Two of New York's finest caught sight of him as they cruised through the South Bronx one sunny afternoon last summer. He was in his early thirties with a wild Afro and oversize disco-style sunglasses, gripping a paintbrush dripping with white liquid.

James De La Vega had just finished painting a fish -- in mid-flight between bowl and water glass -- on a brick wall alongside an exit from the Major Deegan Expressway. It was an illicit act. The cops charged De La Vega with criminal mischief, possession of instruments of graffiti and making graffiti.

De La Vega did not really attempt to dispute the essential charge.

"I am an artist," he told the officers, according to his arrest papers. "This is what I do. I do this all over the city."

Now De La Vega faces a trial, set to begin Wednesday, and, if convicted, possible jail time. The legal woes of this artist, gallery owner and street philosopher have revived a long-standing debate in New York about where to draw the boundary between art and order.

Three decades ago, street art seemed a revolutionary statement. It was framed in hipster galleries, made famous by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and celebrated by writer Norman Mailer.

Then, as quickly, the city seemed to drown in disorder, and street art became a symbol of something darker. In the years to come -- particularly during the era of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- penalties were toughened, street art became street crime, and police cracked down.

Now New York is a safer, saner city, and the debate about street art is a pendulum swinging back again. Chic stores in SoHo recruit graffiti artists to lend an edgy feel to their buildings' walls. Working-class neighborhoods ask the artists to commemorate community heroes.

Just five months after the artist's arrest, a De La Vega graffiti bench fetched $2,500 at a Christie's auction. Hipsters and homeboys throughout the city began sporting "Free De La Vega" T-shirts as part of a campaign to rethink street art.

Jeffery Deitch owns an art gallery in SoHo and has followed the street art scene for 20 years. Although police have long carted off graffiti artists, he says, many New Yorkers nowadays hear about De La Vega's situation and think: "There's something absurd about it."

"There's a large constituency of people who wonder if this guy belongs in jail," Deitch said. They wonder if it makes sense to spend time and money prosecuting "a guy who does work people in his neighborhood really enjoy."

Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson takes a different view. "Our community has asked us to eliminate" graffiti, Johnson said in a statement. "We find it offensive that people come here and treat our walls as their canvas."

De La Vega is unrepentant. At his arraignment April 16, prosecutors offered him probation. But the artist insisted that authorities reword the alleged crime to read that he intended to make "graffiti art." They declined.

Later, at his Spanish Harlem gallery, squeezed between a community garden and a florist, De La Vega gazed out the glass door and waved at friends strolling by. To him, the sidewalks and walls construct a public theater with "chalkboards to teach" optimism and inspire curiosity and sometimes humor.

"People don't listen to each other anymore," said De La Vega, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. "We're all caught up in our own little world."

His world has revolved around Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. It's where he grew up, and it's where he lives. Artistic promise earned him a place at the prestigious York Preparatory School in Manhattan. Then, he was off to Cornell University to major in art.

When he returned to his beloved neighborhood in 1993, De La Vega found a streetscape mired in blight. His reaction was to plaster the abandoned, burnt-out buildings of Spanish Harlem with colorful murals of community heroes, including salsa legend Celia Cruz and musician Tito Puente. On one wall, he painted his interpretation of the Last Supper, replacing the apostles with skeletons representing poverty.

"If we wanted the neighborhood to look better, we had to do it ourselves," he said. "I started to paint on the walls without permission."

He also began putting chalk to pavement, drawing fish and curvy lines, birds and stick figures. Beside these images he wrote simple phrases, which he calls "little prayers."

Many of us will spend the Rest of our lives proving Ourselves worthy and Acceptable to others, he writes, for socialites on the Upper East Side.

Advertising executives, drug addicts, prostitutes and politicians striking out across Union Square come across this surreptitiously written message: The pressure of survival in the big city will make you lose sight of your dream . . . hang in there.

By and large, his Spanish Harlem community has celebrated De La Vega. Community groups and businesses have given him free rein on their walls, and the New York City Council passed a resolution honoring him in 2000.

Raymond Ferreira, 66, a retired New York City transit worker, huddled under an umbrella in front of the gallery and said De La Vega projects a positive image that is "el barrio."

"You need someone to show us, to expose us to others," said Ferreira, referring to the people in the neighborhood.

De La Vega has had several run-ins with the police. Once he was arrested for painting an unauthorized message -- become your dream -- on the wall of a supermarket two blocks from his gallery. Store owner Euripides Reynoso told police that he paid De La Vega $20 to paint it, hoping to spare the young man from jail. He was lying.

"A lie is not always bad," said the owner's son, Euripides Reynoso Jr. De La Vega "wasn't doing anything wrong, he was doing something nice."

But Lt. Steve Mona, commander of one of the New York Police Department's vandal units, said De La Vega is simply one of thousands of vandals roving the city defacing property.

"We don't say that's artistic so we're not going to go after that person," Mona said. "I'm not an art critic; I'm a cop. Where it begins and ends with me is permission."

From a stool inside the gallery, De La Vega said his goal is both simple and grand: to force New Yorkers to reconsider the world around them. "I'm bringing," he said, "a spiritual strength the city needs."

To illustrate his plight as an artist, De La Vega wears prison stripes as he sits in front of his street art on East 124th Street and Lexington Avenue. "If we wanted the neighborhood to look better, we had to do it ourselves," James De La Vega says. "I started to paint on the walls without permission."