An international street artist goes tagging in Joshua Tree

The latest in a string of graffiti incidents in national parks.

 

When Swedish-Portuguese street artist André Saraiva, a.k.a. Mr. Andre or Mr. A, left his personal signature on a rock in Joshua Tree National Park last month, he was not the first artist to deface what he should have left alone. Last October, 21-year-old Casey Nocket, allegedly decorated rocks in Yosemite, Grand Canyon and other national treasures, blithely posting her work on social media (again allegedly, as she has not been charged). In 2011, a teenage tagger who went by the name of “PeeWee” left his mark on Aztec petroglyphs in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. But it’s safe to say that Saraiva, who posted his work on Instgram, ranks high among the least contrite.

Mr. A's vandalized rock
Photo of André Saraiva's tag in Joshua Tree National Park, courtesy of Modern Hiker
Nocket, according to her family, “knows she did a horrible thing and is incredibly remorseful.” PeeWee was brought up on federal charges and spent nine months in jail. But Saraiva hasn’t even apologized. Instead, he's gone on offense, ordering his lawyers to threaten legal action against Modern Hiker founder and editor Casey Schreiner, who called him out on his deed.

On Feburary 26, a reader alerted Schreiner to Saraiva’s Instagram post, which Schreiner thought looked suspiciously like Mr. A’s tag on a Joshua Tree rock. This is anathema to Schreiner, who has long been on graffiti patrol in the nation’s wild places; he also broke the story on Nocket’s alleged vandalism. So the next day he put up the image on the Modern Hiker website with an article, “Is Mr. Andre Tagging in Joshua Tree?”

Saraiva shot back on Instagram, protesting that the tag was “made with love” on private land. He asked Schreiner to take the image down. Schreiner asked only that Saraiva clarify the site’s location.

“It may seem like an extra step,” Schreiner wrote on Instagram, “but if this is truly on private property done with the owner's consent, mentioning that in your post would go a long way toward curbing common vandalism. A lot of our parks’ taggers look up to you and your fellow street artists.” 

Schreiner spoke with authority: Outside of protected wildlands, he actually likes street art, and he’s somewhat of an aficionado. Living in Los Angeles for 13 years, he’s observed the fresh work of some of the best. “It’s not a popular position to take,” he admits, “but for Los Angeles some street art actually betters the environment.”

He would say that even of Mr. A’s tags. “There’s a couple about a mile from where I live,” Schreiner says. “They’re not as subversive as Banksy’s, or as interesting as Space Invader’s. But I like that they’re lighthearted and fun.” When he messaged Saraiva, he did it with respect. He simply wanted to know for sure where this new tag was done.

Saraiva, however, did not take it well. He refused to confirm the vandalized rock’s location, and then used Instagram to send out a seven-word string of obscenities, directed at Schreiner.

Schreiner, for his part, reposted on his site an October entry on how to leave no trace.

As it turns out, there was a reason why Saraiva wouldn’t clarify the location of his image: Schreiner and his hiker friends found the rock within the national park using Google Maps; another reader physically confirmed the tagged rock at the park’s Contact Mine trailhead. Schreiner updated the original post with the new information.

But the artist did not back down. On March 3, Schreiner received a letter from Saraiva’s lawyer, accusing Schreiner of “spreading detrimental and malicious information” in violation with both the French Civil Code (Saraiva lives in Paris) and U.S. privacy laws.

“Andre SARAIVA has realized at Joshua Tree National Park an ephemeral creation, consisting of putting on a rock his artistic signature in water-based paint,” the letter claimed.  “(You) have seized Andre SARAIVA concept [sic] by ranting about this artistic expression in the excessive and outrageous way.” 

Defamation in any country generally requires the circulation of false information, not facts documented by the complainant himself. But Schreiner still thought he needed a lawyer, and he found a couple in D.C. willing to represent him pro bono. They penned a detailed legal response, warning Saraiva’s lawyers that “Attempting to suppress truthful reporting through threats of litigation is unlikely to enhance your client’s reputation.” Schreiner posted both letters on Modern Hiker’s site Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Schreiner reported, Tami Roleff, Managing News Editor for the High Desert radio station KCDZ-FM, visited the rock and found the graffiti had been removed, and the rock “stripped clean of paint.” That's good, but Schreiner insists the tag's ephemerality was never the point. The example Saraiva set still lingers. “He does have a big fan following,” Schreiner says. “I’m concerned that people will think if Mr. A can do this, they can do it, too.”

In the meantime, for Schreiner, it’s back to wildflower reports, winter climbing stories and recs for post-hike meals. “The main purpose of (Modern Hiker) is just to get people outside enjoying nature,” he says. So let’s get back to it, then.

Judith is a contributing editor of High Country News. She is based in Southern California.