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Wednesday, September 19,2012

The Geoph Espen Files

A deeper look at the man who tagged the Capitol

by Sam Inglot

A young artist defaces the Capitol and a state war memorial in retaliation after authorities prevent him from illegally holding an art show in an abandoned building. He gets caught and faces up to five years in jail. He says he will plead guilty. If you think this young man has already received enough publicity, then read no further. If, however, you are curious who this Lansing native is and how he came to commit a crime that received attention across the state, then read on.

Identity: formed and renamed

The 20-year-old’s real name is Jeffrey Scott Handley Jr., but he identifies himself by a pseudonym: Geoph Aldora Espen. 

“When I was 15 I started flirting with the idea to change my name,” he said. “In a lot of ways it was a chance to have my own identity — one separate from (his father, Jeffrey Scott Handley). Also just the merit of a name being too important to just casually let your parents choose for you.”

After researching different names, Handley said he liked the way the new name rolled off his tongue and found it “quite befitting” of his character. 

According to Handley, he found — online — “Geoff” to mean “God’s peace,” “Aldora” to mean “winged gift” and “Espen” means “bear of God” or achieving something “larger than life.” 

Handley was born in Lansing on Dec. 30, 1991, and attended the Lansing School District until he was in seventh grade. His parents divorced when he was in middle school. He moved and went to school in Eaton Rapids, where his mother lives, until 10th grade and moved back to Lansing to finish high school at Eastern.

Jeff’s mother, Heather Handley, spoke of the “ups and downs” of her son’s childhood — particularly the relationship with his father, which may suggest Handley’s search for a separate identity. Some have made claims on the Internet that son Handley has been charged with domestic violence, but he has no prior criminal history. However, his father’s criminal record turns up one domestic violence conviction in 2001. Handley said he no longer speaks to his father.

“They don’t tend to see eye to eye — he’s not a creative person in the way Jeff is. Even I don’t understand him a lot of times,” she said. “But I can love him even though I don’t understand him.”

Growing up alongside Handley was his uncle on his mother’s side, 26-year-old Dave Strickland. Strickland said through middle school, Handley was a talented wrestler and has always been “very physically gifted.” Handley says he enjoys long distance running and maintains extreme discipline with his physical fitness. 

After high school he did what may not be expected — but perhaps true to Handley’s form — of a young artist: he joined the Marines. 

“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do after high school, so I just enlisted. They didn’t quite live up to the commercials, though,” he said. “I got out shortly after I graduated boot camp” on an administrative discharge. 

Strickland said Handley couldn’t take the rank-in-file culture of the Marine Corps. He believes Handley felt like the Marines “stripped him of his individuality,” which made him feel more like “property” than a person. 

Turning away from the machine-like culture of the Marine Corps, Handley pursued his true passion: art. He enrolled at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids but dropped out about a month later. He moved back to Lansing to be a bassist in the punk band Charlatan, but was kicked out over “creative differences.” 

Since returning to Lansing he has worked three jobs: one in retail, one at an art supply store and one as a shot boy at Spiral (which he wrote about for City Pulse). He didn’t hold any of those jobs for very long; he was fired from the latter two. 

In what could be called a fun attempt at showbiz, Handley and two friends concocted a “fake gay love triangle” and pitched the scenario in December to “The Jerry Springer Show.” It wasn’t long after that when Handley and his friends traveled to Connecticut to appear on the show that same month. (The segment is on YouTube.) Handley identifies as bisexual.

“I’m biologically driven towards women, but I have such a love for mankind in general that I certainly love the male figure,” he said. 

For the past year, Handley has been living off the profits of his art. He does commissioned work and sells pieces from several exhibitions he has around town. His paintings are on display in State of the Art Tattoos, Ruby’s Paradise Salon and Mac’s Bar. 

Impulses

Handley has been obsessed with art “ever since he could hold a pencil,” Strickland, his uncle, said. 

“When I paint, it’s a series of impulses. I’ve developed a lot of self-trust where I have the freedom to act on those impulses,” Handley said. “Having the strength to act, and act confidently, and act passionately and act sometimes sporadically and impulsively is relatively necessary to being able to consistently put out great work.”

Those “impulses” have landed Handley in serious legal trouble. He’s been charged with a felony and two misdemeanors for his suspected spray painted graffiti of stick figures on two pillars on the Capitol building and for a phrase which was emblazoned on a nearby war memorial that read: “give art a chance.” Handley said he committed the crime and plans on pleading guilty to the charges. 

The felony can carry a sentence of up to five years in jail. His court-appointed attorney, Denise Hairston, said he waived the right to a preliminary trial and the case will go to circuit court. A court date has yet to be set, she said. 

Strickland believes Handley did it to vent his frustration after authorities blocked an art exhibition that Handley planned to hold illegally in an abandoned building on the old School for the Blind campus. Handley said some “resentment” over the event played a part in his actions, suggesting his impulsivity may have taken care of the rest. Handley said he has more underground art events planned and wants to one day make a living off them. 

And there was a social message behind his poorly drawn graffiti. Handley said the stick figures — one male and one female — represented “gender equality” in a time when heated public discourse on the subject finds itself in the middle of election season. 

“I think my mind was more on the realm of the most absolute public place possible,” he said. “Those pillars were definitely enticing.”

He didn’t even realize his other target was a war memorial, he said he just saw a “big empty space.” 

Facing reality

Handley and his friends and family realize the serious repercussions he faces because of the Capitol graffiti. 

“It’s a game-changer as far as life goes,” Handley said. 

Micole Dibble, 19, has been friends with Handley since high school. She said Handley “doesn’t follow society in a regular way” and “doesn’t take life as seriously” as other people living in the mainstream. But she says that he’s harmless and doesn’t deserve to be locked-up for a non-violent crime. 

“It would be ridiculous for him to go to prison,” she said. “Prison is no place for a crazy artist.”

Handley has no prior criminal record. Handley said he was “shocked” at the amount of attention his actions received across the state — from TV stations in Detroit to Grand Rapids — and thinks the act was blown somewhat out of proportion. 

“Nobody was injured or hurt, nobody’s life is drastically changed,” he said. “Well, except mine.”

Handley said he doesn’t regret the messages behind the graffiti, but admitted it was a mistake. The night his apartment was searched by the police, Handley wrote four goodbye notes to his mom, uncle, a girl he’s been seeing and his roommate, which are still nailed to his kitchen wall. He was ready to skip town on a bus to Las Vegas, but turned back to face his reality.

“Since it isn’t my property I was very much in the wrong,” he said. ”I’m confident in my decision to stick it out and take responsibility for my actions. I intend to make the most of it, whatever goes down.”

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