One over-Arching question in ‘Living Statue’ bust: Why?

Johan Figueroa González, the “Living Statue” of Washington Square Park, returned to the park this week. But he was not in his usual costume, and he did not climb up on the Arch to perform. He said he may perform in the park next Wednesday — but not on the Arch. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Washington Square Park is no stranger to performers. But an artist who has become a fixture in the park — as a “living statue” on its famed Arch — was arrested this month in the middle of his first performance of the season.

Johan Figueroa González, 31, has performed as a “living statue” in the park for the past two summers. Last year, he began doing his act exclusively on the 19th-century Arch. But despite his growing recognition and dozens of turns on that historic perch, Figueroa González was arrested on Fri., April 13.

The police held him for 30 hours behind bars before releasing him, Figueroa González said. Police charged him with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration and criminal trespass, all misdemeanors. He was arraigned on Mon., April 16, on two of those charges — disorderly conduct and criminal trespass — and received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, or A.C.D. If he is not arrested again in the next six months, the charges will be dismissed.

The arrest, which angered onlookers watching his performance, has now caused the artist to reconsider how he interacts with the park. Working as a “living statue” on the Arch no longer seems worth the risk, in his view.

“I don’t want to test them,” Figueroa González  said. “They are the people who have power. I’m just a street performer.”

For now, he plans to use the Arch in some way in his future performances, even as early as next Wednesday, but it will not involve climbing onto the Arch.

The unaswered question, however, is why the police would arrest Figueroa González in the first place, after his previously having performed openly on the Arch for months without incident. Figueroa González himself counts 70 previous performances on the Arch.

Nobody called 911 to complain about Figueroa González that afternoon, according to the New York Police Department’s office of public information. In fact, Figueroa González said that officers have seen him on the Arch before, and that some had even taken photographs and video of him.

At around 5:30 p.m. on April 13, officers “observed an individual atop of a park structure.”

“He was not in possession of any permits and did not have permission or authority to demonstrate / climb on any park property or structure,” according to the N.Y.P.D. “He was asked multiple times to come down off [the] structure and refused. He was subsequently arrested.”

Johan Figueroa-González on the Washington Square Park Arch on a rare day of beautiful spring weather on Fri., April 13. Police later arrested him that day for refusing to get down off the Arch immediately after being ordered to do so. Photo by Sharon Woolums

Police officials said that Figueroa González did not have a proper permit to perform. But according to the Parks Department’s rules, performers like Figueroa González don’t typically require a permit unless there are more than 20 attendees. Judgement about the location, attendance, frequency and marketing help to determine if a performer requires a special-event permit, a Parks Department spokesperson said. Several performers have been performing in the park without a permit for years, often drawing large crowds. These include the likes of tumbling twins Tic ’n’ Tac and the “Crazy Piano Guy” Colin Huggins.

Figueroa González was specifically charged with climbing on a structure not intended for climbing purposes, or in a way that could damage the structure, as detailed in the Parks rules Section 1-04. The artist, who stands 4 feet 11 inches and weighs 83 pounds, said he does not see how he could possibly be harming the monument.

“The landmark arch is made of fragile marble and such is susceptible to damage through physical interaction,” said a Parks Department spokesperson. “People are encouraged to look at — not touch — the arch, to ensure its preservation and structural integrity.”

Asked for comment on Figueroa González’s arrest, the Washington Square Park Conservancy issued the following statement:

“The Washington Square Park Conservancy does not handle permits in Washington Square Park. All performance permits go through the New York City Parks Department. Our mission from our creation has been to strive to keep the park clean, safe and beautful. It is our hope that by doing so, the park will continue to be a haven for artistic expression in all forms.”

That Friday afternoon was the artist’s first time back in the park after spending the winter in Puerto Rico, where he continued performing in San Juan. After months of previously using the Arch as his stage, he was shocked at his sudden arrest. On that day, he had been performing on the Arch for nearly three hours — earning around $150 in contributions from parkgoers.

“I felt that I lost dignity,” he said of the arrest. “It’s shameful.”

Returning to the “scene of the crime”? No…it was just a misdemeanor. Photo by Sydney Pereira

But before that day, his clout in the park was growing. Steve McCurry, who captured the famous photograph of the green-eyed Afghan girl who graced the cover of National Geographic, took the photo of Figueroa González’s first time on the edges of the Arch, garnering tens of thousands of Instagram likes. The performer’s day with McCurry was his first time using the Arch — transitioning from the portable mini-Greek pedestal he formerly used to the mere inches-wide ledges he clings to on the arch.

He recalled thinking: “Can I do it? Sounds impossible, but it’s Washington Square Park. It’s New York. Why not? And I did it.”

A glowing profile in The New York Times last November seemed to have solidified his place on the the Arch. That Figueroa González was arrested this season was seen as a tragedy by artists’ advocates, as The Villager’s Sharon Woolums wrote in a talking point two weeks ago. Why months would go by before police arrested him is still puzzling.

Longtime artists advocate Robert Lederman, has a guess, based on historical precedent. The president of Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics a.k.a. A.R.T.I.S.T., Lederman has sued the city multiple times alleging First Amendment violations againt visual artists selling their works in the city’s public parks and on its sidewalks. In a case that was in federal court seven years ago, however, he argued that art vendors and street performers were hardly treated the same — with artists facing more extensive rules restricting where they can sell their work. Just as his case was in court, dozens of summonses were issued to longtime performers in Washington Square Park, totaling tens of thousands of dollars.

Lederman alleges that the summonses were related to his case since the city hoped to prove that rules were enforced consistently and equally against performers and art vendors. A new lawsuit filed by Lederman is scheduled for a preliminary conference on May 17. He believes this latest arrest could be the first of another crackdown on artists as the weather warms — similar to what occurred back in 2011.

“Based on past performance,” Lederman said, “this is how they operate.”

Alas, poor Arch! I knew thee. … The “Living Statue” might not be able to make a living on the Arch anymore after his arrest last month. But that doesn’t mean he will stop performing. Photo by Sydney Pereira.

But even now, one can only speculate why police decied to arrest Figueroa González at this point in time. Figueroa González guessed maybe it was related to increased security after someone spray-painted black graffiti in large letters — “F— U” and “I DONT NEED YOU” — on parts of the base of the Arch sometime prior to his return.

“It raises a political question, which is why are you doing this? Everybody loved this guy,” said Ron Kuby, the longtime civil rights and criminal defense lawyer. “Nobody complained. No damage was done. Wonderful art was performed. People were amazed at the beauty of his performance. Why did you decide to arrest him?”

“If this is how New York treats its artists,” Kuby said, “it doesn’t deserve to have any.”

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