Try to do something nice—and face a year in jail

Long-time Chicago rocker villainized for innocent graffiti.

August 18, 2014

Though he’s been living in a small town in Southwestern Michigan for the last few years, Darren Robbins is a familiar face in the Chicago music scene. The 48-year-old musician was the long-time leader of Time Bomb Symphony, a band that flirted with major-label success, and he still handles social media for Superior St. Rehearsal Studios, which means that a heck of a lot of local artists hear from him regularly.

Robbins also is a cancer survivor; the former owner of a successful T-shirt business who was profiled in The New York Times, and a popular street artist who, inspired by Shepard Fairey and using the name Lemmy Cornhole, does a booming business selling cornhole boards and T-shirts adorned with the face of Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. He admits he also on occasion decorates skate parks and other spaces—when he’s specifically invited by the property owners.

What Robbins is not is a reckless, property-trashing tagger, much less a menace to society. Yet the police in Dowagiac and the prosecutor in Cass County, Michigan are doing their best to demonize him as such, and they seem determined to punish him for “Malicious Destruction of a Building, less than $200,” which he was told at arraignment carries a maximum sentence of up to a year in jail and $2,000 in fines (penalties that are confirmed by a state website).

The trouble started on July 23 when Robbins, with the best of intentions, sprayed the message “I love you Jolene” on the side of a vacant building that happened to be on the route his friend had to take to the hospital to receive treatment for breast cancer. Here’s how he tells the story:

“I was not thinking of myself, but of the fear and loneliness that she must have been feeling in those early morning hours. As a longtime romantic at heart, I have long been a fan of grand gestures, and I couldn’t help ask myself, ‘What would Lloyd Dobler do?’ Dobler, of course, was the teenage protagonist in the film Say Anything...

“Whatever I was going to do, I knew it had to be big—something that there would be very little chance of missing as she drove by. A cheap can of spray paint would have done the trick, but that would have been permanent. Instead, I opted to spend 10 times what a can of spray paint cost and procured a few cans of marking chalk. I then spent a few days spraying the chalk on a multitude of surfaces to determine which was the most temporary and easiest to remove. Of the three brands I purchased, Krylon came off with a water hose, or a bucket of water and a brush. Worst-case scenario, the chalk disappears in the first rain storm, or fades altogether in a few weeks.

“Knowing my friend had to be at the hospital by 6 a.m., I left the message around 3 a.m. and promptly fell into bed around 4 a.m. with the intent of removing the message when I awoke. Of course, I never got the chance, because my slumber was interrupted by a visit from the police.”

Robbins has had many a sleepless night since his arrest contemplating the ramifications of what seems like over-zealous small-town justice. All that Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz will say on the record is that he cannot comment on ongoing prosecutions. But local law enforcement is doing their best to spin a very different story from the one Robbins tells.

Officials portray Robbins as a “stalker” whose message to Jolene was most unwelcome; they add that the woman barely knows him, and doesn’t even have cancer. They also say he’s “been tagging all over town,” and that the punishment they’re seeking is so stiff because he has a prior conviction in 2005 for tagging.

“I was able to get the guy from the TV station to tell me what they told him and, believe me, it took me aback,” Robbins says. “But it did make me see exactly how comfortable they are in feeding half-truths to the media to scare off any press scrutiny.”

In fact, Robbins says the 2005 conviction actually stems from a traffic accident in a neighboring town, and that Dowagiac officials “have credited me with every unsolved tag or act of vandalism in this town from the dawn of time in hopes of getting the big one”—the Jolene message and malicious destruction of a building—“to stick.”

As for Jolene, whose last name is being withheld in this report out of respect for her privacy, stalking is the last thing Robbins’ message brings to mind, and she is indeed battling cancer.

“All I know is that I love what Darren did for me,” she told me. “How can anyone see saying ‘I love you’ as a bad thing? I was in such a bad place—some days I still am—but when I think of seeing that message, I still get goose bumps. He is someone I love having in my corner.”

Meanwhile, Robbins is angry—and worried.

“I have come to realize that there is no end to the strong-armed idiocy displayed by prosecutors and law enforcement alike across the country,” he says. “I’m not a teenage gang-banger, but a 48-year-old business man, musician, and artist who never thought a simple message in chalk could send me to jail for a year."

Indeed, his crime, if it is one, seems more akin to what kids regularly do with chalk in the school yard. But this ain't child’s play: Robbins is due in court in Cassopolis, Michigan for a pre-trial conference on Sept. 22, with his jury trial scheduled to start at 9 a.m. the next morning.

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