Beautifying, not Tagging: Local Youth Learn to Express Themselves

two young men painting a graffiti muralGraffiti-related vandalism remains a concern for many California cities. Abatement is a drain on local resources, and often the messages spread through graffiti are negative—in many cases gang related, marking territories and threatening community members. In the City of East Palo Alto, the police department has partnered with a local arts organization to implement the Graffiti Arts Project (GAP)—a youth prevention and intervention program teaching graffiti as an art form in an effort to reduce graffiti-related crimes in the City, and to provide at-risk youth positive alternatives to gangs and illegal activities. GAP was funded by the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program (OJJDP) and provides youth with the skills and incentives to use their artistic talents to generate sanctioned graffiti art for their community.

In California, more than 100,000 youth are under the jurisdiction of California’s juvenile justice system.1 Although little is known about what may be the most effective ways to work with young people who offend,2 programs like GAP, designed by the Mural Music & Arts Project (, are successful because graffiti art appeals to youth and is a medium through which young people express themselves.3

GAP’s curricular focus is artistic skill development, property restoration, and helping youth to utilize their artistic talents for positive expression instead of defacing their community and schools. This project-based learning model includes a thematic teaching curriculum exploring the origin of graffiti and how youth can express themselves with it without disrespecting the art, disrespecting others, or breaking the law. East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald L. Davis claims, “The Graffiti Arts Project (GAP) works with youth who express their views through destructive graffiti, and provides them a safe venue to transform their graffiti into positive art that beautifies the community and instills in them a sense of community pride and ownership. A youth that is a stakeholder in the community is less likely to engage in activities to destroy that community.” 

instructor helping his student with a drawingDelinquency and substance abuse remain high among youth of color, and the multiracial adolescents that make up the city of East Palo Alto are at an elevated risk to engage in negative, risk-taking activities.4 Deterrence and incapacitation theories are not as effective for youth crime-reduction as previously considered during earlier decades,5 so new initiatives, like GAP, aimed at prevention and remediation, are taking center stage. Programs that are successful are community-based organizations engaging the at-risk population with youth-centered, youth-driven, community-focused, appealing activities.6 Community organizations that are centered in the visual arts are especially effective in engaging young people who are challenged by high risk factors such as drugs, violence, and unstable economic support. Arts programs provide an opportunity for youth to develop important cooperation and teamwork skills.7 Arts education has been recognized in its ability to improve test scores and core curricular achievement in school, as well as boost self-esteem.8 These are all important assets for youth in the East Palo Alto community where GAP is run.

East Palo Alto is hoping to reduce graffiti crimes and provide alternatives to delinquency through this engaging and dynamic art program, rather than incarcerating our youth and entering them into the criminal justice system. It is understood that preventing delinquency can prevent the onset of adult criminal careers. Community programs like GAP hope to divert first time offenders from further encounters with the juvenile justice system—ultimately saving lives, and money, by reducing the burden of crime on its victims and society.9 Dan Nava, a GAP participant who came to the program on probation for graffiti vandalism, explained, “I can express myself without getting into trouble in GAP. Even the police like the art I create in GAP, and encourage me to improve and show my style on the walls and sketch books they give us.” With the help of proven and promising community-based interventions like GAP, youth can be steered back on track. GAP is determined to target youth during the documented “window of opportunity”—generally after their first offense—to successfully intervene with young offenders and their families.10 As a part of GAP, the Mural, Music & Arts Project works in conjunction with the police department, probation, and the local school district to identify and serve these youth.

image of children and police officer standing in front of muralThroughout each GAP twelve-week program session, youth have the opportunity to interact with police officers to discuss art, vandalism, and other complex community issues. It is essential for law enforcement to be viewed by the community youth as on the side of remediation, not as an obstacle to their success. Working together in this program has enabled such a spirit to thrive. A substantial body of literature published this decade clearly indicates that juvenile programs can reduce crime. Many delinquent youths who have benefitted from intervention are likely to mature out of their antisocial tendencies, and effective programs help these youth develop skills to avoid antisocial behavior.11 Innovative programs like GAP, which includes active participation from law enforcement officials, enable youth to view officers in a positive light, making the youth more likely to work within the system in the future.

