Ithaca, N.Y. — An Ithaca judge cited Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, William Wordsworth, and Edgar Allen Poe in his decision to throw out a graffiti charge against a local artist who spray painted a fairy in front of a local elementary school.
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Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller’s ruling — which considered the small size of the graffiti, its temporary nature and the defendant’s history of involvement with public art — found that the small pink fairy was painted to “provide fleeting joy to schoolchildren, not to damage or deface public property.”
The fairy in question was painted by Ithaca artist Caleb Thomas and his friend one summer Sunday, at 4 a.m., on the sidewalk in front of Beverly J. Martin Elementary school. The two were subsequently arrested and charged with making graffiti and possessing graffiti instruments.
Thomas was able to later wash the fairy away, a fact cited in Judge Miller’s decision as a reason why “very little actual harm was caused by this offense.”
“The foundation of a legitimate legal system mandates that the rule of law must always apply. Yet, in order for a legal system to be humane, there must still exist at least the tiniest crack that allows a sliver of discretion to shine through when Justice cries out for mercy in spite of the strict application of the law,” stated the Dec. 24 ruling.
“…Should Defendant Thomas suffer a life-long criminal record for this offense, surely the winged seraphs would cry out from Heaven above,” Judge Miller said.
Another factor that aided Thomas’ case was a character reference for the artist written by JoAnn Cornish, the city’s director of planning and development, and cited by Judge Miller in his decision.
As might be expected, Thomas called the decision “great.” McKenzie Jones Rounds, who was with Thomas that night and was also charged, praised the way that Judge Miller “brought out the lightheartedness” of the case, calling the decision “brilliant.”
The ruling also considered the city’s relationship with graffiti and public murals. Though Ithaca was once plagued by ugly graffiti, in more recent history it has taken on a role in beautifying the city through initiatives like the city’s Public Art Commission, Judge Miller said. In the decision, Miller even cited his favorite graffiti, located near the city courthouse: the Sistine mural on the Green Street parking garage.
Judge Miller said that the fairy on the sidewalk in this case was a temporary addition, a “sprinkle of joyous whimsy.”
“The Court can only imagine the laughs ringing musically through the late Spring morning air as children were welcomed by this spritely visage as they entered their school on one of those painstakingly long June days before the start of summer vacation,” Judge Miller wrote, with his own sprinkling of whimsy.
The fairy was discussed throughout the ruling, especially in the judge’s use of quotations from children’s literature and poets alike.
Judge Miller cited J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan on the origins of fairies and British Romantic poet William Wordsworth on the passing of childhood; he even compared the way Thomas got rid of his fairy painting to the way Dorothy splashed water on the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
After explaining the legal discretion to drop charges in particular situations, Judge Miller cited P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins.
“Don’t you know that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?”
“Something I think about a lot is our cultural landscape, and who has created what we have here; what our cityscape looks like,” he said. “I really want artists to have the mural program and all the public art … and to have a landscape that’s beautiful and a dialogue that’s really inclusive and has a human touch, and isn’t just this manufactured concrete and cinder block gray walls .”
All graffiti, Thomas said, whether beautiful or ugly, whether just a person writing their name or a political statement, has a purpose and meaning to it, “a reason why it’s happening.” (Thomas urged artists and community members interested in the Public Art Commission to contact the Public Art Commission.)
And that pink fairy?
“Her pink flame is extinguished,” Judge Miller said. “She delighted Ithaca’s children for just a moment and now… she is nevermore.
“Her ephemeral existence is now only a distant memory like that of childhood memory like that of childhood days long gone. There is no bringing back this pink fairy of youth.”