Outlaw art

Itinerant artist faces fines, jail and restitution for beautification project

Artist James Moody didn’t realize he was breaking the law by painting city-owned trash bins.

Artist James Moody didn’t realize he was breaking the law by painting city-owned trash bins.

Photo By Ken SMith

When James Moody began hand-painting business logos and colorful scenes on Main Street trash cans one year ago, his intentions were far from felonious. But almost a year after being told to stop defacing city property by Chico police, he is stuck in a bizarre legal limbo, hit with a felony vandalism charge he’s not sure how to begin fighting.

Moody, an itinerant artist, self-described spiritual adviser and former Bollywood film actor, said he thought he was beautifying the community by painting the bins. “Just look at that thing, it’s butt-ugly,” he said, pointing to a replacement receptacle on the southeast corner of Second and Main streets, the site of his first “crime.”

Moody said he approached the corner restaurant, Pluto’s, and asked if the business would like its logo painted on the trash can. Not only did management like the idea, he said, but they also provided him with printed material in order to best match their corporate color scheme.

“I had permission from the businesses, never charged anybody anything, and used my own equipment and supplies,” he said. “It was all done by hand with paint and brush, no spray paint.”

Moody spent about 40 hours on the bin, surrounding the logo with a forest scene. During that time, he said he received only positive input from passersby, including several CPD officers. This led him to contact more businesses and do two more trash cans, near Urban Laundry and Cyclesport.

On June 6, while working on the third installment, Moody said police arrived and told him to stop. The officers, he said, informed him he would be charged with vandalism and restitution fees, but did not give him a citation at the time.

Moody complied and believed it had blown over until he received a phone call in February from CPD Sgt. Rob Merrifield, ordering him to pick up the ticket. He met Merrifield Feb. 7, expecting a misdemeanor citation, but was presented with a felony charge.

Merrifield also gave him a bill for damages, which amounted to almost $2,100 (two new cans costing $887 each, plus the cost of cleaning the third bin). According to the California Penal Code, vandalism resulting in more than $400 worth of damage can be charged as a felony and is punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and one year in jail.

Moody went to Butte County Superior Court on the date ordered on the citation—March 6—to find it was actually slated for March 5. Court personnel informed him that, despite the clerical error, he could be charged with “failure to appear” and have a warrant issued for his arrest.

To date, a warrant has not been issued, which, ironically, exacerbates Moody’s situation. He said he has contacted CPD and court officials, who referred him to the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, but the D.A. has neither returned his calls nor issued a warrant. The office also did not return calls from the CN&R as of press time.

Merrifield and court operations supervisor Janet Wilson confirmed Moody is in limbo. As Wilson explained, if a warrant is issued he can turn himself in to get a new court date.

“I’m losing sleep over this,” Moody said. “I’ve got a pending felony hanging over my head, and I don’t want it pending. I want it over with.”

Moody has made Chico his home on and off since 1981, spending his time away traveling the world. From 2004 to 2011, he lived in India and happened into a career as a Bollywood actor. He has been in more than 250 Indian films, and has pictures of himself alongside Bollywood starlets and Punjabi pop stars to prove it. In most he is costumed; in some even as a police officer (“90 percent of my roles were negative; I’d either be a bad Englishman or a bad American,” he explained).

During that extended stay, he met and married an Indian woman. In Chico, she works as a nurse’s assistant while the former film actor earns his keep collecting cans. They live in a residential motel and struggle to make ends meet, even without restitution and felony-level fines. Moody said he hopes the charge is downgraded not because he fears jail (“At least I can do art there,” he said), but because a felony would disallow him from returning to India, further complicating his and his wife’s lives.

He said his only prior trouble with the law was a minor marijuana-related crime in the early 2000s.

Moody has gotten some sympathy from those aware of his plight. Josh Mills, owner of The Bookstore, said he’s known Moody for decades and doesn’t believe the punishment fits the crime.

“This isn’t a bad guy,” Mills said of Moody. “Sure, what he did was kind of dumb because it was city property, but bleeding the guy with fines he can’t afford to pay and charging him with a felony for making a mistake is ridiculous.”

Mary Gardner, the city’s art projects coordinator, is also sympathetic: “I did speak to him, and I believe that in his heart he felt that he was adding beauty to our downtown,” she said by email, “but it is clearly against the law to alter or damage city property in any way.

“Had he sought permission first, things may have turned out differently.”