Coloring a concrete jungle

In Los Angeles, it’s difficult to walk a block without seeing it. On city walls, across the sides of buses, on billboards stories above—from quick scrawls to painstakingly crafted murals, graffiti is all around.

But, while some can stop to admire the artistry behind these pieces, others are far less appreciative. The City of Los Angeles spends more the $7 million on graffiti abatement each year, treating the act as a transgression and the works as eyesores to be expunged from the streets.

Still, others seek to ensconce graffiti and offer havens for urban artists to apply their craft without the worry of running afoul of law enforcement and finding themselves in the back of a squad car to seeing their work defaced by abatement programs.

To that end, Off the Wall Graffiti offer the younger generations of street artist an open door, a caring community and blank canvases.

Founded by Maura McCarthy and Paul Nassar, the non-profit organization aims to take youths practicing graffiti out of the streets and give them a space to safely and constructively express themselves through art.

“There’s a myriad of reasons why a kid might pick up a spray can and decide to do graffiti. It could stem for anger, a desire to be seen or just the need to be creative. It’s more important for us to figure out what they can do with themselves after they pick up that can,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy and Nassar said that Off the Wall was created partly in response to the lack of attention given by society to the underlying issues that often play roles in the illegal and sometimes destructive behavior of young graffiti artists.

“We already know that when the general population hears the word ‘graffiti,’ they instantly think ‘bad,’ and they think that every kid who does graffiti is bad. But that’s so not true. They need to give it a second thought,” Nassar said. “When a cop rolls up on a teenager at 3 o’clock in the morning, they need to ask why he’s out so late and why his parents don’t care, not treat him like a criminal.”

McCarthy said young street artists often come from broken, unsupportive homes, and that there are few resources available to them.

“A lot of kids come from very stressful situations, and the school systems don’t really have a lot to offer them,” McCarthy said. “There’s not much counseling for kids who, for example, have had their parents deported and have to be raised by their older siblings, or who are sitting in class with empty stomachs. Graffiti offers them a sort of escape.”

However, according to McCarthy, the distraction offered by graffiti is often destructive. She said that young street artists often pursue their craft because of the thrill that comes with performing an illegal or possible dangerous act.

“There’s an adrenaline rush that they get when they’re in the street that teenaged minds need. They need to be risk-takers, so they equate that good feeling that comes with the rush of running from the police with something positive,” McCarthy said. “The sad thing is that this is one of the only mediums where that big risk follows them when they go out and practice. There’s always that risk of jail time or even death, so they kind of sell their souls for graffiti.”

She said that one of Off the Wall’s goals is to transfer the thrill that youths receive from the transgressive and dangerous aspects of graffiti to more constructive acts of painting. The organization offers space for young artists to create art in the company of others, and holds them to higher standards than what they might be used to.

“In the streets, nobody requires them to go beyond tagging their name on a billboard or overpass. We say, ‘Okay, try painting live in front of someone and risk being seen practicing.’ We tell them to watch their racing chest and see that it’s the same feeling of doing something illegal or dangerous.”

Nassar said that even something as simple as having customers who buy their work can serve as an incredible thrill to young artists coming off the streets.

“So many of the kids that we have coming through here and painting for an audience end up seeing that the feeling of selling their first print or canvas is the same feeling they get when they throw a piece up on a wall and think, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe I got away with that,’” Nassar said. “We want them to look at themselves and realize that they’re actually good at what they do. They don’t have to put themselves in a dangerous position to get what they want out of art.”

In addition to offering young artist a safe, constructive environment to create their art, Off the Wall also seeks to teach the significance of art in the modern day.

The organization works in close cooperation with continuation schools to offer after school programs and curriculums that part the value of art to students.

“One of the things some of these kids struggle with is completing projects. So we’ve created this curriculum called M2ART, which acts as an after school program where they can go through lessons on subjects like fine art and art history,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the M2ART curriculum also teaches artists how to compose a small sketch and challenges them to transform their concepts into larger pieces using spray or bucket paints within a certain time limit.

According to McCarthy, the curriculum is also being implemented as an approved high school class that brings the concepts of fine art and design to students and satisfies a required fine art credit.

Destiny Griesgraber, a Los Angeles Pierce College student and artist who has participated in Off the Wall, said she first became aware of the organization the Reseda Rising Artwork in 2017. She said that she was live painting at a booth near to where Off the Wall had setup, and attracted the organization’s attention with her work.

“I caught Maura’s eye, and we had a sort of powwow there on the sidewalk for a good hour or two. She told me about what Off the Wall had to offer, and it just seemed like an amazing resource both for myself and the art community,” Griesgraber said. “It’s turning out these artists into the world to better their community, and it’s doing it in a smart, efficient way.

Griesgraber said that chiefest among the amenities offered to artists by Off the Wall is space and equipment to create

In LA, you’re usually allocated to a tiny apartment. You don’t have a lot of room available, and it costs money to rent a studio. At Off the Wall, you have all these tools and land to make use of,” Griesgraber said. “Because of all that, I’ve made some art that I needed to make that I know, for sure, I could not have without this place.”

Griesgraber said Off the Wall has imparted to her professional skills as well, such as portfolio building and resume writing.

Brenda Young, an instructor at John R. Wooden High School, said Off the Wall’s efforts have resulted in increased student attendance and collaboration.

“Because of Off the Wall’s programs, students are sometimes thrown together in the process of creating art. I’ve seen students working together that probably wouldn’t otherwise,” Young said.

Young said the projects presented to students by Off the Wall offer opportunities for growth that may have been made unavailable to them by normal school systems.

“Some students are very creative, and the traditional school setting may not have nurtured that because of how it is set up,” Young said. “Off the Wall gives these students the chance to express themselves, gain a sense of self-importance and evolve their skills by teaching them how to come up with a concept and transfer that idea into something tangible.”

“McCarthy said that, regardless of how society chooses to view graffiti—as a transgression or otherwise—the art form is here to stay.

“There needs to be an acknowledgement that this is a medium that isn’t leaving. People have tried to abate it and cover it and slap it down, but it’s not going anywhere,” McCarthy said. “What we’re doing is a megaphone cry to shift the thinking around graffiti as an art form, It’ll probably never leave the streets, but it’s still something to be embraced.