. When approaches the landmark structure, he does so with a reverent flourish.

“ ‘I need to show the people in the Village that I respect the arch,’ ” he said in the Times article. “ ‘I need to ask the arch if I’m able to climb. It’s symbolic.’ ”

However, last Friday, six police officers unceremoniously yanked Figueroa-González from his pose — right in the middle of his performance, he lamented. Over loud, anguished protests by onlookers, the police wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed our “living statue.”

Figueroa-González, who also is known as Idem Caeli, is an artist. He was given a warning by the police, but said he “rejected to leave the arch because I was performing.”

A Sixth Precinct spokesperson said the artist was arrested because he wouldn’t get off the arch.

Figueroa-González later tweeted about his arrest and his 30 hours spent in jail. He announced that Friday the 13th would be his last day performing in Washington Square Park, imploring his fans to “Keep the spirit, Washington Square Park visitors.”

We hope the officers will reconsider the wisdom of understanding the “spirit of the law,” as opposed to obeying the “letter of the law,” that this action threatens to kill the spontaneous creativity that happens naturally in our amazing park, and with it the bohemian spirit that has always defined it.

He says he fits perfectly on the arch.

And shouldn’t there also be a kind of “right of egress” when an artist has been allowed to perform on a monument for more than a year, never damaging the arch, instead bringing happiness, sweetness and joy to thousands?

Ai Wei Wei’s expensive, massive, bulky, unwanted installation obstructed our gateway to creative freedom for months. It was permitted by an undemocratic process to invade the arch from October through February, despite adamant opposition from the community.

Ai Wei Wei’s static cage was no competition for Figueroa-González’s living, breathing performance work of art that touched hearts and left you with a sigh and a smile.

So, we had that cage imposed on us, yet now there is no freedom of artistic expression for our transplanted soft-spoken Puerto Rican artist who wanted only to entertain us with his graceful beauty?

Parkgoers wonder, Why this? And why now? Speculation runs the gamut. Some worry that this harsh action was prompted by the Washington Square Park Conservancy, which worries that the popular Figueroa-González and his following will interfere with the conservancy’s desire to totally “program” the park!

And there are those who feel this heavy-handed act was a nod to a president and what they fear is becoming a fascist regime!

Many wonder why — at the very time of the arrest of this sweet, gentle artist — skateboarders were allowed to terrorize parkgoers, as they do with complete abandon, undeterred by police, all day long.

Others felt the recent graffiti on the arch was a reason. But this very human, beautiful soul is no graffiti.

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