James De La Vega had just finished painting a fish — in mid-flight between bowl and water glass — on a brick wall alongside the Major Deegan Expressway in the South Bronx when he was collared. It was an illicit act. New York cops charged De La Vega with criminal mischief and making graffiti.
“I am an artist,” he told the officers, according to his arrest papers. But De La Vega faces a trial, set to begin Wednesday, and, if convicted, possible jail time. The case has revived a long-standing debate in New York about where to draw the boundary between art and order. De La Vega has been equated with street artists like Keith Haring. His work has fetched $2,500 at a Christie’s auction, and some New Yorkers are sporting “Free De La Vega” T-shirts as part of a campaign to rethink street art.