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What's the Inspiration in a Blank Wall?

May 03, 1997

JOSHUA PECHTHALT, Teacher, Los Angeles

I recently returned after a vacation and was startled to see that most of the murals my students had created on outside walls a few years back had been painted over. As I made my way around the Manual Arts High School campus, a student exclaimed, "When I came on campus before, those murals gave me hope and to cover them over with nothing makes no sense."

The murals were painted a few years ago as part of a class intended to direct students--taggers and graffiti artists in particular--in a positive way. Students worked with a professional mural painter and adult artists to paint murals that dealt with historical and social themes. One was even included in a book on Los Angeles murals. One of the artists was a special education student who had struggled in school and another was a young graffiti artist trying to compile a portfolio of his work so that he could apply to art school.

True, some of the murals had been tagged over. But I had expressed the opinion that they could be repaired and that their vitality livened up the campus. Unfortunately, no one apparently approached the school's art teachers, who could have enlisted talented art students to do the work. Instead, the administration chose to paint over the bright murals with the same dull institutional noncolor that covers the rest of the school.

The deed is symptomatic of a self-defeating perspective on young people that winds up encouraging the very behavior it seeks to discourage. While school and civic leaders are quick to decry the evils of tagging and youth crime, they provide few opportunities for young people, particularly from poor and working-class communities, to work or participate in recreational activities. Except for the handful of students on athletic teams, most students have nothing to do when the school day ends. It should come as no surprise that young people, with few jobs or after school programs to direct their energies constructively and in a society that blames individuals for their lack of advancement, sometimes express their anger and frustration in destructive ways like tagging.

Tagging is antisocial and reprehensible. But the irony is that by wiping out most of our murals, the current administration has left a blank canvas that challenges every tagger in the neighborhood to leave his mark. The administration will respond by sending in more painters in an endless cat-and-mouse routine that is replayed throughout the city. Rather than obliterating constructive, creative alternatives to tagging, we would all be better served by offering them the hand of a trained artist and a can of paint to help transform the communities in which we live.

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