Five years ago, a 20-year-old vandal named Michael Monack was arrested when he emerged from the Armstrong Tunnels riding a bike on an early Sunday morning.
Thanks to a tip from a motorist who saw him scribbling on the tunnel's grimy walls, Mr. Monack was about to find out that when it came to "aerosol murals," everyone's a critic.
After a brief chase that ended on the 10th Street Bridge, Mr. Monack told the cops that it was a coincidence that he was sitting in the back of their cruiser the same morning fresh graffiti appeared under his nom de plume "Mook."
At a magistrate's hearing later that week, Mr. Monack looked more nervous than notorious. He was on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in public and private property damage -- much of it painted on difficult-to-reach surfaces like overpasses and bridge pylons.
Mr. Monack didn't generate much sympathy from property owners in the days leading up to his hearing.
Homeowners had dealt with the ubiquity of his "Mook" tags on their walls and garage doors for years and considered $100,000 straight bond more than reasonable, given the damage he had committed. He didn't have an art gallery waiting in the wings to impart a scintilla of legitimacy to his scribbling.
Fast forward half a decade. Mr. Monack has been replaced in local urban folklore by 22-year-old Daniel Montano, a scribbler who goes by the moniker "MFONE."
Like Mr. Monack, Mr. Montano will be spending quality time in Allegheny County Jail until he comes up with $50,000 straight bond. He's facing a May 12 trial for having inflicted $713,801 in public and private property damage over the years.
Unlike Mr. Monack, Mr. Montano can lay claim to being an artist -- and a very talented one.
Mr. Montano's installation of assorted furniture and abstract art is currently featured in "Gestures: Illustrations of Catastrophe and Remote Times," an exhibit at the Mattress Factory on the North Side.
When he's not inflicting thousands of dollars in property damage around town, Mr. Montano has proven himself a thoughtful assembler of "found art" and personal totems.
The description of his work on the Mattress Factory Web site provides as useful a summary as any:
"Here Montano has literally transferred elements from his home into the room: his bed, spray-painted dresser, two small shelving units, and miscellaneous found objects exist alongside intensely worked collages and wheat-pasted drawings, while fragments of text on the wall evoke disturbing images of pain and violence.
"The overall effect generates 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."
Mr. Montano surrendered to the cops two days before the Mattress Factory show opened, so he hasn't had a chance to take a much deserved bow.
While assembling the show, Mr. Montano slept in his bed on site -- making himself as much a part of the show as his personal effects.
Clearly, Mr. Montano is enough of a thinker and a showman to know what the intelligentsia that frequent the Mattress Factory are interested in validating as legitimate art.
Given the stakes, why is he willing to jeopardize his future in that world by defacing public and private property and risking a long prison term?
In a recent interview with PG reporter Diana Nelson Jones, Mr. Montano said: "I don't see that what I do is nearly as destructive as what society does."
Sometimes moral incoherence of the kind Mr. Montano espouses is a pose that artists take on to sound deeper than they really are. Still, it indicates that Mr. Montano is at least thinking about his place in the aesthetic scheme of things and how to justify it.
But it's always difficult to rationalize antisocial actions as righteous. If one of Mr. Montano's victims was to wander into the Mattress Factory tomorrow and dump a bucket of tar onto his bed and furniture, would that be kosher? Could a vandal justify his or her actions by echoing Mr. Montano's glib answer to the reporter and get away with it?
Of course not. Mr. Montano would be the first to demand that the vandal be arrested. He would probably compare the incident to the assault on Michelangelo's "Pieta" by a hammer-wielding madman in the late 1970s.
Still, all true artists know that they have to suffer for their art. Why should MFONE be any different?
Tony Norman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1631.