On a quiet Sunday morning, a man wearing baggy shorts and a black hoodie stood in a parking lot and pulled out a can of spray paint. His burly right arm, inked with the image of a dragon, hung in midair as he worked the nozzle. Across the way, where railroad tracks met an overpass, a concrete wall covered with black letters displayed the work of neighborhood taggers.
But John "Zender" Estrada's aerosol artistry was less about earning street cred and more about adding white whiskers to the purple lion on the canvas before him.
"Aw, I tried to make him look hard, but he looks like a kitty," Estrada said, shaking his head and smiling.
Purple kitties aren't exactly what one would expect from the graffiti generation, but that's the point Estrada, 42, has tried to make in the art class he teaches each Sunday outside the Santana House in East Los Angeles. Named in honor of musician Carlos Santana, the building is reserved for youth activities and is part of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center's violence intervention program.
Estrada's class, called Skillz 'N Action, attracts young people who come to learn such techniques as how to control the flow of paint from their spray cans and how to make their street murals really pop. What they discover is a former tagger who preaches about the pitfalls of vandalism.
"It's teaching us you should keep doing it, but legally," Ramon Marcos said. The 20-year-old from South L.A. said he used to leave his mark on houses, apartments, buildings, utility poles -- a pastime that he claims actually kept him from joining a gang.
"People would come up to me to recruit me," he said, "but since I was in graf, that was my thing. I was like, 'Nah, I'm straight.' "
A student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Marcos said he now understands that graffiti has a place outside of defacing property. Taking a cue from Estrada, Marcos recently persuaded a shop owner to allow him to paint her storefront.
Estrada himself once rolled with tagging crews and contributed to the L.A. graffiti movement in the early 1980s. Born and raised in East L.A., he spent time in Mexico City as a teenager and was influenced by the work of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.
After attending Otis College of Art and Design, he started a company that contracts with artists to create murals at schools and for community events. Estrada's own paintings have been exhibited in galleries, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, and he is the founder of a Christian hip-hop-themed clothing company.
He hopes that by teaching primers on art technique -- basic drawing, color schemes, warm and cool palettes -- his students' rough talents will be refined. Maybe then, they will start envisioning themselves with careers as graphic artists, illustrators or designers.
"If you come here knowing how to tag and bomb, that's fine," Estrada said. "But it's not even scratching the surface." (A "bomb," he explained, is similar to a "toy" -- both refer to a tagging attempt that demonstrates no artistic talent.)
Gerardo Soto said he learned about Skillz 'N Action a year ago. His high school didn't have art classes, so in the months before he had a car, he would take a 90-minute bus ride from his home in South Los Angeles to get to the Santana House.
The 19-year-old has always been into what he calls "urban art," because of its instant public audience. He said he used to scoff at museums, preferring outdoor art that is free for anyone to observe.
"I came into this class just thinking about graffiti letters," the young man said. "Now that Zender's taught us more about art, I'm pretty much open to anything."
Soto has also realized that art can be cathartic. His father died in July from a brain tumor. He thinks that if he fine-tunes his skills, one day he'll be able to express on canvas how the loss makes him feel. There was a time, though, when he might have taken his grief and anger out on the architecture around him.
"I've done some street vandalism," he admitted. "I've been out of that scene since I got here. I'm taking it to the next level. Zender always tells us. 'Don't go out there and risk getting killed or going to jail. Show them you're not just a tagger. You're something more.' "