With a headband around his neck, a black dolly, and the appropriate paperwork, last Friday afternoon, the artist Brian Whiteley walked into the NYPD Queens Property Office hoping to retrieve a piece of evidence: his 465-pound Legacy Stone, better known as the Donald Trump tombstone. The Property Office’s governing sergeant immediately asked, “What kind of vehicle you got right now?”
“Nothing,” Whiteley responded.
“A box truck is going to be the only way we’re able to get it to you,” the sergeant continued. “I need a box truck, a basic U-Haul to load it off my dock.” (To avoid being wrapped up in the story, the officials involved in this story asked to remain anonymous.)
Whiteley had moved the headstone only once before, around 3 a.m. earlier this year on Easter Sunday. Disguised as a delivery person who might be going to Tavern on the Green, he unloaded it from a van, wheeled it through Central Park, unwrapped it, and placed it in Sheep Meadow. “I figured a hand truck would work,” Whiteley said as he left the office. “I figured because I was able to push it to the center of Central Park I could do that here.”
Only a few hours after Whiteley unveiled the tombstone, which reads “Trump / Donald J. / 1946 – / Made America Hate Again,” park officials confiscated the work and turned it over to the police. Whiteley wasn’t sure of the tombstone’s fate or when he would see it again. “I’ve spent, like, an hour in total with the thing,” he explained. Two weeks ago, however, with the pro bono legal help of Ronald Kuby (the same attorney who negotiated the release of Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider’s Edward Snowden bust, which was installed in a Brooklyn park last year), the investigation of Whiteley’s piece of evidence was closed and Legacy Stone was cleared for pickup. Now, all the 33-year-old needed was an appropriate vehicle.
The parking lot of a rental company less than a block away from the property office housed more than 50 box trucks. Whiteley entered the shop and when he began telling employees what exactly he was hoping to move to a nearby storage place, the director of fleet maintenance broke out in laughter. “There’s a Donald Trump bumper sticker on my car, you know that, right?” he said. Outside, a white Toyota Corolla did, in fact, have a “Trump / Make American Great Again!” sticker, but as Whiteley explained, the tombstone is more than just an anti-Trump piece of artwork. He wants the stone to serve as a wakeup call for Trump, to encourage the businessman to consider his legacy. Whiteley did not have a year carved into the stone, to emphasize that there is still time for the candidate to change his ways, and Easter Sunday—being a holiday of resurrection—seemed like an opportune moment to emphasize that point.
“Do you remember the chocolate Jesus about nine years ago?” the director asked. “An artist did a chocolate Jesus, made a whole big whoopla around Easter.” The responsible artist, Cosimo Cavallaro, stored his fragile statue within one of the company’s refrigerated trucks, and employees helped conceal it from the media. Despite political differences, Whiteley and the director soon reached an agreement: Whiteley would pay the company $100 and one of its drivers would transport his Trump tombstone.
Whiteley, who earned his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, conceived the idea for Legacy Stone in June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy. He originally wanted to build a wall around Trump Towers with a Checkpoint Charlie-type entryway, but the scale of that project did not seem feasible. After a mural by the street artist Hanksy of Donald Trump as a pile of feces went viral (Dump Trump, it is called, naturally), Whiteley thought, “This all feels very surface level, and what this guy [Trump] is doing feels like an inborn American terrorist, in a way—trying to turn all of our progress into 1950s white privilege society again.” He wanted to create a more profound statement, and thus, the tombstone was born.
Whiteley has a longstanding fascination with death and graveyards—one previous performance piece involved him wearing a clown suit and haunting Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery—but Legacy Stone is Whiteley’s first explicitly political endeavor. Growing up in a small town north of Syracuse, New York, Whiteley’s father was a right wing, “Fox News kind of Republican,” although the family always tried to put politics aside. When Legacy Stone went on view, his father was more scared for his son than offended, particularly when two NYPD officers and a Secret Service agent arrived, unannounced, at Whiteley’s home in South Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and two young sons. Though he was never charged with a crime, the officers asked Whiteley if he owned a gun, if he attended presidential rallies, and about the books he read—topics typically discussed with potential assassins. “I was being interrogated, looking at the clock because I had to pick my son up [from school], and my in-laws were in town,” he recalled. “It was just like, ‘Welcome to my life.’ ”
The tombstone, which took more than five months and $2,500 to manufacture, led to two related projects: “Trump / Palin Rally,” a series with artist Rebecca Goyette in which the pair dress up as the titular politicians for exaggerated performances, and Trump Supporter Costumes, three extreme adaptations of Ku Klux Klan cloaks. While both of these projects are ongoing, and Whiteley is also in the midst of planning the second edition of his Satellite Art Show in Miami, Legacy Stone remains his main focal point. In September, the tombstone will be displayed alongside eight new, slightly different editions at Christopher Stout Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Back in Queens, when the truck driver arrived at the property office and a police officer brought the stone into view, Whiteley’s eyes grew wide and a smile spread across his face. “My baby is back! Look at that! It got banged up a little bit, but it’s back, baby,” he said. The sergeant continued to speak, explaining that regardless of his political views, he enjoys dealing with items such as the tombstone because it provides relief from the horrific evidence found at serious crime scenes. “This is entertaining to me,” he said. “I want to deal with this stuff, not the cooler that had a baby in it.”
Whiteley mused about transporting the tombstone a few more blocks, to MoMA PS1’s courtyard, but ultimately decided “the next move should actually be approved.” It was driven to a nearby storage facility, where both employees and other storage unit renters engaged with the solid piece of Vermont granite. “I know you did it as a gag, obviously it’s a gag, but in this day and age, nobody has a sense of humor,” one employee said, before asking, “Can I take a picture with it? It’s going right on my Facebook and then the Secret Service is gonna be knocking on my door.” A man sitting in the corner, waiting for his wife, chimed in, “The way I see it is we’re screwed either way. Different person, same outfit.”
“I don’t know,” Whiteley said. “Some of the stuff this guy says is morally unacceptable. I don’t want my kids hearing that.”
Once the tombstone made its way into an elevator, down a hallway, and into a three-by-five-foot unit, Whiteley pulled down the door and attached a padlock. “If Trump becomes President, God forbid, there will be a wealth of things to speak out about,” he said, but “ideally that doesn’t happen and I can retire this as a one-time political protest piece.”