In 1994, a local painter took the Sault by storm. Everyone wanted to meet this elusive young artist. Especially the police.
Graffiti is an inevitable problem in any city. But back in the 1990s, it was practically a fad in Sault Ste. Marie. Every year, thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money went into removing or painting over the unwanted drawings and scribbles that seemed to be everywhere you looked.
Most of it was ugly, some of it was obscene, and very little of it could be described as “art”.
But then, along came a mysterious new graffiti artist that the Sault Star dubbed “The Artful Dodger”.
The Artful Dodger was not your typical vandal with a spray can. For one thing, his graffiti was far more ambitious; the drawings were more intricate and detailed. Many of the drawings were also larger, comparable to murals.
There was also a cohesiveness to his work, with similar themes and symbols on each drawing (which is how police knew they were most likely looking for one culprit, not several). The Dodger also seemed to have a preferred medium for his paintings, choosing to spray paint exclusively on the walls of various schools throughout the city.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this artistic scofflaw was his exorbitant sense of daring.
His spree of defacing school property lasted not months, but rather weeks. Nevertheless, during that time he was responsible for at least 17 acts of vandalism. It was the sheer number of incidents in such a short time span that really caught the attention of the police, the press, and the public.
The Artful Dodger was even audacious enough to hit the same location two nights in a row, returning to the scene of the crime on a few occasions in order to complete an unfinished painting.
By mid-June, barely a day went by without a new report in the Sault Star on these acts of vandalism and the brash artist behind them.
Police believed that the offender was a youth, although some suspected that the sophisticated nature of the drawings suggested a culprit at the post-secondary school level. Many people wondered if the drawings contained deeper or hidden messages, and whether the graffiti represented some form of political or social protest.
Law enforcement officials, however, insisted that there was no hidden message and that the perpetrator was nothing more than a criminal flouting the law. Police ramped up their efforts to find the Artful Dodger, increasing patrols in certain areas of the city, and putting together a Crime Stoppers segment focused on the scofflaw.
Considering the dodger’s penchant for brazen risk-taking, combined with the police’s intensified efforts to nab the outlaw, it was perhaps inevitable that the graffiti artist would soon be captured.
On June 28, 1994, the Sault Star reported that the Artful Dodger had been arrested.
As it turns out, the culprit was in fact a 16-year-old boy. Police managed to track down the juvenile delinquent with the aid of an informant, as well as help from Crime Stoppers.
When they searched his home, officers found a city map with green dots indicating which schools he had hit, as well as a variety of drawings and art material. The day after his arrest, an 18-year-old male was arrested as a cohort who had aided the dodger in his crimes.
The rise and fall of the Artful Dodger brought out the art critic in many Saultites. There were those who dismissed his work as mere acts of vandalism which not only made the city uglier but also cost the city and the school board a great deal of money to remove.
Some members of the police department, however, offered grudging respect for the artist’s talent, while lamenting the unlawful method in which he chose to display his gift.
One journalist for the Sault Star reported that many of the students attending the schools hit by the dodger admired the artist’s handiwork, while another article reported that students were resentful at having their schools vandalized.
The Sault Star’s Teen Correspondent came to the young man’s defence, praising the talent of the artist and advocating against having the graffiti removed. Even the judge presiding over the trial of the Artful Dodger was an art critic, telling the defendant at his sentencing that the buildings he had vandalized were by no means improved by the drawings. The judge also handed down the maximum sentence allowed: two years probation, 240 hours of community service, plus a $1,000 fine
Unfortunately, the illegal acts of the dodger seem to have inspired others to follow suit.
In the months after he was arrested, other graffiti artists took up his mantle, as schools and other buildings around the Sault continued to be vandalized.
By all accounts, these new pieces of graffiti lacked the talent and attention to detail that the Artful Dodger had afforded to his work.
In response to the continued defacement of school property, the separate school board trustees decided to sue the Artful Dodger and other vandals to cover the cost of repairing the damage they had caused. The reported cost to remove all acts of graffiti in the Sault in 1994 was over $10,000.
As for the Artful Dodger himself, he remains something of an unknown quantity.
Because of his age, his name has never been publicly revealed. His motivations and artistic message (if any) remain equally mysterious. Whoever he was, and wherever he ended up in life, one can only hope that he found a way to put his artistic talents to better use.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.