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SALT LAKE CITY — From shattered window to multicolored tags, vandalism associated with graffiti gives the art form a bad rap. That doesn't stop Chris Peterson from putting cans of aerosol spray into the hands of children as young as eight.
"We engage kids to take a more active role in caring for our neighborhoods," said Peterson, a YouthCity program director. "We encourage kids to engage in communities and make art in our neighborhoods.
"Building up skills, working together, letting their creativity come out, this is the stuff that's going to help them their whole life as engaged citizens," Peterson added. "Graffiti art engages them in a way that they don't even know they're working as a team."
From science to technology to art, Salt Lake offers plenty of programs
YouthCity offers after-school and summer programs at a half-dozen Salt Lake City venues like Fairmont Park, Tracy Aviary and the Sorenson Unity Center. The city-run program's mission is to build positive youth development through hands-on learning with volunteer mentors.
In the Glendale neighborhood, YouthCity has after-school science and technology sessions centered around the Jordan River ecosystem. For aspiring computer programmers, YouthCity has a corporate partnership to help run the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network. In January, YouthCity landed a two-year National Endowment of the Arts grant to help fund courses like the after-school graffiti program.
'I use spray, but I don't use it anywhere I'm not supposed to'
Back at the Sorenson Center, a dozen children ages 8 to 13 gather around Peterson and fellow graffiti artist Hector Maldonado, aka Huno. The children hoisted up, then taped, a five-foot stencil they made in class, a sort of cyborg-animal-creature.
Our methodology is about creating makers instead of consumers. That's the place where we focus our activities on. We do it with the idea these kids all have huge potential. Let's figure out ways to empower them.
–Chris Peterson, YouthCity program director
"You know the difference between graffiti art and tagging and vandalism, right?" Peterson said before handing out paint brushes and spray. "Don't tag stuff, vandalize stuff; it ruins stuff. I use spray, but I don't use it anywhere I'm not supposed to."
After the instructional pep talk, Peterson handed cans of aerosol spray out.
"OK, shake it up good," Peterson said to a spray-paint wielding child. "Hold it back a little bit. Not too far. There you go."
With the sound of cans rattling in the background, and electric sky blue paint hitting the wooden shed canvas Peterson said, "I hope my bosses are cool with us doing this" before busting into a laugh.
Nontraditional mediums draw children into the creative process
It's this free-flowing energy and camaraderie of artists in nontraditional medium that drew in Huno and encouraged him to pick up his first aerosol can.
"Everything they were painting was coming out really good, and I wanted to do the exact same thing, so I just decided to pick up a can one day," Huno said. "I was like, you know, let's try this."
YouthCity's leaders practice a hands-on learning style. Peterson and his colleagues believe getting children to use their hands in the creative and learning process is key.
"Our methodology is about creating makers instead of consumers," Peterson said. "That's the place where we focus our activities on. We do it with the idea these kids all have huge potential. Let's figure out ways to empower them."
'Don't worry how it looks, there's always a way to fix it'
YouthCity stresses the mentorship angle. As Peterson and a volunteer work with children painting, Hugo takes a refrigerator-sized piece of cardboard and a milk crate full of spray cans to another corner of the shed. A group of children follows behind, pied-piper style.
With a quiet, calming voice Huno doesn't instruct so much as chat with the children.
"Don't worry how it looks, there's always a way to fix it," Huno says to a child whose worried his spray technique isn't up to snuff.
After one child adds a skyscraper into the scene, another retraces the black paint brush lines in black spray paint. A third child adds depth as Huno guides him through a more nuanced spray style.
"So you can do that smokey effect, get a little farther away," Huno said. "Yeah, there you go; there you go."
Taking a step back, Peterson reflected on the different instruction styles.
"Kids are all at different places," Peterson said. "Some of the kids might have thought what I was doing was pretty cool. Then Huno came over and started teaching. You could tell what he was showing resonated differently with the kids."
Especially in the medium associated with criminal mischief and trespassing, partnering with upstanding graffiti artists to mentor children is vital to the program's success. Having worked with him on multiple legal graffiti projects, teaming up with Huno wasn't a hard decision for Peterson.
"We're working with the ones who are trying to do everything on the up and up and use their talents in a more creative meaningful way," he said.
Art, both Huno and Peterson said, helped the artist get his life back on track.
"He's sort of turned, and he's going great work," Peterson said of Huno. "He's got a job. He's contributing to his community. He's going back to school, and he's keeping up with his art."
Added Huno: "You can build and you can destroy with art, but art is always going to take you to really good places — if you have some common sense with what you're doing."
Contributing: Debbie Dujanovic