The death of a budding 18-year-old student artist at the hands of Miami Beach police — a law enforcement agency with a shameful history of misconduct and excessive use of force — has triggered rightful outrage in the arts community.
But in other sectors of South Florida, the criminalization of Israel Hernandez-Llach, a Colombian immigrant youth who died Wednesday after a police officer Tasered him in the chest, has begun in earnest.
His crime: Attempting to tag the wall of an abandoned building with “Reefa” — his graffiti artist name.
You’d think that in a region where world-renown graffiti artists gather every year to revel in one of the most prestigious of contemporary art fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach, people would exhibit more sophistication and refrain from wholesale criminalization of young people vying to express themselves, as misguided as their choice of canvas may be.
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You’d think our police departments would by now be adept at dealing with urban youth growing up in art hubs where the culture of skate boarding and graffiti art are an ever-present part of the scene.
The history of art, after all, is chock-full of accomplished artists whose lives were anything but exemplary, yet found higher purpose through their creative work. Artists of the stature of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, began their careers as unknown graffiti artists.
But droves of letter writers to the Miami Herald and online blogs readily branded Hernandez-Llach a “punk” and a “vandal,” condemning with righteous indignation his attempt to tag the wall of a long-abandoned McDonald’s on 71st Street and Collins Avenue as if the young man were an armed burglar endangering life and property.
These critics — they and their children must be perfect human beings with impeccable credentials — render harsh judgment on graffiti art, a staple of urban centers worldwide, and let police off the hook for the unrelenting pursuit of a kid with a paint can who got as far as writing an “R” before he saw police and ran off.
They ignore the irreversible and deadly consequences of the chase — from five to seven officers were supposedly involved — and the lack of judgment in tasing a lanky youth, who might have been an agile runner and avid skateboarder but hardly presented a serious danger to the officers.
Theirs is an ignorant and callous assessment of the value of a young life.
“Israel Hernandez-Llach might be seen as a young vandal because of his Reefa moniker, or that he may have been smoking weed prior to his spray painting on a boarded up storefront,” Miami artist William Cordova told me. “But the Miami Beach Police were wrong for using a Taser gun on the 18-year-old. He wasn’t armed nor a danger to himself or others. It was excessive use of force and then the officers celebrated their conquest by giving each other high fives.”
Cordova’s socially-conscious conceptual art has brought him international acclaim, prestigious fellowships and, most importantly, has given him the platform for expression young people like Hernandez-Llach seek.
We’ll never know how far Hernandez-Llach may have reached in his pursuit of an art career, but his art teacher and friends say he was no criminal.
He was a restless, multi-talented young man who missed graduating from Miami Beach Senior High School earlier this year by one class — physical education — because he spent those hours in the art room working on his pieces, his art teacher, Frank O’Hare, told me. The PE coach let him take the class online over the summer so he could graduate, O’Hare said.
“I’ve taught art for 20 years and he was one of the most unique and talented students I’ve had,” O’Hare said, his voice breaking. “He was a minimalist, and that is a sophisticated type of painting for a young man. He was so sensitive…and creative, mixing paint with other materials, like brake fluid, to try to get a certain viscosity.”
His sculptures and painting merited special recognition at student exhibitions at the Bass Museum of Art and the Perez Art Museum Miami and from the Watercolor Society, O’Hare said.
During Art Basel, Hernandez-Llach would hang out with graffiti artists converging in town from all over the world. For the last couple of years during Basel, he exhibited work at a show at Shake Shack on Lincoln Road. His work was voted by customers as one of the best. He also worked on a charity project in which students incorporated their artwork into donated old guitars auctioned to raise funds, and again, Hernandez-Llach’s work was recognized with an award for outstanding design.
“He was on the right track artistically,” O’Hare said.
But one thing troubled him, the teacher said, gave him “a great deal of stress” and kept him from seeing a future beyond high school: His lack of a legal immigration status, which some news reports now say had been resolved at the time of his death.
At Beach High, he was particularly proud of winning this year the highest award given to an art student.
“He told me that being up there in front of all the smart kids, that was the highlight of his life,” O’Hare said.
“I told him, ‘There’s going to be many more.’ But I was wrong. I’m heart-broken.”
The fact that Hernandez-Llach had talent and promise — he dreamed of combining his art and skateboarding into a business venture — only adds another layer to the tragedy.
Promising artist or simply a kid hooked on the risky thrill of graffiti writing — his Reefa tag can be found from Sunny Isles to Hollywood, his skateboarding route — what needs judgment in this case is not the dead teenager’s character but whether police officers exercised good judgment in the handling of a minor offense.
The use of a weapon against a youth who was not committing a violent crime is reprehensible.
By using a Taser that ended Hernandez-Llach’s life, the police essentially turned an arrest into an execution, and as unintentional as that might have been, the police action became a far greater crime than spray-painting a wall.
“Truly a sad story,” New York photographers James and Karla Murray, whose book Miami Graffiti documents the transient art form, wrote me Friday. “He seemed to be looking for something out there that he wasn’t finding anywhere else… some outlet to express himself that was worth risking his freedom for. If he left home that night thinking its worth might also cost his life, we’ll never know. May he rest in peace.”