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Read the Writing on the Wall: Turning Taggers Into Artists

A sign-making program teaches discipline and gives students--some of them former vandals--the edge they need to make it in business.


Sign-painting instructor Doc Guthrie is on a rant. He stands at the front of a windowless classroom at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, his face a little pink, his glasses hanging from his neck, his voice by turns pleading and scolding.

Half a dozen students in big, loose jackets and tennis shoes sprawl in wooden chairs. Most are young men in their 20s. They suffer the tirade good-naturedly, with an air of having heard it all before. Guthrie rails; they do what they always do: They doodle.

"What," Guthrie demands, "is my No. 1 contention?" Silence--except the sound of pencils scratching. Guthrie waits. Cartoon figures and fancy letters take shape on notebooks. "That you don't listen," he finally booms. "That you never listen."

The scene springs from one of those strange cultural collisions that epitomize Los Angeles.

On one side is Guthrie, a master craftsman and self-described "white, fat, baldheaded guy" from Santa Monica, who for eight years has taught sign-making--an antique craft badly in need of new apprentices.

On the other side are Guthrie's students, former outlaw kids of the inner city--grown-up taggers and graffiti artists who once scrawled their names on freeway overpasses and cinder block walls. Some of them are the same kids whose exploits outraged civic leaders in the early 1990s--the same whose vandalism seemed a kind of reproach, a silent reminder to passing commuters that somewhere out there, in rough neighborhoods they may never have seen, scores of 14-year-old boys were growing up with time on their hands. These taggers "are in their early 20s now, and they realize they have to get jobs," said Guthrie.

Anthony Rico, who grew up in Watts, used to be a tagger "because I wanted people in school to know who I was." Alfredo Amar of South-Central used to leap on moving buses to scratch his tags on the back windows. Louie Robles of Huntington Park started tagging because it was better than gangbanging.

They are drawn to sign-making--the craft of creating custom signs for businesses--because it requires a talent for painting, a deft hand with letters and scripts, and a knack for designing for distance--things that come to them almost as naturally as breathing.

For Guthrie, 58, they are the apprentices of his dreams. "They have skills like you wouldn't believe," he said. The problem is, they are not always the easiest students to teach. "We don't listen," explained Rico cheerfully, dabbing a brush in some paint. "We show up late. And we don't follow directions."

Rico, 20, is a stocky youth with a wry sense of humor. He said he began tagging in 1992, when he was 12 and tagging was a fad across Los Angeles. "I guess it just engulfed me," he said. "The rebellion side of it and the expression side--just having . . . a voice."

As Rico's tags grew increasingly complicated, he alienated his tagger friends, who couldn't understand why he was lingering to fuss over his work. He said he soon left tagging for what he terms "sophisticated" graffiti, then progressed to murals, photography, and finally, sign-making.

As he talks, Rico's palm is balanced on a Mahl stick--an ancient artist's tool that keeps the hand steady and prevents the paint from smudging. Working freehand, he slowly drags the paintbrush down the side of a giant letter E to give it a long, razor-thin border. The line is dead-straight.

Rico is all concentration and control--a student who, whatever he might say, has obviously listened and followed directions. As he stands back to examine his work, his tone grows serious. Sign-painting "is a discipline," he said. "I've never liked discipline, but I realize you won't get anywhere in life unless you're disciplined."


Trade-Tech, on Washington Boulevard, serves a swatch of the city south and east of downtown, neighborhoods with double the county's poverty rate--and a good share of its graffiti.

The Sign Graphics program here attracts about 25 students at a time. It draws a wide range of students, including professional artists and, occasionally, a woman. But the typical students are young men like Rico, whose first experiences with lettering were as graffiti vandals. They are grown up now. Some are fathers. Most are badly in need of good jobs.

Such students tend to be highly talented at the craft, Guthrie said, and he sometimes attends gatherings of graffiti artists at Venice Beach to recruit them.

But usually, they come to the Sign Graphics on their own. The program, like all California public community-college programs, costs $11 per unit. Students earn trade certificates, or--if they are willing to take a complement of college general-education classes as well--a two-year associate's degree. The program has been around since 1924 and is one of only a handful in the country. Guthrie, who owned a sign business for years, is himself a graduate.

Often, the students who are drawn to it are those who love to draw but never liked school. Sometimes they have been in trouble with the law.

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