Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007

Mural seen as remedy for gang graffiti, tagging

Nonprofit, government officials hope to paint positive image with Two County Turning Point program

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Anyone who regularly drives or walks by the intersection at New Hampshire Avenue and Piney Branch Road has seen the retaining wall. It’s big, gray, and a favorite site for taggers, many of whom mark it with gang symbols and messages.

‘‘It’s such a negative image,” said Officer Brandon Pellechia of the Montgomery County Police Department. ‘‘The pedestrians who walk through see it, the motorists drive by and see it, the school buses go by it.”

When he was on temporary assignment with the Silver Spring gang unit, Pellechia had an idea for counteracting the seemingly endless amount of graffiti on the wall, which sometimes takes months to clean up because it’s owned by the state. Now, with the help of several local nonprofit and government organizations, that idea — create a permanent mural on the wall that would remove the ‘‘blank canvas” currently available to taggers — is coming to fruition.

The Two County Turning Point Mural Project, as it is being called, will begin this month with the goal of recruiting out-of-school youth to help design and construct a permanent mural that organizers hope will go up in early summer.

‘‘What we’re looking for constantly are ways to engage our youth in activities that are healthy, that are wholesome, that take them away from the street and from idle time,” said Luisa Montero, director of the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center, who has been tasked with recruitment for the project.

Montero said her organization is conducting interviews and hopes to recruit 20 to 25 out-of-school youths who can benefit from the work experience and small stipend from the program.

She said the project will help youths practice business skills, such as creating a resume and going to interviews. ‘‘It’ll help them transition to successful work and at the same time broaden their opportunities,” Montero said.

Jan Goldstein, director of partnering organizations Arts on the Block in Wheaton, said local artist Carien Quiroga will oversee the project. The youths will design and paint a simple-looking pattern on aluminum sheets in an Arts on the Block Studio, to later be applied to the retaining wall by volunteers.

‘‘We don’t want kids to be standing out there at risk of being hit by oncoming traffic,” Goldstein said.

Pellechia said most of the graffiti on the retaining wall is gang-related.

‘‘I tend to think there is a correlation between letting these images stand unchecked or unchallenged and rates of crime,” he said. ‘‘ ...[Gangs] will tag up that space and it will become marked in the eyes of the citizens in that area as their territory. And a rival gang comes in and crosses it out, and it spirals from there.”

Pellechia said he got the idea for the mural from other cities, notably Philadelphia, which have used community art projects to prevent graffiti.

‘‘What was interesting to me is that these taggers and these vandals [in other cities] would respect the mural,” he said.

If that can be done at the retaining wall, Pellechia said it would only help the surrounding communities.

‘‘We’ve heard numbers of times ... that if a gang claims ownership in whatever fashion to a geographical area and then another gang comes there and disrespects them by crossing out their monikers and their symbols, I think there is a great potential for violence, and I think that is hopefully something we can stop by engineering a change.”

The project is still looking for volunteers and donations. Other partnering organizations include C-SAFE, Weed and Seed, the Prince George’s County Arts Council and the Open Society Institute.

The State Highway Administration, which owns the retaining wall, supports the mural project and is working out maintenance agreements with the sponsoring organizations, said Chuck Gischlar, an SHA spokesman.

E-mail Mike Meno at

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For more information about how to contribute to the Two County Turning Point Mural Project, call Arts on the Block at 301-929-6880 or e-mail