Legal Grafitti? This Wall Painting Helps Keep Kids Out of Jail

Prominent muralist Emanuel Martinez visits Juvenile Hall to teach youth not to paint themselves into a corner


The incarcerated youth at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall are hard at work painting two new murals in the courtyard and cafeteria of the facility on Graham Hill Road.

Titled “Seek New Visions” and “Embrace Higher Learning,” the murals are the latest installment of Emanuel Martinez, who has designed and coordinated nearly two-dozen mural projects at juvenile detention centers all across the nation over the last year as part of the Art for Kids Emanuel Foundation.

Martinez designed the two murals so that 80% of the work is done by the youth.

“A lot of these kids have never really been given the opportunity to do something like this, that is going to be a positive, a tangible and lasting element that is going to be here for future kids,” said Martinez. “A lot of these kids have been criminalized for so long, they just accept the fact that that is who they are going to be.”

Martinez, 65,  said he first realized the power of art to change the course of young peoples' lives when he was involved in his first mural project while incarcerated at age 13.

After rough teenage years spent in and out of various high schools and juvenile facilities, Martinez took a leap of faith and dropped out of college to hitchhike to Mexico City, where he studied with the prominent muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Later, Martinez was active in the civil rights movement, and worked with Cesar Chavez and as a guard to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martinez believes that the process of painting murals can be as influential to other troubled youth as it was for him.

“The whole idea of this whole project is to help kids get to make better choices in their lives, and not come back here,” he said.

By helping kids avoid re-incarceration, art inside youth jails also benefit society as a whole, Martinez said.

“That can't but help the outside community, because a lot of these kids are repeat offenders, and they end up coming back, or in an adult prison,” said Martinez.

“We have documented data now from all the other facilities we have done that shows it improves their behavior, and also their academics. It's given them a lot of self- esteem and confidence to engage them in this project for a couple of weeks.”

The murals will continue to be an inspiration long after they are painted, said Martinez.

“It's not a temporary thing, like some motivational speaker coming on graduation day and he is gonna speak to a few kids and then go on his way,” said Martinez. “The murals speak to them everyday.”

To begin the murals, Martinez outlined the contours of the mural on the walls, using the cinder blocks as a grid for scale, and over the following week the youth have worked in two daily shifts painting the walls from floor to ceiling in crisp and vibrant colors.

“It's going good, very busy. I like that,” said one youth as he painted a green North America onto the cafeteria wall. “It's very therapeutic, you know? Painting helps me cope, it keeps me occupied.”

And just as Martinez had predicted, painting the mural had this youth thinking about his future.

“I don't know what I wanna be when I grow up, but I know drawing is gonna have something to do with it,” he said, and returned to lend a verdant green hue to the Northeastern seaboard.

The youth of Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall were also in the spotlight at the 2012 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, when the orchestra performed composer David Wineglass's piece 'Someone Else's Child,' which was inspired by and incorporated the poetry of the incarcerated youth written through the poetry program called The Beat Within.

To learn more about The Arts for Kids Emanuel Foundation, visit their website.  

Jonny Rotting October 24, 2012 at 03:12 AM
its the usual profiling that goes on here
Jill Wolfson October 24, 2012 at 03:13 PM
Thanks for such a well-written story on an interesting subject. Great photos. One small correction: the composer of the Cabrillo Festival piece is John Wineglass and the work was commissioned by David Kaun.
David Housings October 24, 2012 at 03:38 PM
Although some street renderings are artistic, most grafitti is not art but gang-related messages, scrawled on walls not theirs to deface, and have meaning, not in the artistic sense, but within the thug mentality. What was painted at the juvenile facility is art, not grafitti, and meant to be art. Some, or all, of it may have been done by the same grafitti writing gang members as deface buildings, windows and cars with spray paint, but it is certainly not in the same genre.
Watzon McWats October 24, 2012 at 07:04 PM
Most of our local graffiti is actually carried out by non gang related taggers (the bulk of whom have a strong dislike for gangs and gang graffiti). For most (especially the non artistic types), there's no motive behind their work other than to get their name up in as many places as possible. Excluding stencils, wheat pastes, etc, there are three basic types of traditional paint and pen graffiti, tags, throw ups, and pieces. Tags are just a simple scrawling out of someone's pen name, throw ups look like a partially finished piece carried out by a four year old, and pieces are the artistic kinda stuff that you'll see on the wall at Bills Wheels or under the HWY 1 Pajaro River Bridge (if you've ever ridden or walked the levee trail). In the interest of not getting caught, what you typically see around town are tags and throw ups - which to the lay person looks about the same as gang graffiti. There are actually amazing pieces all over the Monterey Bay Area though, they're just not visible from the street. You'll have to take a peek under remote bridges or pier through the windows at abandoned factories to see them. They take hours - sometimes days, multiple people, and hundreds of dollars worth of paint to complete, so they tend to be well hidden. Just sorta trying to give you some perspective as to what you're seeing on the street. Those scribbles inside the bathroom at El Frijolito, as ugly and expensive to clean up as they may be, are probably %90 non gang related.
Watzon McWats October 24, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Best way to fight crummy graffiti though in my opinion is to have someone put up some nice artwork, whether of a traditional or more urban style. Gang bangers don't care, but MOST taggers will not paint over nice work. So, more murals and public art please! :-D


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