By Ivan Mejia.
LOS ANGELES, CA.- (EFE).- John "Zender" Estrada, who 30 years ago painted graffiti on the streets of Los Angeles, today directs a school of urban art where youngsters not only develop their artistic talent but also stay out of trouble on the streets.
"I began an urban art program around 2002 with the intention of helping a community in Highland Park bring kids together and help them with their homework, help them with their daily lives and at the same time help them with something they find awesome, which is art," Estrada, 42, tells Efe.
He offers the Skillz 'N Action art classes outside Santana House, an East Los Angeles institution named for musician Carlos Santana that hosts activities of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center's violence-intervention program.
In the 1980s Estrada belonged to groups of Los Angeles graffiti painters, but after studying at Otis College of Art and Design, he became a muralist.
Now he's bringing that knowledge to a new generation that includes youths who in the past had problems with the authorities and many of whom today study art at community colleges..
"Art is like construction - if you learn to use a hammer there are a lot of things you can make; but if you learn to use a hammer, a saw and nails you can build some very important things," Estrada said.
"It's the same with art. If you only know how to use spray paint (the possibilities are limited), but we teach them to use markers, paint, canvas, murals, so the knowledge they have and the techniques they have are varied and can get them into college," he adds.
Erick Valentin, 14, was enrolled in Santana House after being arrested by the police for tagging buildings with graffiti.
"Since I heard about this program I've been practicing my handwriting and everything, to get to be a good artist and maybe I'll be able to design clothes or something like that," Valentin tells Efe.
"My mom says it's better that I'm here than on the streets getting caught (by he police), because that would be wasting my life."
Angie Castro, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, tells Efe that since January 2008, the authorities have arrested more than 400 taggers for vandalism..
These damages to property have cost the county $30 million.
"And today the costs of that kind of damage to the community have to be paid by parents," Castro says.
"That's why these programs are important, because they give young people a new direction in life," she says.
Alicia Rodriguez, mother of Carlos Jose, another of the 30 students at Skillz 'N Action, tells Efe that not all the kids in the program "have gone in for vandalism."
"I looked for somewhere they gave classes after seeing how my son painted the wastebaskets in the house," Rodriguez says.
"I saw that he had a talent for painting and with the help of the mentors he is learning more, and afterwards he'll be able to have a career in art," she says.. EFE