The afternoon sun sears Louie Mesa as he stands on cracked pavement in a black ball cap, black T-shirt and dark jeans. The sweat on his brow doesn't seem to bother him. He's savoring his canvas.
The battered wall in front of him may be a hodgepodge of bright colors and scattered patterns from taggers past, but on this slate Mesa sees a dream.
He's been in this spot for hours, arriving at 9:30 a.m. after a restless night, painting from memory a piece of art that has been sketching itself out in his mind for days. He's illustrated his name with block letters and filled it in with silver paint and airy patterns.
Mesa said it was his third visit to the Graff Lab in the Pico-Union neighborhood, a weekend program that aims to transform street taggers into skilled artists. The Graff Lab offers space on walls that wrap around the office complex of the Pico Union Housing Corp. There is only one rule: No gangsters.
"It's not defacing property; it's an art form," said founder Ricardo Guerrero. "They can be whatever they want, but when they cross through those doors, they are an artist."
Mesa, a 32-year-old from San Gabriel, had been a tagger not for the art but for the thrill. He said he was enthralled by the rush that came from evading the law. He was caught tagging and had to give it up. As it turned out, he longed for a creative outlet.
"I didn't touch paint for two years, because I didn't want to get caught up in the streets again," Mesa said. "I [had] to leave that street stuff, and, in reality, I'm still doing what I love doing."
It was taggers like Mesa whom Guerrero had in mind when he launched the Graff Lab four years ago. By then, the Belmont Tunnel, a de facto safe place for graffiti, was no longer available. Art programs were being cut in schools. Potential artists, he said, had no legal place for "outward expression."
Guerrero, the social director for the Pico Union Housing Corp., persuaded his boss — who happens to be his sister — to give him a back wall at the agency's headquarters so he could start a small program for neighborhood residents.
The Graff Lab has grown into a group of a few dozen regulars ranging in age from teenagers to thirtysomethings. On a recent Saturday, some came from as far away as the San Gabriel Valley. They use nearly every paintable surface in the office complex. Guerrero said he would "like to build these artists, make a name for them."
Toward that end, he has brought in accountants to teach lab regulars how to handle finances and professional artists to help them transition into different media. Guerrero asks for small donations to help fund the classes.
Residents say the Graff Lab has improved the appearance of a community that is weary of gangs and the tags they leave behind. "It does make a difference for the neighborhood — there's not a lot of writing on the streets anymore," said Kendor Aguilar, a 33-year-old tattoo artist and shopkeeper who grew up in the area.
"You used to see graffiti all over, and now most of it is over there," Aguilar said, gesturing toward the Graff Lab.
Weekends at the lab are laid-back. The clank and hiss of spray cans is drowned out by Ice Cube blaring from a parked car.
Jony Tolentino, 31, of Los Angeles said he sees a future, if not a career, in art. He said he spends money on paint and supplies the way others do on booze and drugs. But this is a passion without bounds.
"The only way you're limited," he said, "is if you don't have enough spray cans to pump out your art."