KINGSTON, N.Y. — The red goats of Kingston came from nowhere. One day there were new, clunky white planters in the stockade district and then, mysteriously, in October they became canvases for about 37 stenciled goats, red on white, like ghost goats from another world
And then the red goats went everywhere. Thanks in part to a Facebook page, the goats have become a favored form of graffiti art far from this Hudson Valley town — at the Marcy Avenue subway stop and the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, in Missouri, Michigan and Canada, at the Art Baselshow in Miami Beach.
It’s not entirely clear what the red goats mean. It’s not entirely clear they mean anything. But as an object lesson of how fast images can spread in the digital world and how quickly they can come to stand for many different things, even if they began as standing for nothing, consider the blank white planter, the red goat and a tattoo artist with not much to do on the streets of Kingston.
The goats, stenciled from public domain clip art, appeared from Oct. 24 to 26 on 11 planters installed in Kingston’s uptown area. The planters were part of a controversial redevelopment project in a city that for decades has been trying to reinvent itself, capitalizing on its history, architecture and funky allure to artists.
The most recent attempt has been a renovation to the stockade district, an eight-block area that was the site of the original Dutch settlement. The renovation, called the Pike Plan, included refurbishing dilapidated canopies and removing trees to add the planters.
Many business owners and residents were highly critical of the $1.8 million cost and what some considered a heavy-handed design, so when the red goats appeared on Wall and Front Streets, there were two main reactions. Some saw art. Others saw vandalism.
“I vote for the goats,” a person wrote on the Web site of the local paper, The Daily Freeman. The post addressed the town leaders: “Drop your control-freak attitude. Crowd-source it, have a competition, get people engaged.”
“This is not a problem, this is an opportunity,” it continued. “Seize it! Occupy Wall Street. With goats.”
But city officials were not amused. Some immediately focused on critics of the Pike Plan as the likely perpetrators, and the police investigation began there, too.
“I would invite the people who were against the Pike Plan to come out” and say “graffiti is wrong,” Alderman Thomas Hoffay said at the time. “This is mocking the community. It is mocking the people of the city of Kingston.” Later, he likened the goats to gang graffiti, saying, “Bloods, Crips, goats — it’s all the same.”
But Ed Butler, who runs a used-record store that was once an art gallery, said the police seemed oddly uninterested in the gang graffiti in the area, but were obsessed with the goats. Others said the big white planters were an open invitation. “When I first saw those planters my first thought was, ‘They might as well leave cans of paint with them,’ ” said Eric Francis Coppolino, a local artist, journalist and astrologer. “You knew what was going to happen.”
And when two suspects were arrested in November, they were not politically involved critics of the Pike Plan, but two young artists, Geddes Paulsen, 23, a tattoo artist, and Maggie Salesman, 26. Each was charged with third-degree criminal mischief, a felony, and making graffiti, a misdemeanor. The charges can bring up to four years’ prison time, though neither has been indicted and severe penalties seem unlikely.
Mr. Paulsen and Ms. Salesman declined to be interviewed, though people familiar with their thinking said the goal was strictly art, not political protest. But as the initial passions settled, many people became fond of the goats as image and metaphor — scruffy, independent, friendly, determined, one of the most humanlike creatures in the barnyard, with qualities many sheeplike humans might emulate.
Raudiel Sañudo, an artist from Bakersfield, Calif., who participated in a show at the Oo Gallery in Kingston, owned by Mr. Paulsen’s father, Kevin, made about 500 red goat stickers, which he sent to the gallery in Kingston. He said in an e-mail that to him the goats signified freedom. “Goats always climb no matter how hard the situation is to survive,” he said. “They are very adaptable, always in evolution.”
Monica Snell, a property manager in Wellington, Fla., said she downloaded the goat image from the Facebook page and, in a show of solidarity, stenciled it onto doors in her home.
“Every town has this nonsense going on,” she said. “The ruling class is a bunch of boneheads.”
Of course, in a town with so much graffiti that one local dentist, Thomas Cingel, spends his nights cleaning it up, many people are torn between affection for the goats and the fine line between vandalism and street art that cost $5,000 to clean up. So Diane Reeder, founder of a nonprofit soup kitchen, the Queens Gallery, said that whoever painted the goats committed vandalism that was “illegal and wrong.”
Still, she said, it was striking how the goats ended up saying something profound without trying to. “It brought so many people together,” she said. “These people were able to gather support for something illegal. Why not use that kind of energy to benefit our community, for things that are legal?”
That still might happen. The commission considering what to do with the planters and downtown art is to meet on Tuesday, two days before Mr. Paulsen and Ms. Salesman are scheduled to appear in court.
The goats have become so popular that there is talk of returning them to the planters or somewhere else in town. Shayne Gallo, the mayor of Kingston, who was elected in November, said that the goats had been good for Kingston’s image, and that he was open to seeing them make a comeback or to having other art replace them on the planters. He added that some punishment like community service would be appropriate for the artists.
The Kingston Times, a local weekly, wrote an editorial this week calling for Kingston to embrace its inner goat.
“The red goat is a great symbol — simple, striking, edgy, easy to remember and easier to associate with a sense of stubborn defiance,” it wrote. “People get paid a lot of money to come up with stuff like this, and here Kingston is getting it for free.”
Sari Botton contributed reporting.