At high noon Saturday, December 4, 1999, Joey Skaggs and a team of co-conspirators, marched into Washington Square Park toting a ten foot by fourteen foot painting of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the Madonna. It was a satirical replica of the Chris Ofili painting "Holy Virgin Mary" which was part of the Brooklyn Museum's recent "Sensation" show and which the Mayor had reviled as offensive because the artist had used elephant dung in his painting.
The Skaggs procession, wearing Doody Rudy hats, pushed a trashcan on wheels filled with ersatz elephant dung. They also carried a plastic tarp; a shovel; broom; boxes of latex surgical gloves; dust masks; plastic raingear for the people holding the painting; and two signs on ten foot polls saying "Doody Rudy with Dumbo's Dung" and "Help Support the Homeless -- $1.00 Contribution Per Throw Will be Donated to Housing Works, Inc."
Skaggs had sent out over a thousand press releases announcing the event and it was widely reported on the radio, in the news and on the Internet. It was billed as a participatory performance piece taking aim at Mayor Giuliani's anti-freedom-of-expression policies regarding art, and his autocratic and heartless "quality of life" campaign targeted against the homeless and other unfortunates in the city. The public could, for a $1 donation, toss a handful of dung at the Mayor's portrait.
The park was electrified as hundreds of supporters turned out to revel in the opportunity to hurl dung at the Mayor. Scores of print and television journalists came to record the event. Flanking the group was a large contingency of uniformed and plain-clothes police causing an even more circus-like atmosphere with an overlay of threat and danger.
The crew spread out the tarp and positioned the painting and the signs. Skaggs made a brief speech and a man in a wheelchair rolled forward to take the first toss. He wound up and let fly the dung. The crowd cheered wildly and then lined up to pay their dollar and take aim.
Skaggs had assumed that a request for a park permit would be denied, and chose not to apply for one. He had been advised by an attorney that even if had he been granted a permit, the police would likely tell him he didn't have the right one and arrest him anyway. So he and his crew went to the event with toothbrushes, change for telephone calls, and some chocolate bars, assuming their arrests were a real possibility.
The preparation for the Doody Rudy event had taken several weeks. A friend let Skaggs use her outside patio where the huge canvas could be hung and painted, and an apartment where the elephant dung, made from hay, vermiculite and water (an old family recipe) could be concocted and fermented. Other friends provided storage space and assisted in gathering the supplies.
Everyone loved the concept. But when it came time for volunteers to actively participate in the event, most were not willing to do so for fear of getting arrested. The handful of brave souls who did volunteer -- Steve Rendall, Michael Brody, Kate McCamy, Kevin Roach, Nancy and Faye Good, Steve Powers and two spotters with cell phones Julia Solis and Amy Baker -- were rewarded with great satisfaction. Fortunately, no one was arrested and the event was a smash success in the eyes of the cheering crowd and the media.
To many it was a seminal moment in the life of New York City when the people stood up and let Mayor Giuliani know how much they detested his policies.
The event was all the more interesting because days earlier, Steve Powers, a graffiti artist who had painted the Giuliani portrait for Skaggs, had been arrested on a weapons charge (for possession of a pair of antique brass knuckles which were displayed on his wall) after an extended search of his apartment for evidence related to his graffiti activities. Powers and his attorney took the position that he was being persecuted because of his involvement with the Doody Rudy event, suggesting that Giuliani was aware of it, was offended by it, and was going to try to stop it. The police insisted this was the culmination of a six-month investigation of New York graffiti artists and had nothing to do with the event.
In an amusing twist, Powers, in his excitement at being the center of so much media attention over his arrest, took total credit for the Doody Rudy event in several key interviews. This caused no end of confusion about who was who and culminated in Skaggs receiving condolence calls from friends and supporters for the police search of his apartment and his arrest for graffiti!
Doody Rudy had all the ingredients needed to create a great story. It was bold and satirical and had humorous visuals. It was timely, in that Giuliani was in the spotlight for attempting to enforce several controversial policies that threaten the loss of basic rights -- first amendment rights of self expression and basic human rights of self determination. It was provocative, loaded with controversy and conflict (made more so by the Powers investigation), and had the threat of imminent police crackdown. It offered symbolic ritual and public catharsis. And it featured a group of fearless artists standing up against oppressive authority.
Coincidence and luck played a part as well. This event had been planned before Giuliani announced his policy requiring homeless people to go to work or be denied shelter. Which was followed by his pronouncement that homeless people caught sleeping in the street would be arrested and sent to jail. And the Powers arrest was a complete surprise.
Piecing together and massaging all of these elements enabled Skaggs to communicate his concerns about the New York Mayor's authoritarian policies on a global scale.
DOODY RUDY! DOODY RUDY! DOODY RUDY! DOODY RUDY! DOODY RUDY! DOODY RUDY!