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One version of the story of South Los Angeles' Manual Arts High is that it's a failing school, a dropout factory. But, thanks to the 101-year-old school's innovative art department, another tale is swiftly emerging—a narrative that has students tapping into their creative energies and using street art to express their social and political voices. In the past three years, the campus has become home to museum quality work by dozens of street artists—everyone from international stars like Belgium's Roa, to locals like the Yo Collective, designers of this pyramid, to the students themselves. Art teacher Mark Ayala takes us on a visual journey.
The school's 3,400 students can't take art until their sophomore year. Because most have never had an art class before, Ayala says it’s a mistake to start them off with an analysis of traditional fine art. “They’re not going to get Monet’s “Haystacks” right off the bat, but you can take interesting street art and graffiti and create a bridge into fine art.” This outdoor piece by Los Angeles-based artist Kofie One challenges what graffiti is and verges into fine art territory because it’s not letter based. Kofie One did it specifically in the school colors and it has become a popular spot for students to take pictures.
The culture of graffiti tagging crews mirrors gang culture. But when world renowned artists come to the campus and work on murals and projects with each other, they provide a different example. "The kids get to see the unity and collaboration between the artists," says Ayala. "It provides them with a different model of what’s possible." Thirteen students collaborated with street artist Ewsoeism to create this mural about the housing crisis.
The process of creating the art at the school has erased the hierarchy between professional artists and students. When artists come to Manual Arts, they're eager to sign sketchbooks and share some of their techniques with the kids. The students also often get to work alongside the artists, creating a dialogue that's never existed at the school before.
Social studies teacher Patricia Hanson appreciates the way the murals' social messages have contributed to a more positive culture at the school. "Before there used to be tagging everywhere on the walls," she says, "but now there’s almost none." Ayala agrees that the reduction in gang affiliated slogans has meant less student conflict. "When kids see the tagging, they start flashing gang signs. But with the art, they respect the walls and each other."
Ayala, a working artist himself, is reluctant to share the names of all the artists who have done work at Manual Arts. He's been subpoenaed by law enforcement officials looking to identify (and prosecute) street artists. "What the artists do off campus, that's on them," he says. "But I let the students be aware of the risks involved in creating public art."
This stairwell is the heart of what Ayala calls the "political" spectrum of the school's collection. A suited pig with dripping bags of money might seem controversial, but, Ayala notes, modern students see over 300 advertisements a day—but they have no voice in the public space to express what is happening in the world.
This tree by the artist Rabi is the heart of the what Ayala calls the "spiritual" hallway. The iPod-style silhouettes at its base are by Ayala's partner teacher, John Latsko, who has taught at Manual Arts for 14 years. His multi-colored shadow figures in the stairwells were the first art to appear on the school's walls. But, as always, the building's eye-in-the-sky surveillance is watching students.
The museum quality art at Manual Arts is attracting attention from outsiders. Ayala and the rest of the art teachers are frequently asked to serve as docents for visitors eager to see the work of some of the more famous street artists and the students.
The art has caused some controversy with other teachers. "Anything done with aerosol is bastardized as not creative. Teachers often only want to see art that represents the school, like the school mascot painted on a wall. Students don’t always connect with that."
Pedro Chinchilla, 16, is a junior at Manual Arts. He’s worked on three small murals on campus but his true love is stencils. “I was home chilling but I hate video games and watching TV,” he says. “I need something to do, so I do the stencils.” He started off stenciling faces but has since expanded his repertoire. He's motivated to keep stenciling because the more he does it, “the more fame I get.”
Chinchilla says that since he started taking art, he's more motivated to get his grades up to A’s and B’s in his other classes. Even though Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston are both alumni of Manual Arts, some of his teachers, as well as his parents, don't encourage his artistic endeavors. They tell him he might not make it as an artist or earn much money. "I don’t care what I earn," he says. "If I live in a cardboard box, I want to do my art."
The vibrancy of the school's art is also popping up in the surrounding community. Street artists that used to only work in gentrified areas are increasingly creating murals throughout South-Central. "Just as if you put art in the school, it changes the climate of the school, the art is changing the community," says Ayala.
Art comes in all forms at the school but the teachers do set limits on depictions of violence and art with weapons. The goal is to create a positive, safe space that both questions the world and celebrates its beauty. Ayala also likes to see a variety of work integrated together: photos of the students, plus student art, plus the work of the street artists.
Promoting gender equality by getting teen girls involved in the male-dominated street art scene, and exposing the school's boys to talented female artists, is a top priority for Ayala and his colleagues. "It's important for them to see positive images of women," he says, like this blue girl by illustrator Loraine Villareal.
These sharks by the aptly named Shark Toof are wildly popular with students. Ayala says artists like Shark Toof—who has a book and sells his prints—also provide an entrepreneurial example for the kids.
The art teachers spend a considerable amount of time maintaining the artwork. Everyday during his conference period, Ayala paints out graffiti and picks up trash. "If you’re not willing to maintain the art, it will quickly disappear, he says.
Through watching the artists work, and creating their own art, the students get to experience a process over product framework, something that’s not always emphasized in our educational system. Ayala acknowledges that not having to worry about standardized test scores gives him a freedom his other colleagues don't have. But that doesn't mean real learning isn't taking place. On the day of our visit, students have a writing assignment they must complete in the style of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's biography.
Ayala grew up in the Los Angeles area but didn’t start teaching until he returned from living in Brooklyn. He first taught at an art academy in Pasadena. "The kids were wonderful there," he says, "but the greater need is here in the inner city with children of color.' Now in his fourth year at Manual Arts he knows this to be true: "Kids just want to be heard. They just want a voice, some way to express who they are and what’s going on in their lives. The art that they're doing here—it's really the last free speech."