CULTURE & ARTS
01/14/2016 01:07 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2016

How A New Jersey-Born Cop Learned To Embrace His Artistic Side

This is the fascinating story of Charles Sabba and his double life.
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"I was saying I was gonna do art and be an artist since I was a little baby," Charles Sabba explained to The Huffington Post. But, as Sabba is the first to admit, fate has a sense of humor. Somewhere along the way, Sabba wound up becoming a cop.

Still, a certain compulsive creativity never left his side. The same creative spark that was with him in elementary school, when the students were instructed to draw the school principal. Sabba was the only kid to pull through with a true-to-life portrait, faithfully rendering the polka dots on the principal's tie. "Everyone thought it was cool that I noticed the polka dots when the other kids were drawing stick figures," Sabba said. 

Sabba was raised in New Jersey -- as his accent makes abundantly and gloriously clear -- about 17 miles outside the Holland Tunnel. His proximity to all that was going on in New York art-wise made him feel like a kid pressed up against the window of an invite-only party, able to vaguely make out all the fun going on without him.

He did, however, occasionally make trips into the city to have some fun with street art. "In the '80s we'd go out, dressed in black, spray painting on the streets," Sabba said. While the Chelsea art circuit was fairly inaccessible to a Jersey teen from a blue collar family like Sabba's, the streets of Brooklyn and the East Village were pulsing with possibilities. "The thought of a young kid who just made work, like a gift to the world, with no intention of selling it -- it was mind blowing. Everyone has an opinion about kids who are doing really good art on the street. It’s illegal in some people’s eyes, but it’s a masterpiece for others."

And just like that, a strange and paradoxical relationship to creativity and crime was born. 

Diptych of Sacco and Vanzetti

After graduating high school, Sabba joined the U.S. Navy. "I just bounced like a stone in the water," he said of the decision. The military presented an immense opportunity for the self-described small town boy. "When you get out and see the world, it changes you." Sabba travelled to Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Turkey, sketchpad in tow. "I would sit on the ship and watch. I’d look out and watch the waves come up and if the ship turned a certain way, I could touch the water. I felt like I was in Ulysses."

When he finished his service, Sabba emerged confused, yearning to devote his life to art but pressured to settle down and make some money. To make matters more pressing, he was in love and eager to get married. "I said, 'I got to get a job now,'" Sabba recalled. "The guy at the unemployment office recommended a job in the prison system." Sabba started in federal corrections and later switched to state. "You can't imagine," he continued. "Even if you’re not an inmate, you’re still in prison 16 hours a day."

Sabba worked nights and often wound up passing the time drawing the inmates faces through the cell bars. "They didn't come out looking too criminal," Sabba said. "There is a humanizing effect when you’re drawing a face." He also talked to the inmates, a lot. Big gangsters and mafia informants and some art thieves as well. "I got a real fascination for art theft and art thieves."

Following his stint in corrections, Sabba became a police officer. He studied forensic drawing, hoping to incorporate artistry into his daily regimen, but rarely had the opportunity to flex his creative muscles. For a while he worked closely with an art theft investigator for the NYPD, documenting the characters in the twisted plots that so engrossed him. "I ran around intentionally meeting smugglers and art thieves and forgers," Sabba said. "I always tried to draw it. It was nice to be a neutral party. They knew I was law enforcement, but I wasn’t after anything other than documenting them. To me they are interesting characters in the back alleys of the art world."

Actaeon series

Given his personal penchant for creativity of all kinds, Sabba was often conflicted over the illegal acts committed in the name of art. "Artists don’t have to be so disciplined," he said. "What’s illegal in the normal world doesn’t necessarily apply to creators. They look at it different." 

Sabba mentioned a sculptor who'd steal metal from a construction site to make his sculptures. Does the sculpting aspect somehow mitigate the crime, make it better than if he were selling the scraps? Sabba doesn't have an answer. "I’m a man stuck in two worlds!" he said. "It matters if I’m at work or at home."

When first working as a patrolman, Sabba had trouble keeping his artistic instinct from bungling his career. In a truly beguiling move to his coworkers, he adorned his handcuffs with gold and rhinestones. "They'd say, 'We gotta do something about this new kid. He thinks he’s Picasso,'" Sabba mused. 

By the time he was promoted to lieutenant, Sabba knew what he had to do. He resolved to live two contradictory lives, operating as a by-the-books cop one day, bohemian artist the next. "As a cop, I have to put on a spit and polished personal surface and take on the trappings of the grey, disciplined, boring, regimented para-military existence," Sabba writes in his artist statement. "A false surface that would cover up my colorful, imaginative, free artistic true nature."

Sabba now works for four days, then paints for four days, allotting equal time to each. 

Actaeon series

As a relative outsider himself, Sabba is sometimes sympathetic to art criminals who felt similarly exiled from the world they so hungered for. He mentioned Myles Connor, a notorious art thief believed to be ­involved in the 1990 robbery of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum -- the largest art theft in history. 

"Connor said he was brought to a museum as a kid and they made him feel like they didn't belong there," Sabba said. "He was very intelligent and had good taste. With the robberies, he claims he was taking revenge against some of the museum staff who treated him like some poor kid. The one or two small museums that were nice to him, he didn’t steal anything from them."

One of Connor's most confounding accomplishments was facilitating the theft of a Rembrandt from behind bars, then using his knowledge of the heist as a bargaining chip. Despite himself, Sabba is clearly impressed. "This is conceptual art at its best -- those intricate spiderwebs of deceit and thievery. It's something Maurizio Cattelan would do."

In 2010, Sabba payed homage to Connor and his conspirators in an epic six-by-eight-foot oil painting depicting all the players involved in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery. He's since shifted mediums, taking up the ink and cards used for fingerprinting to create his works. "It’s a hard medium, not very forgiving," he said. "If you smudge the wrong way it’s finished."

Michael Stewart

Sabba most recently embarked on a series inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. He's depicting, in fingerprint ink, eight black civilians unlawfully killed by policemen, and eight black police officers killed by criminals. He started the series with a rendering of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who was beaten to death by police offers after he was caught painting on the L train.

A collection of Sabba's work will go on view next week at the Outsider Art Fair, presented by Y Gallery. Carlos García Montero Protzel, the director and curator of Y Gallery, has known Charles personally for quite a while, both as the kind and serious cop and the bold, boundary-pushing artist. When he's in his artistic state of mind, "he is a total different person," Protzel said. Sabba even has a mythical alter ego, Acteon, referencing a hunter in Greek Mythology. 

Protzel deeply admires Sabba as both a cop and an artist. Regarding the former, Protzel commented on how Sabba recently participated in a panel about mass incarceration; he was the only cop there. In a time when the current methods of police officers are under intense scrutiny, Sabba shows a resounding attention to and respect for doing the important job right. The same can be said for his feelings toward art. "He is an old school artist," Protzel said. "He needs to produce art. He has a psychological need." 

And, over time, Sabba has come to embrace his double life. "For a long time I always felt like I was betraying who I really was," Sabba said. "People would introduce me as a cop, and I'd say, 'I’m an artist, I create art.' I don’t think I'm betraying my true self anymore. If you are creating art, you are a creator. Creative force is so much greater than destructive force. I have a different world to go to where people are happy, more creative."

Sabba's work will be on view at the Y Gallery booth at the Outsider Art Fair, from Jan. 21-24, 2016, at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.

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  • Alfred Jarry shooting Ubu Roi in his sausage.
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  • Actaeon series
  • Actaeon series
  • Actaeon series
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Outsider Art Fair 2016
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