The writing on the wall

With an art exhibition behind him and a trial in front of him, it's still not clear where 22-year-old Danny Montano belongs

A black-and-white image of Daniel Montano in an art class a decade ago is a still-life of a boy focused on painting. Joanne Lagratta carried the photo on a recent visit to the Allegheny County Jail, where her 22-year-old son is an inmate.

She had written on the back, "Dan, remember this is who you are. Love, Mama."

The police and 125 private property owners say they know who he is: the most prolific graffiti writer in the city's history, according to police, having racked up $713,801 in damages, much of it on public property.

Mr. Montano, with 33 counts of criminal mischief against him, was free on bail awaiting trial when he allegedly added 20 more before turning himself in on Jan. 16. That was two days before the opening of a Mattress Factory exhibit he says is his most significant recognition as an artist. He was jailed on $50,000 straight bond.

The trial, which was scheduled to start tomorrow, has been postponed until May 12 so the recent charges could be consolidated with the former ones, said his attorney, Bill Cercone Jr.

More than 500 people flocked to the Mattress Factory for the opening of "Illustrations of Catastrophe and Remote Times." Mr. Montano and his brother David, 26, were among 19 featured artists.

Heather Pesanti, the Carnegie Museum's assistant curator of contemporary art, guest-curated the show. She knows Mr. Montano as a friend whose art has impressed her "from the very beginning, in particular his large-scale paintings and collages."

His bold and intense work was a good fit for a show about the apocalypse, she said, and he and his brother were among the first artists she invited to exhibit.

Activists who have spent years trying to rid their neighborhoods of blight and its pied pipers say Mr. Montano, of Highland Park, is overdue punishment. They wish for him a future behind bars. They resent his nascent esteem in the art world and the suggestion that his graffiti would be considered anything but vandalism. His destructive behavior has flattened him to one dimension.

But Ms. Pesanti rebuts that notion. "Life is not black and white," she said, "and neither are we."

No regrets

The Mattress Factory, a self-described research and development laboratory for artists, has featured graffiti before. An upcoming show will bring David Ellis, who is known in New York for his graffiti and videos, to the museum on the North Side.

Michael Olijnyk, the in-house curator, said Mr. Montano's inclusion in the show resulted in several e-mails from people who wanted to be removed from the museum's mailing list. Nobody has vandalized the exhibit, but one person recommended the Mattress Factory pay some of Mr. Montano's restitution, he said.

"It's hard to see the artistic value in something that you have to have removed," said Mr. Olijnyk. "That's a natural conflict. But at the Mattress Factory, we're just about the art. Everyone who comes here comes here because we find their work interesting.

"If the only stuff he [Mr. Montano] did was on the street, he wouldn't be in the Mattress Factory."

Many books, theses and exhibits over the past two decades have recognized graffiti's influence on contemporary art, either as a catalyst or as art itself. Much has been written about the graffiti culture, some of it suggesting that graffiti writers consider their work a gift to an ugly man-made environment. Then there's the energy that feeds the writer and his work as he rushes to paint without getting caught.

In a call from the Allegheny County Jail, Mr. Montano said energy is what he hopes informs his art. "I love all forms of art," he said. "It's what I was born to do."

Ms. Pesanti and Mr. Olijnyk separated the vandal -- accused of violating so much of other people's space -- from the artist, who created a room so personal that the crowds milling about in it on opening night seemed to be violating his space.

It is a boy's room with a twin bed, a dresser, shelves and a traffic light. On the wall, mixed-media collages and scrawled messages form a continuous row. He brought the furniture from home and slept in his exhibit for the better part of two weeks while installing it. The book "Goodnight Moon" lies on the dresser.

In a brochure on the exhibit, Ms. Pesanti described the scene as "a disconcerting impression of domestic space, imbued with a dark sense of foreboding. Montano's installation forges ambiguous and unanswerable questions as to whether the fury of cataclysmic events exists in the world outside, or within, in our homes and individual selves."

Ms. Lagratta, Mr. Montano's mother, said she didn't expect to be as moved as she was.

"It said to me, 'Daniel.' It was so full of him, of the contradictions that are in him, both chaos and beauty. And the little book 'Goodnight Moon.' He used to love to go out and stare at the night sky."

Mr. Montano said he wants people to see his exhibit not for the words in the messages but for the language of the shapes. A scrawled message on one of the walls -- "I want you to understand without me telling you" -- is a direct message to the viewer, he said. "I want them to read it like you read nature."

He said the organic, chaotic shapes are those of nature; the geometric structures are man's built environment, and the imbalance fits the show's theme.

"Man is destroying nature," he said. "To get the balance back, nature has to destroy man.

"We're living in drastic times, and the world is changing faster than ever before," he said. "It's why I'm so passionate in what I believe in. I don't see that what I do is nearly as destructive as what society does.

"Of course I make mistakes," he said, "but I don't regret anything." He said he expects of his future "only better things."

The son of Luis Montano, an engineer who emigrated from Colombia 37 years ago, and Ms. Lagratta, a nurse who lives in San Francisco, Mr. Montano attended the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and graduated from Peabody High School. He had delayed his studies at the Art Institute of San Francisco to work on the Mattress Factory exhibit.

In Pittsburgh, he was noted for his tag "MFONE," mostly in East End neighborhoods.

Ed Lesoon, who owns several properties in East Liberty, said his buildings took repeated hits over several years, costing $6,000 to $7,000 all told.

The good, bad and ugly

The police base a graffiti writer's damage amount on the cost to the city's Graffiti Busters' cleaning crews. For each incident of graffiti, said Detective Alphonso Sloan, the first square foot costs $300 and each square foot remaining costs $50. Graffiti Busters is a free service in the city, but it doesn't clean every surface equally. For some difficult textures, private owners sometimes opt to pay.

In the case of his rough-brick buildings, Mr. Lesoon said, sandblasting was required.

"We had seen this fellow in court," he said. "The focus should be on his emotional and mental impairment before any emphasis is put" on his legitimate art. "It's a tragedy for the community, for his family and for himself."

Graffiti writing, which used to be considered a minor crime, can now carry stiffer sentences. Mr. Cercone said he is concerned that his client's punishment may outweigh the injury.

"If I walked out and saw my house [marked up], I'd be irate too," he said. But property should never trump life, and it's a talented, emotionally tossed life that's at stake, he said.

"We have got to use our maturity to help these people, instead of just throwing them in jail," he said. "We all have the good, bad and the ugly in us. Why not play to the good?"

Detective Sloan, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Art Institute and a member of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, said he thinks Mr. Montano "has the potential to be a recognized artist. He has a distinctive style, which is what helped us track his new tag. He just has to get himself together."

He said he and other detectives -- those on the graffiti task force -- have been promoting a creative restitution, such as Mr. Montano paying back to the city by cleaning graffiti and possibly donating murals where they might be wanted.

"He's a little more receptive this time," said Mr. Sloan. "The community's really fed up. I told him, 'You have a big opportunity right now.'"

Ms. Lagratta said the news her son has made isn't who he is. He has personal hurdles unrelated to the graffiti charges and "some growing up to do," she said. "I just want people to realize he is somebody they don't know, and if they think they understand, they don't.

"This is my family's tragedy," she said. "But I know Danny is going to find his way."

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626. First Published January 27, 2008 7:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?