'Graffiti Apprentices' in Washington DC Help Create Street Murals to Combat Illegal Tagging

Apprentices earn up to $15 per hour for the civic improvement project.

August 5, 2016, 1:47 PM

— -- Ann Gill was in 10th grade when she noticed a flyer in her school office advertising for something called a “graffiti apprenticeship” -- a program where aspiring young artists could be paid up to $15 an hour to learn street art.

Gill says she had always been interested in art, but because she attended an all-academic high school in Washington, D.C., she struggled to find an outlet.

“It said you get a job and you get paid and I was looking for money at the time!” she laughed. “So, I had to do it.”

MuralsDC is a street art apprenticeship program sponsored by the Washington D.C. Department of Public Works, the government agency in charge of cleaning up illegal graffiti.

Property owners who have had their buildings vandalized can submit their walls for review to the program. If approved, they are then paired with professional artists and apprentices who will paint a mural over the vandalized wall.

The program managers say that if a wall has often been tagged with graffiti and then a mural is painted over it, illegal street artists will largely leave it alone.

“We’ve done almost 60 murals to date and, of those buildings that have been tagged, I might say we’ve maybe had four or five that have been re-tagged and only minimally,” said Nancee Lyons of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “The program definitely does help to reduce the amount of graffiti on those buildings and I think, to some extent, the amount of graffiti in that immediate area.”

Gill signed up for art classes at the non-profit running the apprentice program, Words Beats & Life. There, she started taking lessons on how to plan big murals, how to use certain spray cans and the history of street art. She and her fellow apprentices are also encouraged to practice on a wall behind the classroom. After students show a solid commitment to the program, they are paired with professional muralists to help with commissioned street art projects.

“It’s not just about providing people with an opportunity, but giving them a doorway into a creative economy,” said Mazi Mutafa, CEO of Words Beats & Life. “That’s our job: to be a bridge between property owners and artists, communities and individuals.”

Gill said she feels it's more than just a job -- it’s a place where she finds solace after a stressful school day.

"I look forward to it in school. I’m like ‘Well, at least I get to go to art class today,'" she said. "I just really enjoy being around all the different artists and people who are just passionate about something, the same as me."

"They give me experience and opportunities to venture into different things in art," she added.