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Leader Turns Graffiti Vandals into Artists

In the early 1980s the city of Philadelphia had a huge problem with graffiti. The mayor established the Anti-Graffiti Network, committed to combatting the vandalism, which morphed into the Mural Arts Program, led by the artist Jane Golden. Golden said, "I spent the first five years of my life in Philly being told that graffiti is never going away and the kids you're working with are going to end up in jail." But she didn't give up. When police caught kids painting graffiti, program officials first asked them to sign an amnesty statement, pledging to refrain from graffiti writing, then assigned them scrub time, cleaning spray paint from walls.

Then without warning one Friday night, about a dozen guys showed up at Golden's door. As they introduced themselves, she recognized most from their graffiti tag names, like "Rock" and "Cat." Golden invited them inside. "They came in and went right for my art books, pulling out all the books on abstract expressionism," she said.

Many of them had dropped out before high school, but they had learned about art from books they had checked out or stolen from the library. Most had brought Golden their sketch books, so she could see the type of work they were doing. "They'd learned about drawing from comic books; they had an intuitive sense of color and design," Golden said. After talking with the young artists about their work, Golden explained the anti-graffiti program, and before they left her house, all had agreed to sign the pledge and commit themselves to scrub time.

Golden connected with the young graffiti writers not as "criminals," but as artists. She offered them a lifeline, a way they could be paid money to paint murals legally. The organization is now the largest public art program in the U.S, with a collection of over 4,000 murals

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