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Graffiti art becomes a student’s ticket into college

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The smell of fresh spray paint lingered in the air outside the CSUN Art Galleries October 6, when MOSAIC (Mentoring to Overcome Struggles And Inspire Courage), a CSUN mentoring program, hosted an arts event aiming to display graffiti as art.The event, called “Old Skool 2 New Skool,” part of the Walls2Canvas project featured a number of artistic pieces by teens involved in the MOSAIC program.

MOSAIC, which pairs with community after-school programs like Positive Alternatives for Youth (PAY) in Panorama City, brings in youth that are typically involved in gangs, drugs, tagging, are failing at school, or come from homes where there is domestic violence.

CSUN students act as mentors in the program, and are enrolled in Sociology 496YA and YB “Community Gang Prevention,” a 3-unit course aimed at students seeking work-study credit and community involvement.

Students must first apply to the program and be interviewed before receiving the consent required to enroll in the class. When both 496 YA and YB are completed, the mentors in the program will have completed a total of 300 service-learning hours, as mandated by the federal grant which funds the program.

“We recruit students to work with the kids,” said Jennifer Roman, MOSAIC founder and director. The artists that CSUN students often work with are middle or high-school aged, and mentors work in teams until about 8:30 p.m., tutoring in various subjects, working on art, and simply talking.

“One of the primary tools we use to engage the kids is graffiti art,” Roman said. She said that the young artists, many of which are on probation for tagging, graffiti to create a new identity for themselves.

When taggers first start out, she says, the tags they write or spray on walls are known as “toys,” because they are simplistic and are not the final product of a given tagger’s identity, personality, or beliefs.

MOSAIC, by allowing the kids to put their work on canvas, clothing or “legal” walls, panels set aside at the event especially designated for tagging, allows the artists the opportunity to express themselves without getting in trouble with the law.

The larger canvases at the gallery were given to artists who showed a lot of improvement during their time in the program.

A lot of tagging has nothing to do with gangs, Roman said. That’s “an oversimplification by law enforcement and legislature,” she added. Many people don’t consider tagging “art” at all, though the MOSAIC project is supported by the CSUN Art Department faculty.

Roman hopes to bring the graffiti art into the digital age, introducing the artists to computers and advanced graphic design programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Many of them have never used such programs before, due to their backgrounds, Roman said.

“They just have the natural raw talent” for art and design, Roman continued, but she said that many taggers don’t realize that “just tagging is selfish.” MOSAIC aims to educate, and to use graffiti as a tool to engage the students; many of the younger students in the program got kicked out of other youth projects, with MOSAIC as their last hope.

A number of students had their art on canvas, clothing, and even on toy trucks and other objects, all hosted in CSUN’s Art Galleries until Thursday. Several of the pieces have already sold, though “it’s up to each youth to sell their art.” Some of them can’t part with it, Roman said.

Roman added that the art, regardless of what form it takes, is the story of a journey; a visual trip that reveals the mood of the artist, and allows them to express themselves and their personality.

The lead artist on the project, Manny Velazquez, is the Director of Youth at PAY, and has been a San Fernando Valley muralist himself for over 30 years. His is the “old skool” perspective half of the exhibition, while the student art is the “new skool” portion.

The Art Galleries included both mentor and mentee art, including that of “Knox,” a former mentee who is now a mentor. Whether or not the current young artists will become mentors remains to be seen.

“We’re just starting to see the youth graduate,” Roman said, adding that the MOSAIC program has only been at CSUN for a little over five years.

Francisco Carrazco, a mentee who has been with PAY about a year, said that his art, many pieces of which are displayed in the Art Galleries, were random, and not particularly planned.

He said he “uses art to express his emotions,” and maybe one day will become a mentor himself. The most exciting thing about the event? “It being up in a gallery,” Carrazco said. He does want to sell his art, though there were some pieces he couldn’t imagine parting with, including that of a a vivid green dragon with a red background.

In the future, he might take his artistic skills to a tattoo parlor.

Positive Alternatives for Youth works with “community partners to engage youth and encourage them to continue on to higher education,” Velazquez said.

The majority of the student artists in the program are younger male students, but there are some female artists as well. Velazquez said that he’s one of the few muralists that works with youth, and that he gets a lot out of working with them.

Velazquez said that MOSAIC and PAY work together to take the students’ art “from concept to development to creation. They have good ideas; it’s just putting those ideas on canvas.”

When asked why none of the canvases in the gallery had the typical cards beside them indicating the title of the piece or the artist name, Velazquez explained that it was because many of the artists are still “in tagging mode, so they still want to retain that mystique of being unidentified.”

This is a common occurence until the artists have established the identity that they want to project for themselves.

Next year, Velazquez hopes to include more non-traditional canvases for the youth’s non-traditional art, namely skateboards and snowboards.

The student projects aren’t limited to flat immovable surfaces, either.

In addition to the static displays on canvas or sanctioned concrete, one of MOSAIC and PAY’s projects is a small school bus that has been converted to run on vegetable oil, specifically soybean salad oil.

The vegetable oil starts out as waste that comes from a student’s parent’s restaurant, which is then filtered through a system to turn it into a usable form of fuel for the bus.

Lovecraft Bio-Fuels handled the conversion, while the bus itself was donated to the organizations by CM Concrete, a Moorpark-based demolition company.

The plans for the bus originally began in late 2006, and were finally realized in the summer of 2007, when the students first made use of the bus for a number of field trips. The idea of using a bio-fueled bus goes beyond the environment, Roman said.

Many of the student artists do care about the environment, but beyond that, it’s an issue of low income, because most of them, even if they had their own vehicle, can’t afford today’s steep gas prices. The kids take part in the process, collecting the leftover oil and putting it into the bus’s filtration system.

MOSAIC is funded by Learn and Serve America, and a federal grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service.

For additional photos, click on Photo Essay.

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