Drawing graffiti artists in from the cold

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Mary Hampshire reports on a course that is attracting urban vandals back to education

TRAINING adviser Lee McMillan understands the buzz that graffiti vandals get from "tagging" urban landscapes. He once spent a night on railway tracks with Leeds' most prolific vandal "Insa".

"When they mark places, they call it 'bombing'," says Mr McMillan, a freelance graffiti artist who tutors on a new educational arts project in the Yorkshire city and has been trying to recruit the spray-paint vandals on to the course.

"They get an adrenaline rush from constantly looking over their shoulder while writing their name in bubble letters," he said. "It didn't interest me. I love graffiti art but not when it ruins other people's property."

The course, CANVAS (community arts network vocational access scheme) was launched for unemployed 14 to 19-year-olds by YMCA Training in October. A roll on, roll off, course, it has attracted 17 students, who must be unqualified graffiti artists and cartoonists.

Students attend for a minimum of 15 hours a week. Many are from inner-city Leeds. They include a couple of youths who have blighted underpasses, a handful who have been excluded from school and have joined CANVAS from other projects. But most students are aspiring graffiti or cartoon artists who balk at "bombing" and err on the right side of the law.

At CANVAS, they learn drawing techniques, such as creating perspective, and how to work to a brief, for example, creating a flyer for a nightclub, using the latest graphics software. Extra tuition in basic numeracy and literacy is available if they need it.

The workshop is lined with pictures of bold cartoon-style creatures and people, all with exaggerated features. "With graffiti art, there's lots of enlarged proportions and warped characteristics.

"It's also enmeshed with hip hop music," says Mr McMillan, whose artwork for the group Nightmares On Wax's CD cover featured in the film High Fidelity.

"One 14-year-old lad, who has been excluded, is keen. He comes in during wht would have been his school holidays. He's not afraid to experiment with different materials like pastels as well as felt pens.

"At first he was copying pictures but I'm trying to encourage him to use his imagination and generate his own ideas."

CANVAS is a springboard for further education. Two students have gone onto an national vocational qualification in graphic design. Others are building a portfolio to gain entry into college full-time.

Stefan Vaughan, 17, hopes to go to college to study graphic design but has been unemployed since leaving school. "I heard about this course through a friend. I come in two-and-a-half days a week, sometimes a bit less," he says. "I enjoy the atmosphere. It's more relaxed than school where I felt bored and restless."

Sethi Robinson, 15, was pulled out of school by his parents. He is returning to sit his GCSEs, but he will continue to attend CANVAS. "I like it here," he says, fidgeting with his mobile. "I get more attention. The others don't mess about as much as kids do at school.

"My mum's really good at drawing. I like her stuff and want to go to art college part-time. If I wasn't here I'd be doing nothing."

Staff help set up work-placements and are involving students in community-based art such as murals and brochures for community centres and youth clubs.

Martin Donoghue, 19, seems to have found his niche and is planning to enrol on a multi-media course next year. He already has a vocational qualification in design and a diploma in illustration.

He is using Canvas to build a portfolio and get some freelance commissions. "I'm enjoying the freedom to be experimental which I didn't have at school or college," he said.

He is already showing promise. He was commissioned to produce graffiti-style characters, logos and catch phrases, for a Leeds shop, where he works part-time, selling wrestling merchandise.

"It's a very unusual shop. As I love watching wrestling, it was easy to come up with ideas. It felt good to produce something original."

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