SAN ANTONIO, Texas (AP) The teenagers gathered last summer in the large concrete spillway that's the main water depository for the 19th Street Dam.
It's a favorite spot of graffiti taggers. Some of those taggers were among the group. Police had arrested four of them for spray painting there in March 2010.
But this time, the teens held paintbrushes, not aerosol cans, as part of the city's latest effort to curb tagging and illegal graffiti.
AP Photo - - Jose Cosme works on his mural at the 19th Street Dam by Elmendorf Lake in San Antonio as part of a city summer arts program, Art in Action, in August 2010.
The program, called Art in Action, brought together about 20 aspiring young artists mostly boys, and two girls from high schools across the city.
Starting last June, they met at Our Lady of the Lake University for art classes three times a week. They took gallery tours and made silk-screen prints.
They also painted six murals on the spillway walls. The pieces, each 9 by 16 feet, depict Chicano history, San Antonio, the environment and the river.
In the larger sense, the murals, and the program, reflect a more proactive approach to graffiti prevention, said Lisa McKenzie, head of the city's graffiti abatement department.
From January through early June 2010, police were called to 814 cases of graffiti, which yielded 160 arrests not including graffiti incidents classified as criminal mischief.
Art in Action
City Council District 5, where the 19th Street Dam is, had the second-highest number of cases and arrests. Normally, young offenders are forced to paint over the graffiti. In this situation, "they also made a contribution," McKenzie said.
But the long-term goal of this program to show the teens they can make art without defacing public property was perhaps the more difficult one to impart.
Jacob Martinez, 16, followed in the footsteps of an uncle, perfecting his tagging technique and drawing abilities in black sketchbooks whose pages pop with pictures, designs and colors.
Joaquin Arias, 16, started tagging phone poles, bus stops and bus windows with markers before graduating to spray paint in the eighth grade.
Eventually, he learned to stretch his $20 weekly allowance into a few markers, a couple of aerosol cans and some food.
"It's kind of addicting," said Arias. "One day, you start tagging with a marker, and you wanna keep doing that."
It's difficult to put a cap on graffiti, a longstanding part of the urban landscape, said Jane Madrigal, an artist and muralist, who led the Art in Action program.
Once, Madrigal forced some of the boys to repaint a spillway wall around the corner from the murals because the students tagged it while goofing off.
But these aren't just rowdy teenagers, she said. They are, quite simply, bored.
"The reality is, most of them have nothing to do," Madrigal said.
Of the program, Martinez said: "It's pretty fun. Everyone here is cool. I'd rather be here than home."