Thirty years ago, the NYPD cared more about bullets than bombing, so graffiti artists were able to participate in a renaissance that delighted the public while infuriating the city and the MTA. The since-adopted broken window theory of policing has made tagging a serious offense, but one former graffiti artist wants kids who are caught to channel their efforts into a type of art that's legal. Rafael Perez, AKA TATU, the leader of the legendary XMEN crew, has started Paint Straight, a 10-week program for recently-arrested taggers in Brooklyn.
"When I look at [the arrested kids] I'm looking at myself 20 years ago," Perez tells the Daily News. "And one day you're going to need a job. I love graffiti, but now I love it legally." Sergeant Herb Mai of the NYPD's Vandals Squad tells the offenders, "We're not art critics. Some of it, if it's on the canvas, is gorgeous. You have talent. It's an amazing talent. Use it the right way."
David Villorante, another esteemed graffiti artist, teaches the kids in the program "ways to get corporate America" to sponsor their talent, designing "murals, t-shirts, maybe working as tattoo artists," or even designing the label on a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Since the program began in 2010, only one of the 33 teenagers who have participated in Paint Straight has been arrested for vandalism. One 18-year-old in the program says, "I'm kind of happy I got arrested. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here anymore." And if corporate America doesn't come calling, they could always start their own summer camp.