One early morning late last month, as dark was turning to light, a man on a walk on Siesta Public Beach saw something strange in the surf. • At first he thought it might be a stranded, injured sea creature, but as he got closer he could see this was not that. There on its back on the wide strip of white sand was a giant, smiling Lego man. • Jeff Hindman, an architect, took a picture, pulled the 8-foot, 100-pound figure out of the water and stood it up. • The letters on his back said EGO LEONARD. • And the letters on his front?
The many Siesta Key walkers and joggers stopped. A crowd gathered. They took more pictures. They posed with him. A little girl gave him a hug, using every inch of her arms, the tips of her tiny fingers clinging to the angular sides of his Lego legs.
People wondered what it meant. Google searches for Ego Leonard led to egoleonard.nl, a website in the Netherlands, which didn't identify Ego Leonard with any specificity but did offer a message apparently from the Lego man.
"I would like to introduce myself," it begins. "My name is Ego Leonard. . . . I am here to discover and learn about your world and thoughts." He asked for new friends to take him fun places and to show him beautiful things.
This wasn't a first. Similar Lego men, "with the same grammatical mangling," reported the Sarasota newspaper, were found on beaches in the Netherlands in 2007 and in England in 2008.
In Europe, people took the Lego man to music festivals, art festivals, parades and movie premieres.
Here, though, after the happy snapshots, he was loaded into the back of a white beach patrol pickup and taken to the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, where he was stowed in a room with other items filed as lost and found, like some misplaced wallet.
People from local tourism bureaus and chambers of commerce asked if they could use him as a whimsical prop at events. The Sheriff's Office considered it briefly, but ultimately decided he had to stay in "protective custody," according to state statute 705.103(2)(b).
The Sheriff's Office issued two separate statements on the Lego man. They referred to him as "Mr. Leonard." There was a mug shot. If the Sheriff's Office was having fun with this, it didn't show. "Right now," a spokesman said, "he's found property."
At the end of a state-mandated 90-day waiting period, during which time "a determination will be made as to who has the best legal claim to it," according to one of the sheriff's statements, the man who found him would be able to pick him up.
"I'll put it on eBay," Hindman said.
News coverage of the Lego man appeared in papers from Vermont to Montana to California and on the evening news and in Time magazine. Was Ego Leonard the real name of a real artist? The reports said it wasn't immediately clear.
The Lego man wanted to learn about our world, and he did: Cops get called, stuff is for selling, and we clamor for simple explanations even when simple explanations are not enough.
A local arts blogger took a forensic approach.
Who did this?
Tim Jaeger, the founder and editor of Sarasota Visual Art, did some Internet sleuthing and wrote a post titled "Origin of Ego, the Artist behind the Lego Man."
He pointed out that the registered user of egoleonard.nl was an L. Keer, and that one of the artists scheduled to be at the Sarasota Chalk Festival downtown the first week of November was a Leon Keer, and that Leon Keer was friends on Facebook with Ego Leonard and with the woman in charge of the chalk festival, and that his painting set for a slot on South Pineapple Avenue was of an ancient Chinese terra-cotta army depicted as . . . Lego men.
"It's all but confirmed," Jaeger said. He called Keer a "guerrilla artist."
The Sarasota paper relayed Jaeger's findings and dismissed the Lego man as a publicity stunt.
"A giant Lego man washing ashore to sell something . . ."
At the chalk festival, in the $20 program, Keer's four-page biography said he was 41 and that he had done street art all over Europe, and in America, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. His work, the bio said, makes viewers consider "the diseased spirit of our times . . ."
Keer was over on South Pineapple working on his painting. He is slender and has blond hair and short stubble. His face was slightly sunburned.
Ego Leonard? The Lego man?
He said he had been in the States for two weeks. He had been up to St. Petersburg to visit the Dalí Museum, which he liked very much, and he had been to the Siesta Key beach, too, but not to drop off the Lego man. "It's not me," he said with a smirk.
And the painting? Of the Legos?
It was to raise awareness, he said, for poor Ego, all locked up by the Sarasota sheriff. Free Ego, the work was called.
Keer said people look too much at facts. Eight feet. One hundred pounds. Legal claim. They look at an object, and what they see is an object. He said they should look a little harder.
He also suggested sending Ego an email.
It went out that night:
Greetings. I am interested in learning more about you and your message. NO REAL THAN YOU ARE. What does it mean? Thank you.
The response from the Lego man came a few hours later:
You can find meaning in the text by asking yourself: Is your presence in this life as real as I am in yours?
The next day, as Keer continued to work on his chalk army of Lego men, he said his street art doesn't last, two or three weeks tops, depending on the weather and the traffic. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have meaning, he said.
He started the painting on a Tuesday, the day the festival opened, and people asked him about the Lego man and what, if anything, he had to do with it, and still on Wednesday, and still on Thursday, and still on Friday.
Off to the side of the painting, though, was a big white square on the ground with a rainbow-colored pattern that surrounded the yellow head of a Lego man. There were instructions: On a smartphone, download the app called Junaio, search Ego Leonard and scan the image.
People did this. They pointed their phones at the pattern. On their screens, standing there, almost in the form of a hologram, was Ego Leonard, the Lego man. And there was that message written on his front, as if attempting to redirect the community's conversation, just begging to be considered more deeply.
You are . . . what? Up to you. The lesson of Ego Leonard is how you respond. Legal, literal, mercantile, dismissive, playful. You choose.
A shrill woman walked up and had to ask.
"Are you the Lego man?"
Keer stood up, in the middle of his work, his creation of vivid pigments of burnt umber, yellow ochre and titanium white, surrounded by Lego men wearing helmets and armor, holding axes and spears, marching forward.
He smiled at the woman.
"Do I look like a Lego man?"
News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report, which used information from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.