Fighting with paint 

It’s a hot July morning at 9 a.m. — too early for most teenagers to consider getting out of bed, let alone to show up at school for summertime activities. But here they are, three teenagers, sitting around a table on the second floor of Harms Elementary School on Detroit’s southwest side. As the minutes tick by, more students straggle in. Some look excited, some shy, others just tired.

Omar Paulk is the last to arrive.

“Hey, Omar,” says Rafael Boglio Martinez, the group’s coordinator, “remember how we were gonna get here early today ’cause the reporter’s coming?”

Omar grins sheepishly.

The students are part of Detroit’s Art in the Alley program, a project that gets teens and younger kids out into the streets on Saturdays to paint murals on buildings frequently “tagged” with graffiti and gang art. The project marries expertise from University of Michigan grad students and local artists with Detroit kids. Art in the Alley is a quiet but prominent reclamation of territory — as kids work to take back their community in southwest Detroit from the gangs that plague it.

Art in the Alley’s murals reflect the spirit of the endeavor — one of their first renderings depicts a dragon, meant to represent graffiti, tamed by muses.

“[Tagging buildings with graffiti] is a never-ending cycle,” says Mike Milo, owner of Cousin’s Bakery on Springwells Street in southwest Detroit. “You just have to keep fighting,” he says.

Because his bakery was the frequent target of graffiti tagging, Milo allowed Art in the Alley students to paint his building with a mural earlier this summer. More than six weeks later, Milo’s building remains graffiti-free, despite the expectations of some cynical neighbors convinced the bakery would be re-tagged within days.

Art in the Alley is run by Communities in Schools, a national organization that provides funding and organizational support for school-related programs. As participants, Detroit teenagers not only paint and plan the murals, but spend Tuesdays and Thursdays teaching art classes at the Harms Elementary summer day camp. Some receive salaries for their work thanks to a grant from the Michigan Association of Community Arts. Art in the Alley is paid for by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Ruth Mott Foundation.

In its third year, the project is witnessing unprecedented attendance, says Boglio, a U-M social work student who heads the program as part of his doctoral work. Boglio recruited this year’s participants by visiting schools and community organizations. Local artists Vito Valdez and George Vargas help plan and paint the murals.

Boglio says volunteers are welcome to come join the project on Saturdays, but warns: “If you come, you’re gonna paint.”

Hailing from Puerto Rico, Boglio switches easily from Spanish to English as he walks through Harms’ halls and interacts naturally with students. He says he can’t help but get involved in their lives.

“If you’re not involved, you lose them,” he says.

The students in Art in the Alley are not only fighting against unidentified vandals, but also against classmates, neighbors and family members. Deemh Monoyidden, 17, feels a personal connection to her work with Art in the Alley. She says the program allows her to counteract the work of her brothers.

“My brothers are doing tagging and I’m cleaning it up,” she says.

Besides the artwork, the program trains teens such as Monoyidden to be mentors for 6- to 13-year-old students at Harms day camp. The teens discuss and plan activities for the day campers and oversee their work. On the previously mentioned hot July morning, the teens split the children into groups and gave them materials to build a structure of their choice.

Boglio played devil’s advocate, asking the teens during their decision-making process what they would do if the kids didn’t like their groups. He and the other leaders, Francie Riddle, 27, a U-M art student, and Kathryn Schwartz, 20, a U-M psychology student, challenged the teens to think through every aspect of the activity, from group size to which members would present the group’s work to the class as a whole.

Boglio says learning to deal with rambunctious children is part of the program’s objective.

“Hopefully when they’re out of this experience, they’ll be a resource for the younger kids,” he says of the teens.

Miranda Hernandez, the camp leader, says Art in the Alley students engage the children in a way that’s fun for them.

“Now the kids look forward to them coming, they know who they are.”

Many of the young campers say they want to participate in Art in the Alley when they get older. Nine-year-old Logen Hill says she looks up to the Art in the Alley students as artists.

The experience is moving to the teens, as well. Omar says his experience led him to want to be an art teacher. He says the program taught him “how to take orders in a positive way.”

Many of the kids share Omar’s enthusiasm. They say Art in the Alley keeps them from situations in which they might become the very “taggers” they are trying to defeat.

“It also keeps us from sleeping in every day,” says Nathan Milety, 13. From the tone of his voice, it is unclear whether he finds this to be a good thing.

Katie Walton is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to

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