San Leandro tries new approach to curb graffiti

SAN LEANDRO (KTVU) -- Bay Area cities and companies spend millions of dollars every year to remove graffiti from buildings and signs across the region. In many instances, however, the graffiti returns.

San Leandro officials are trying a new approach by reaching out to those who deface property and getting them to work for the city.

Xavier Houston, 17, is one of those who took on the challenge of learning more about art than what comes out of a spray can on a concrete wall. He's graduating from Lincoln High School and admits he admired some of the "taggers" he knows.

"I was very inspired when my friends were doing things like that because it's amazing to see what they were doing," he told KTVU.

Maryssela Kidd said she's guilty of having done some tagging of her own inside her school bathroom. Still, she thinks so-called graffiti artists get a bad rap.

"Everybody's telling them what they are. 'Oh, you're a delinquent' or 'You can't do this'" Kidd said. "The rest of your life is going to be like that. That's not the case."

Kidd and Xavier are now taking their graffiti talents in a new direction thanks to the help of Andrew Johnstone from Big Picture Art in Oakland.

"These kids are groping with self identity, rebellion," Johnstone said. "And if you don't give it a positive path it tends to take a negative one and that unfortunately seems to express itself as graffiti."

Both aspiring artists are working in an Oakland warehouse on a project that's going to be stamped "legit" and shown off to residents and visitors alike in downtown San Leandro.

"We noticed a lot of blank walls in downtown and just a lack of color so we wanted to add some interest," says Angel Sweet of the San Leandro Improvement Association.

A giant mural created by the teens will be the focal point of a new exhibit on East 14th Street and West Juana Avenue. It will be unveiled June 22 during "Truth Thursday" at the San Leandro Tech Campus near the BART station.

Johnstone, an art instructor, said turning taggers into legitimate artists not only helps youth find potential careers, but helps keep neighborhoods free of graffiti.

"We're literally trying to paint over a problem and we're not dealing with the problem," he said.

San Leandro's Angel Sweet says the city's blank walls won't be the targets of unwanted tagging.

"We liked that he was teaching children fine art skills and instead of defacing property that they would be learning more skills and making it more beautiful."

Kidd gestures to a large painting of a girl blowing a kiss and says under the tutelage of Johnstone she quickly learned her skills as an artist have limits, but she's busting through those limitations.

"I'm gonna be honest with you I didn't know how to do this. At all," she said. " I didn't know how to paint somebody and then I come here last week. There's a person on this thing now! There's a person and I'm just so happy. It's beautiful."

The young ex-taggers are finding a new way to release their passion in a way that has unlimited potential. Xavier is now looking at a pastime he did for entertainment as a potential money maker.

"It's a way for me to learn that it's fun but how you can put it in a structured manner to where you can even build a career off it."

By KTVU anchor/reporter Ken Wayne.