LONG BEACH — Jamal Hodges likes painting on walls.
Ever since he was a child he has thought the world needed brightening. So Hodges, 17, spent much of his early youth "bombing" the bare public spaces of his neighborhood with paint. Like that of other graffiti artists, his work was often short-lived.
Today the young man is still painting on walls--except that now he gets paid for it. And with any luck, he believes, his images will be around for some time.
"I'm using my art talent to make this a better place," Hodges said of the wall on the city's West Side that he is now "bombing" regularly.
The Lakewood High School student is one of 19 youths employed by the city this summer. The goal is to discourage unwanted graffiti by covering scrawl-prone walls with artistic murals likely to dissuade would-be vandals with cans of spray paint.
The anti-graffiti program has been so effective, officials say, that the city is being deluged by requests from nearby homeowners, businesses and churches for murals of their own.
"I'd like to do this full time," said Susan Sirl, one of two adult art instructors paid to oversee the program. Because of the positive community response, she said, she may continue working with the group of youthful artists--which calls itself the "Mural Posse"--even after city funding expires on Aug. 28.
"It's been wonderful," she said. "It makes the kids feel appreciated and improves their self-confidence."
The program began in February when the city hired Keith Williams, a recent art graduate of California State University, Long Beach, to design and paint a mural along a 150-yard stretch of fence directly across the street from Stephens Junior High School on Santa Fe Avenue at 28th Street.
"We were spending several hundred dollars a month cleaning the graffiti off that particular wall," said Dennis Thys, the city's neighborhood development project manager. "Because it's across from the school, the gangs were using it as a bulletin board. Every week we would clean it up, and the graffiti would go right back up."
Armed with a design depicting a park scene, Williams began painting in earnest three days a week. And almost immediately he began attracting as many as 30 youthful volunteers each Saturday. "They could identify with it," he said of his helpers. "They liked seeing art in the community."
Earlier this month, the city used federal youth employment funds to hire 19 of the young artists--as well as Sirl, who during the regular school year teaches art at Stephens--to spend their summer augmenting what Williams had begun. The youths, most of whom are economically disadvantaged minority students ages 15 to 20, are paid $3.35 an hour for 26 hours a week.
Fifth Summer of Program
This is the fifth summer Long Beach has employed students to beautify its vistas, according to Dixie Swift, the city's cultural programs supervisor. But it is the first time the youngsters--not all of whom are former graffiti artists like Hodges--have been specifically charged with curbing graffiti.
Williams, who is in charge of half the students, is now overseeing the painting of a self-service laundry wall farther south on Santa Fe Avenue on the city's West Side. Sirl's team is covering about 130 yards of block wall south of Stephens in the 2700 block of Santa Fe Avenue with colorful replicas of fabric designs depicting the myriad of cultures--including Latino, Cambodian, African and Pacific Islander--represented by the area's residents.
Graffiti Attacks Wane
Opinions vary as to why the graffiti attacks that once plagued these walls have almost entirely ceased since the artwork began.
Sirl believes it is because neighborhood residents, both young and old, identify with the murals and thus respect them. Thys also gives credit to a two-month-old police effort to deter graffiti artists. And Hodges attributes it simply to the fact that most graffiti artists he knows prefer to work on clean canvases.
"What's the use of painting (a wall) if it's already been painted?" he said. "(Graffiti) wouldn't blend with this. They'll just leave it alone, or go out into an alley."
Whatever the reason, residents say they like the results.
"It's good," said Zeny Madrigal, who has lived in the area for seven years. Like other homeowners whose property abuts the fence the youngsters are painting, Madrigal signed a consent form permitting the work to proceed. "It will preserve the value of our homes," she said of the mural-in-progress. "People who (drive by here) and see graffiti think the place is low-living (and are) afraid to live around here."
A number of passers-by, in fact, have approached the city to request that the students paint murals on other walls.