Detroit graffiti artist confesses
Turtle sticks neck out
Detroit graffiti artist confesses
August 27, 2004
BY BEN SCHMITT
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Link Here: http://www.freep.com/news/locway/turtle27e_20040827.htm
27 years old, and this guy is out there doing graffiti..Get a life..Maybe he has to much time on his hands. Maybe the nickname turtle has another meaning for him...
He's the man who, anonymously, splashed a unique signature across metro Detroit -- images of green turtles.
Ronald Scherz. He spray-painted them on billboards, vacant buildings, freeway bridges and mailboxes.
No one knew who he was, so he became known as the Turtle. No one knew what his turtles meant. An art gallery put a $1,000 bounty on his head. Former Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan vowed to throw him in prison. For more than a year, he remained underground.
But now, the mystery is officially over.
Law enforcement officials have established the identity of the Turtle, but they cracked the case too late. The new prosecutor, Kym Worthy, focused on Detroit's increase in violent crime and hindered by budget constraints, has made graffiti a low priority. She's not interested in the Turtle. Cops say they'll arrest him only if they catch him in the act. They are not following him.
And the Turtle?
He says he is no longer the Turtle. Or "Turtl," "Trdl" or "Turdl," as he variously tagged his drawings.
His real name is Ronald Scherz. He is 27, grew up in Warren and lives in Hamtramck. One of his old driver's licenses contains a drawing of a turtle at the end of his signature.
Scherz reluctantly admitted he is the Turtle after the Free Press began contacting him recently.
There is less significance behind his art than many people imagined.
"This just happened. There's no politics behind it. I just kind of came up with it," Scherz said this week in a phone interview. "The turtle is an icon. Icons can be powerful."
Why the different spellings? What did it mean?
Not a thing.
"It was a joke, spelling it different ways," he said. "Graffiti writers do that."
Scherz wouldn't reveal what he does for a living but said he's been doing graffiti since he was about 6 or 7.
He estimates he has been playing with the turtle image for about six years but quit altogether 10 months ago.
He attended Macomb Community College, and officials there say they remember images of turtles popping up around the campus during 1996-98, Scherz's years in art school.
Detroit Police Lt. John Simon, who was on Scherz's tail last year, has been transferred out of the 13th (Woodward) Precinct, which was heading the graffiti investigation. Simon said prosecuting Scherz without catching him in the act would be difficult.
"The department knows who he is and where he lives," Simon said. "But there is no interest to do a detailed surveillance. Part of it is the change of leadership" in the prosecutor's office.
Simon got so involved in the case last year that his colleagues started calling him "Lieutenant Turtle" and leaving little plastic turtle figurines on his desk. He said he has about 80 of the plastic turtles.
"After trying to catch him for a year, people still call me with tips," Simon said. "I think there's enough evidence to shut him down, but it's up to the prosecutor."
Simon said he has received information that Scherz is also responsible for the "Dead Krak Head" graffiti images in Detroit. Scherz declined to comment on that image.
Last year, Duggan embarked on an anti-graffiti crusade, promising prison time for violators. He singled out the Turtle as a sort of artistic Public Enemy No. 1. Duggan, now chief executive officer of the Detroit Medical Center, declined to comment.
Worthy, Duggan's successor, has said she must concentrate on major crime.
"If we are given solid evidence that's presented to us in a warrant request, we will follow through on that," said Worthy's spokeswoman, Maria Miller.
Scherz agreed. "There were 800 people shot in six months in Detroit this year," he said. "I've never shot a gun at anyone; I've never robbed anyone. I'm not the one out there shooting at people."
Scherz insisted his tagging days are over.
"It's not something I'm proud of or ashamed of. I'm looking to move forward. I need to get my finances together and things like that."
Susan Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association, said it has cost merchants $50,000 to clean up turtle graffiti in Midtown Detroit over the past three years. Mosey said the turtle-tagging slowed after Duggan publicly declared that he would find the person or people responsible.
Now, her association has a new nuisance: Someone is spray-painting "Eggs," "Money" and other miscellaneous words in the area.
"I'm glad the turtle stuff has stopped," she said. "It was really overwhelming."
Tony Smith, a native Detroiter who is making a documentary film on graffiti called "PaintCans and Politics," also learned the Turtle's identity and tried to contact him.
Last year, Scherz sent a friend to Smith's studio at Woodward and Michigan. He wanted $2,500 for an interview.
"We really wanted the interview, but we were skeptical about paying money for a documentary," Smith said.
In February, Smith said, police invited him on a three-day stakeout near Scherz's Hamtramck apartment. The cops couldn't catch Scherz in the act.
Finally, Smith and a cameraman, Jesse Cory, staked out Scherz themselves in April and encountered him outside of his apartment. Scherz ran inside.
Smith said he initially believed Scherz just wanted attention.
"Graffiti, as a general statement, is about fame," he said. "It's about tagging and getting up in the hardest spot, the highest spot, as much as possible."
Smith subsequently learned more about Scherz's intentions during a recent conversation.
"I think he wanted to get his artwork out there and be creative," Smith said. "When he brought it to the streets, he wanted to get his cred. Now, I think he's come forward in some way and repented. I've gained a certain level of respect for that."
Smith said Scherz -- or the Turtle -- is by far the most famous graffiti writer in Detroit.
"His work has been on the news, in the papers and the subject of press conferences," Smith said. "That's big ups for him. He's digging all of this."
Said Scherz: "I have friends that would die for the attention I got," he said. "But it never really did anything for me. I've come to a realization that I'm getting older."
Aaron Timlin, executive director of the Detroit Artists Market, said he notices that the turtle images are waning. He also doesn't think jail time is the answer.
"If they catch him, it's a great opportunity for law enforcement to get creative about how we penalize people," Timlin said. "There's an energy there, whether people say it's talent or not. We just need to harness it. Maybe we could have Turtle do a mural for free on a building, instead of hiring someone. I think it would be fun to work with him."
Turtle mania even prompted a Hazel Park man to trademark the image, which he sold on T-shirts and other memorabilia. Scherz didn't have a problem with that.
"I could care less about that guy," he said. "What I want people to know is that I'm still here. As much as people want to vilify someone like me, I ain't flown the coop. This will always be my home."