‘Not So Undercover’: Good samaritan skirts law to revitalize street objects
There is a fine line between skirting the law and doing a good deed. Spencer Allen (name changed for privacy protection), a 59-year-old Brooklyn Heights resident, walks it in his spare time.
Allen moonlights as a sort of street artist with a decidedly practical goal: to restore neglected government property to its original condition. For many, street art might conjure up images of hooded figures with spray cans defacing public property in the early hours of the morning, but Allen, a neighborhood resident since 1978, projects a distinctly different persona.
Allen carries a simple red and white canvas tote bag, well supplied with primer, paint cans in varied hues and brushes in different sizes, as he goes about what many Heights residents see as neighborhood preservation and beautification projects. He works year round, in spare moments away from his day job as a hedge fund manager and other free time pursuits, such as running marathons. In broad daylight Allen repaints mailboxes, relay boxes, antique fire alarm boxes, traffic control boxes and tree guards.
His process is thorough. He scrapes and sands down objects before priming and painting them in high gloss hues that are a near-match for their original colors. He then emblazons chosen objects, or, in his own words, “tricks them out,” with carefully considered accents. This might mean applying trim work, or stenciling in “U.S. MAIL” and “RELAY MAIL” over raised metal letters. Some projects take weeks, others months; hence they exist sometimes suspended in varied stages of progress.
Allen’s work is bold when its repercussions are considered: Federal law states that vandalizing or defacing mailboxes is a crime punishable by fines up to $250,000, or by imprisonment for up to three years for each act of vandalism. But, in Allen’s view, it’s a mission to step in where the U.S. Postal Service has been unresponsive. Increasingly peeved by the incongruence of “tagged” (aka graffitied) mailboxes in an otherwise well-kept neighborhood, Allen woke up one morning in 2013 and decided to quell his vexation.
“This is absolutely ridiculous and I’m going to paint the thing because I’m tired of looking at it,” he recalls thinking of a green mailbox across the street from his apartment building.
One ebullient neighbor approached as he worked and said that for eight years she’d been trying to contact the responsible government agency to get the box repainted. Needless to say, she was ecstatic that Allen had assigned himself the task.
Allen’s renewal of public utility street objects that are prone to attack by graffitists has caused the U.S. Postal Service to follow suit: his work prompted the dispatch of a presumably embarrassed postal service employee to repaint a “tricked out” mailbox on a busy street corner in the Heights with an almost identical result. Nevertheless, it now exists in undeniably improved condition.
Allen was initially frustrated by the postal service’s negligence, but he has since adopted a more sympathetic attitude and acknowledges that its unfavorable financial situation is what impedes routine postbox upkeep.
“They don’t have a lot of money with people sending stuff by mail. They have their hands full trying to keep costs down and survive, so it’s like, ‘Hey, I’ll pick up a paintbrush and do it,’” he says.
The grimy aesthetics of vandalized mailboxes certainly vex Allen, but so too does the lack of respect that drives the defiling act itself. Allen’s “broken windows” approach to policing his work has proven effective. By monitoring and hastily effacing subsequent vandalism when necessary, vandal activity seems to have declined, at least in this neighborhood.
“From what I understand, psychologically, with these graffiti people,” he explains, “If you cover their tags quickly, they don’t like it and they go elsewhere.”
One young fan’s sighting of the artist in action prompted him to ask Allen for an autograph. Neighbors make requests of Allen to revamp objects near their buildings. Though Allen doesn’t sign his work, he’s taken to including dedications in tiny letters in the case of “commissioned” objects.
While most support his civic-minded work, others are less appreciative. They take issue with the fact that, technically, he might be acting illegally. But Allen doesn’t fear reprimand or arrest.
“The way I view it is I’m not defacing public property; rather, I’m returning it to its original condition. I’m actually fixing something that’s been defaced.”
And he’s determined to continue. In a neighborhood where street objects abound, he estimates that he’s already restored 20 or so pieces of public property in a year and a half. As a result, an entire community of residents and its visitors has in its metaphorical backyard a treasure trove of revitalized, meticulously enhanced and undeniably charming cultural gems.
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