Citizen Caught While Stenciling to "Cheer People Up"

The hearts of the matter: Brandon Hughes’ art puts him in court

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Brandon Hughes stenciled 12 pink hearts on Wenatchee public property last year in an attempt to “fill the city with love.” He later scrubbed away his handiwork, but still faced a malicious mischief charge in Chelan County District Court.

Brandon R. Hughes wanted to give Wenatchee a gift of sorts, and he wanted to go unnamed.

Instead, the soft-spoken, off-the-grid 28-year-old got arrested for his trouble, and became the most visible creator of a graffiti style that’s coming to the fore in NCW.

In September 2008, Hughes’ 12 stencil-painted hearts, pink and sometimes accessorized with a scribbled motto “CHOOSE LOVE,” beckoned from lightpoles, signal boxes and mailboxes around downtown. When a bystander spotted Hughes spray-painting a pink heart on a pole near midnight on Sept. 18, police were called, and suddenly Hughes had some explaining to do.

“I really was hoping that it would be very anonymous,” Hughes said in an interview last week. “... Well, getting in trouble in the first place kind of blows that apart. But being in the paper was really strange.”

Hughes, now 29, had seen too many unhappy motorists in downtown Wenatchee. His illegal art project had a simple goal: “Just to try and cheer people up a little bit. Hope that they would take a glance at it at a stoplight, and at least smile or something — and at least wonder what would cause somebody to put something up like that, what kind of a message they wanted to send. Because I didn’t want to be destructive at all. I wanted to be constructive.”

Stencil graffiti does involve constructive artwork: cutting and shaping the cardboard stencil that’s used to paint the intended message. But state laws and city ordinances view it as damage to property, and as someone whose stenciling added up to an estimated $250 in damage, Hughes faced up to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail. A second misdemeanor charge under city codes, possession of graffiti materials, carried penalties of up to $1,000 in fines and 90 days in jail.

Assistant City Attorney Jordan Miller, who prosecuted Hughes’ case, wouldn’t discuss its specifics. He said city ordinances make no distinction between Hughes’ stencil graffiti and the freehand, hostile gang tags that are far more common in Wenatchee.

“The Wenatchee City Code provisions are straightforward, and they’re equally applicable to anybody who commits the crime of malicious mischief or the possession of graffiti materials, regardless of their gang affiliations or lack thereof,” Miller said.

Once he was apprehended by Wenatchee Police Sgt. Mark Huson, Hughes rode around downtown with Officer Ryan Weatherman and pointed out the
12 spots he’d vandalized with pink hearts. He stenciled them only on public property, not wanting to deface homes or businesses. All were photographed as evidence, and Hughes was initially charged with second-degree malicious mischief, a felony, after the Chelan County Prosecutor’s office alleged more than $250 in damage from his actions.

He entered a plea of not guilty in October. In January, the case was sent to District Court, with the lesser charge of third-degree malicious mischief brought by the city. Hughes was rearraigned on the new charges in November, and again pleaded not guilty. Most of the people who talked to him about the graffiti, after it came to light in The Wenatchee World, were positive and encouraging, he said.

Hughes, a car-wash manager, represented himself in District Court, because he did not meet the income requirements for appointment of a public defender. In his final hearing Tuesday before Judge Thomas Warren, he pleaded guilty to malicious mischief in exchange for a $500 fine, plus 20 hours of community service and two years’ probation. The charge of possessing graffiti materials was dismissed.

“I thought that was a resolution, at least, so I feel good about it,” he said Wednesday.

Hughes and his ex-wife have a 6-year-old daughter. He divides his time seasonally between East Wenatchee, where he was raised after his family moved from Montana in 1989, and a fifth-wheel trailer on a friend’s rural, wooded Chelan County property. “Once I realized how distracted I felt, in an effort to eliminate distractions, I just kind of moved out there,” he said.

Philosophically, he doesn’t consider himself an artist: “Just in the way that everybody should, I think — just being able to express yourself in all kinds of creative ways, whether they’re labeled art or not. ... I think it is possible to be kind of creative all through your day, even in deciding where you choose to put your feet when you walk around.”

But he wouldn’t do it a second time, he said.

“I try not to spend any time wishing it was different. ... I feel fine about it. I really try to think things through. Admittedly, I’m an optimist, so a lot of times when I’m thinking things through, I’m only seeing the best-case scenario. But very consistently, that’s just how it always goes.”

(Hughes also denies cursing at the witness who turned him in to police, as the witness alleged in the original police report.)

Within a few months of their creation, his pink hearts were gone. He went around to each location with mild cleaners, again in the dead of night, and scrubbed them off.

Hughes, who declined to be photographed for this story, said he’d never committed graffiti crimes before his September 2008 expeditions, and hasn’t since.

He does not claim responsibility for any of the other stencil graffiti profiled in this report.

“I got talked to by the sheriff one time, because I guess somebody had painted some blue hearts someplace. But I didn’t ever see them. I was just the first guy on the list to call.”