The noun of art filled the Miami fairs, but the verb thrived in Wynwood Arts District, a grid of warehouses reborn as an international street-art mecca. Creativity seems to run wild and free in Wynwood, but those seams frayed early Friday morning when a graffiti artist fleeing an undercover unit was hit by the police car. Delbert Rodriguez, a 21-year-old known by his tag Demz, died Tuesday night after spending the weekend in a coma. He is the second street artist in a year to bear the brunt of the city’s anti-graffiti efforts; in 2013, Miami Beach police caught Israel “Reefa” Hernandez-Llach, 18, spray painting an abandoned McDonald’s and Tased him to his death.
These tragic accidents highlight the dichotomy of urban expression. Street art is the pulse of Wynwood, so much so that graffiti feels permissible. A stroll last Saturday through the buzzing barrio found countless graffiti artists at work, ladders propped against walls, spray paint cans peppering sidewalks. Nearly every gallery, boutique and restaurant references graffiti in some form, from the graphics framing their exteriors to the pop palettes of their products. The corner where Rodriguez was spotted tagging – NW 5th Avenue and 24th Street – is a palimpsest of signatures, names the police read as evidence of wayward ambition. “We have people that come into the city that think they’re artists and start graffiting everything,” Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa told the Miami Herald. The undercover unit, deployed specifically during Art Basel, aimed to quell such activity.
Inherent in Orosa’s comment is a disdain for outsiders, those from outside Miami and those outside the law. Rodriguez was not the former having grown up in Pembroke Pines, a Miami suburb, nor explicitly the latter as he was working within the artistic vernacular of Wynwood, a vernacular of spray paint and self-promotion. Of course, there is a difference between illegal graffiti and commissioned murals. The assumption could be made that the artists working by day during Art Basel were sanctioned, while those tagging at night were not. Many Wynwood murals have been marred by errant tags. And yet, all forms of street art share a common language and compulsion, both of which feel embraced in this urban enclave.
In Miami, the cross-currents surrounding self-expression came to a head last Friday: protesters decrying police violence blocked I-95 through Midtown Miami; Art Basel art-buying reached a fever pitch; Wynwood flaunted its street-cred creativity; and Rodriguez fled from police, spray can in hand. The nostalgic note of Lakwena’s 2013 mural seems to ring all too true in light of the tragedy: “I remember paradise.” A paradise lost.