image of Graffiti artist and officer standing beside graffiti muralWhile crime has dramatically decreased since 1992 when East Palo Alto was declared the murder capital of the United States (per capita), the community is still challenged by drug use, high levels of violence, and educational inequity, while also providing limited enrichment activities and employment opportunities. Together, these circumstances create an extremely challenging environment for young people to develop positively and flourish. Transitioning into adolescence in this kind of environment dramatically increases the likelihood that a child will engage in criminal and antisocial behavior, or drug and alcohol use, or will disengage with or fail in school. The youth that GAP serves are repeatedly exposed to gangs, drugs, and violence, and need a positive venue to explore their creativity amongst peers and mentors. At least 70 percent of all recruited GAP participants have a recorded history of property vandalism, school detention, suspension, truancy, or negative behavior with school or local authorities. Many youth are involved in the program to serve community service hours, or they are on probation. GAP is important for these youth because they are on the precipice of increasingly bad decisions and need remediation. Studies show that students involved in the arts display more tolerant behavior toward different racial groups, and perform better academically than students with similar profiles who are not involved in the arts.12

GAP teaches the art of graffiti, while constantly explaining that without asking permission first, creating a “tag,” “throw-up,” or “piece,” is vandalism; it’s a crime, and actually disrespects the art form. According to Jessie Whitehead, “Graffiti can be a springboard for the examination of personal identity, commercial design, social history and community conflict.”13 Working with local law enforcement to create works of art featuring graffiti is an excellent way to showcase to youth that adults are listening, are interested, and want to be a part of this dialogue for social change. The rules the youth are learning in GAP include consistent mandates to respect someone else’s property, and the need to always ask permission before creating graffiti art.

To date, GAP has run four programs, serving 86 youth, and created six pieces of public graffiti artwork. Each artwork reveals a positive message—including hope, faith, leadership, and choices. Two of these graffiti murals are installed at a local police facility, and others are sprinkled across the community at schools and community centers.

Sanctioned, public art, featuring positive graffiti messages created by youth with the support of local law enforcement can be an important way to overcome graffiti-related vandalism in your community, too!

image of students standing in front of mural that says "Graffiti is Power"

–Sonya Clark-Herrera
Executive Director
Mural Music & Arts Project

In collaboration with:
–Olatunde Sobomehin
Deputy Director
Mural Music & Arts Project

–Jeanette Hong
Graffiti Art Project Intern
Mural Music & Arts Project



1 Hennigan, Karen, and Kathy Kolnick. Juvenile Justice Data Project: A Partnership to Improve State and Local Outcomes: Summary Report Phase I: Survey of Interventions and Programs. University of Southern California; Center for Research on Crime. 2007:1.

2 Sampson, Alice. “Working in the Community with Young People Who Offend.” Journal of Youth Studies 12 (2) (April 2009): 121–137.

3 Jorgensen, Normann. “Urban Wall Languaging.” International Journal of Multilingualism 5 (3) (August 2008): 237–252.

4 Jackson, Kelly. “The Influence of Race and Ethnicity on Substance Use and Negative Activity Involvement among Monoracial and Multiracial Adolescents of the Southwest.” Journal of Drug Education 39 (2) (2009): 195–210.

5 Stahlkopf, Christina, Mike Males, Daniel Macallair. “Testing Incapacitation Theory: Youth Crime and Incarceration in California.” Crime & Delinquency 56 (2) (April 2008): 253–268.

6 McLaughlin, Milbrey W. “Community Counts: How Youth Organizations Matter for Youth Development.” Educational Leadership 58 (7) (April 2001): 14–18.

7 Wright, Robin. “Effect of a Structured Arts Program on the Psychosocial Functioning of Youth From Low-Income Communities: Findings From a Canadian Longitudinal Study.” The Journal of Early Adolescence 26 (2) (2006): 186–205.

8 Phillips, Frances. “Evaluating Arts Education.” GIA Newsletter 8 (2) (Fall 2007).

9 Greenwood, Peter. “Prevention and Intervention Programs for Juvenile Offenders.” The Future of Children 18 (2) (Fall 2008): 185–210.

10 “On the Right Track to Safer Communities: Steering California’s Juvenile Offenders Away from Lives of Crime.” A report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. California; 2007.

11 Scott, Elizabeth, and Laurence Steinberg. “Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime.” The Future of Children 18 (2) (Fall 2008): 15–33

12 Catterall, James. “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts On Learning.” The Arts Education Partnership & The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 1999.

13 Whitehead, Jessie, “Graffiti: The Use of the Familiar,” Art Education 57 (6) (November 2004): 25-32.


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