Crime-free creativity

After-school program teaches the art of graffiti

A couple dozen of San Francisco's best young graffiti artists, many dressed in black hooded sweatshirts and baseball hats, huddle around long tables littered with markers, blank books, pens, and stickers. The artists crowded around the white paper–draped tables do a little talking and joking, but mainly they're drawing and writing, some at a fever pitch. Bright colors and stylish lettering abound. There is a sense of concentrated creativity in this large studio space — something rare in classrooms these days. But this not your run-of-the-mill art class. This is Streetstyles, a free course that focuses on the misunderstood medium of graffiti and street art. Its aim is multifaceted, concentrating on the production and repercussions of urban art. The class attempts, as instructor Dave Warnke explains, "to separate the art from the act." He is interested in what motivates these artists: Why are they writing graffiti? What do they want people to see? What do they want people to feel?

Some kids, Warnke admits, "get into [graffiti] for the criminal mystique." But inclusion has been a key principle for Warnke and his art lessons. Although Streetstyles does not turn away any young artists, new students to the course are always pulled aside for a little one-on-one. "I ask them, 'Do you do it for the crime? Or do you do it for the art?' " he says. "If you don't want to do art, then you might as well go piss on the sidewalk." The number one rule in Warnke's class is respect. Respect for the art. Respect for one another. And respect for oneself.

"I try to give them the respect that I don't think they get other places," he says. "I engage them, let them know that this is art. I've had some of these kids for years. I can help them by exposing them to different styles and by challenging them. I push them, and I'm not sure how many other people in their lives are doing that."

Originally from New Jersey, Warnke has two art degrees from Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland, but he says his early experiences in art education were a bit rough, as he bounced around art schools before finally settling in the Bay Area. "I had no skills except drawing silly faces," says Warnke, who's been an active street artist for more than 10 years. "My art didn't have a place. It's kind of like propaganda."

He figured he'd become an art teacher, then quickly realized that schools in the area were firing — not hiring — art teachers. He finally applied for a position at James Lick Middle School in Noe Valley, carefully leaving his street art out of his portfolio, which was composed of mainstream art and design work.

"I wanted to get the job," Warnke admits. "I thought I was going to teach watercolors or something. You know, bowls of fruit and stuff." But faculty members had already heard about Warnke's back-alley and rooftop endeavors, and they were not offended. As a matter of fact, they were impressed. They offered him an opportunity to teach a class on his kind of art, street art. Thus, the first Streetstyles program was born.

After a stint at City Arts and Tech High School, Warnke decided to take Streetstyles out on its own. Starting last October — thanks to financial backing from Youth Speaks and Mark Dwight, CEO of Timbuk2 — Warnke started teaching his independent class twice a week at Root Division, a 7,200 square foot building founded in 2002 where resident artists receive subsidized studio space in exchange for their service as art instructors.

"Root Division is a great place to do it," Warnke says.

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