Xu Zi has taught at the New York Chinese International School, produced award-winning videos on Chinese culture and performed in Mandarin at the Vienna Opera House. She has also created multilingual calligraphy for Senator Hillary Clinton and countless tourists out of Battery Park for over seven years.
But on Dec. 14, Xu Zi was kicked out of the park, and she hasn’t been back since.
Xu Zi or Linda Wetherhold, as she is known in English told her story in her Village apartment as her daughter Shirley, 13, helped translate.
With a view of Lady Liberty, Xu Zi (pronounced shoe zoo) had set up her table in the crowded circle surrounding Castle Clinton alongside the other Battery Park vendors. She was working on a painting for a customer when a Parks Enforcement Patrol officer she knew approached her. She says he told her politely but firmly, “Linda, I’m sorry, but you can’t do this job here anymore.”
The PEP officer spoke to one other Asian calligrapher in the park and gave him the same bad news.
He told Xu Zi and her colleague that they needed permits to sell their work. When Xu Zi asked for legal proof, the officer said he would get back to her. Five days later, he returned with a copy of the N.Y.P.D.’s Operations Order #39 in hand and again asked the vendors to leave or face ticketing.
The order, issued in 2004, states that licensing is required for vendors who are “printing plain letters or characters of any language, e.g. Chinese, Greek, Cyrillic…in a manner that does not convey a message (e.g. simply writing a name at the request of a purchaser).”
Xu Zi did not agree that this applied to her works of calligraphy. To her, she was practicing “a very deep art” passed down to her from her grandfather. She spent years studying calligraphy from the time she was very young.
What Xu Zi was selling were paintings of Chinese characters representing her translations of customers’ names, which sometimes are based on interpretation because there is no direct translation. She also sold paintings with English words such as “peace” or “freedom,” or even short phrases such as “I love you.” Xu Zi has also learned to translate her calligraphy into other languages, such as Japanese, Arabic and Hebrew. She viewed her work as a “culture exchange” and has been told by customers that her booth is “a museum without walls.”
She tried to explain to the PEP officer that she was not just “printing plain letters,” but he continued to point at the police order.
The park officer then suggested Xu Zi and the other calligrapher draw pictures with their words so that they would not be in violation of the permit laws. While the other vendor agreed to add colorful images to his calligraphy, Xu Zi did not want to compromise her art form.
Still, she says she felt intimidated by the PEP officer. “I didn’t want to fight with them,” she says. “I didn’t want to cause a commotion.” Xu Zi packed up her work and left.
On a recent chilly day in Battery Park, there was not a calligrapher in sight. There was one Asian man doing the colorful name paintings and he was the busiest vendor in the park. He said no officers had asked him for a vendors license, which he would need if he were not selling art.
Confrontations between vendors and both the PEP and N.Y.P.D. are certainly nothing new. Recent crackdowns in Battery Park and areas such as Soho have been making business increasingly difficult for artists, in spite of litigation granting street artists exemption from permit requirements.
Much of the freedom street artists are now struggling to maintain is the result of one man’s personal vendetta. Nicknamed the “NYC Street Crusader,” Robert Lederman was the first person Xu Zi called after the incident in Battery Park.
Lederman, a painter and First Amendment activist, was arrested 41 times without a single conviction for refusing to stop selling his art on city streets. He is also president of ARTIST, or Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics and Xu Zi is one of its members.
ARTIST won two significant lawsuits against the city of New York and their policy regarding vendors. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that art can be sold on city streets without any licensing or permits, as long as the artists follow guidelines dictating how close they can be to nearby buildings, fire hydrants, etc. In 2003, Lederman successfully pushed for this ruling to extend to city parks.
Lederman says he has heard from about 30 Asian vendors within the last week expressing their concern over Xu Zi’s situation. “No group of street artists gets treated worse than the Asian artists,” he claimed.
“I don’t have a problem with police enforcing against vendors who are breaking the law,” Lederman said. “But when they are intimidating people who have been peacefully and legally selling their art for years, I have to speak up.”
Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, which maintains the park and has had differences with vendors, said she doesn’t support the move against calligraphy.
“We believe strongly in the freedom of artistic expression,” she said, including “names done in beautiful calligraphy.”
Price did say that the conservancy has been trying to establish the new garden area of the Park as a vendor-free zone.
“We have so little sense of sanctuary,” Price explained. They hope the gardens and nearby memorial can be a place for visitors to reflect and enjoy nature in peace.
Still, this case is about much more than vendors’ rights to Lederman. “If the city can decide today that a 5,000-year-old art form isn’t protected, who’s to say they won’t decide tomorrow that cartooning isn’t protected or portraiture isn’t protected or any other visual art form,” he said. “This is about preventing the erosion of First Amendment freedom of visual arts.”
According to Op. Order #39, Xu Zi and her fellow calligraphers do not fall under the protection granted by Lederman’s lawsuits. The implication, Lederman says, is that calligraphers are not considered artists by the city of New York.
John Torreano, head of painting and drawing for New York University’s Department of Arts, said he understood why the N.Y.P.D. didn’t consider calligraphy art.
“The common man thinks of art as drawing images,” he said in a telephone interview. “The difference is really linguistic and it is cultural. But it is an interesting intersection between what people think of as art and product.”
Both Xu Zi and Lederman plan to see this battle through.
Lederman said, “If they don’t change the policy, I am absolutely gonna sue. I’ll sue them myself. I’ll go out there and do name painting myself.”
Lederman has called and written to numerous city officials, including Parks Commissioner Benepe and Mayor Bloomberg. Lederman said he now has a good relationship with the Parks Department and said, “I am confident that we will be able to settle this without going to a lawsuit.”
However, given his track record and the legal precedence he has set, Lederman said, “I would bet any amount of money that in a lawsuit, I would win.” He argues that the First Amendment issue at stake is clear-cut.
Amy Adler is a law professor who teaches the First Amendment seminar at N.Y.U. While she has never heard of the artist exemptions being applied to calligraphy, Adler said, “It should be protected, though I can see how it would be a difficult distinction.”
Adler said the federal courts have established that art is protected under the First Amendment. She also said that there has never been a minimum word count to qualify free speech, which means Xu Zi’s one-word paintings may be protected both as art and as speech.
Ashe Reardon, spokesperson for Parks, declined to comment because the matter has been referred to the agency’s legal department. N.Y.P.D. lawyers are also handling the matter.
Sergeant Carlos Niedes, a police spokesperson, quoted Op. Order #39 and said that calligraphers do need a general vendor’s license to sell their works. Niedes did say that, from what he has seen on the streets, “They’ll draw little flowers and pictures along the side of the writing and then they’re exempt.”
As she approaches one month of lost revenue, including the usually profitable holiday season, Xu Zi is still holding out. She says that other vendors who were asked to leave have since returned to Battery Park, either changing their art form or risking ticketing or arrest, but she refuses until the matter is settled.
“I can do the colorful paintings, but Asian calligraphy is more important,” she says. “So now, I am waiting.”