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URBAN ART : Politically Correct Spray Paint

October 25, 1992|Kathleen Moloney

Her mother was a muralist who studied with Diego Rivera, but Helen Samuels never had much interest in the artistic life until tragedy struck five years ago. "One of my daughter's classmates was shot and killed at a convenience store," says Samuels, 47. "He wasn't a gang member and neither was she. My daughter's friends really wanted to do a 'rest in peace' wall dedicated to the people who have died as a result of senseless violence."

So Samuels made a few calls, bought some spray paint and soon was overseeing the work of a dozen or so University High students as they created a memorial mural on the side of Lucy's restaurant at Pico and Union streets. Earth Crew was born. Since then, Samuels' team has grown to about 45 aerosol taggers and graffiti artists, including six of the original students.

"I spend 20 hours a week and half my income on the Earth Crew," says Samuels, a court interpreter. "My idea is to start an environmental revolution with the hip-hop generation. We take weekend retreats to state parks and other wilderness areas. It gives the crew a chance to get in touch with themselves and humanity."

But mostly they create political art, including nine murals in Mexico City barrios. Last October, Earth Crew members were flown to the city by the Mexican attorney general, who personally commissioned a mural. "Our theme was educate the child today so as not to punish the youth tomorrow," Samuels says.

Samuels even managed to get her hip-hoppers a place at the Earth Summit. She and Joseph Montalvo, an original crew member, went to Rio de Janeiro, where they enlisted eight street kids who worked with them for 36 hours painting the backdrop for the event's closing concert. Earth Crew's latest L. A. project, a mural on the Tokiwa Food building downtown, salutes native American peoples from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

"I tell my crew to be committed," she says. "They are. When I first met them, a lot of these guys weren't going to high school regularly. Now they're at Cal State thinking about the future very seriously. Kids are the most endangered species on the planet," Samuels adds. "If we make kids our priority, everything else will fall into place."

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