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Read the Writing on the Wall: Turning Taggers Into Artists

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sign-painting instructor Doc Guthrie is on a rant. He stands at the front of a windowless classroom at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, his face a little pink, his glasses hanging from his neck, his voice by turns pleading and scolding.

Half a dozen students in big, loose jackets and tennis shoes sprawl in wooden chairs. Most are young men in their 20s. They suffer the tirade good-naturedly, with an air of having heard it all before. Guthrie rails; they do what they always do: They doodle.

“What,” Guthrie demands, “is my No. 1 contention?” Silence--except the sound of pencils scratching. Guthrie waits. Cartoon figures and fancy letters take shape on notebooks. “That you don’t listen,” he finally booms. “That you never listen.”

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The scene springs from one of those strange cultural collisions that epitomize Los Angeles.

On one side is Guthrie, a master craftsman and self-described “white, fat, baldheaded guy” from Santa Monica, who for eight years has taught sign-making--an antique craft badly in need of new apprentices.

On the other side are Guthrie’s students, former outlaw kids of the inner city--grown-up taggers and graffiti artists who once scrawled their names on freeway overpasses and cinder block walls. Some of them are the same kids whose exploits outraged civic leaders in the early 1990s--the same whose vandalism seemed a kind of reproach, a silent reminder to passing commuters that somewhere out there, in rough neighborhoods they may never have seen, scores of 14-year-old boys were growing up with time on their hands. These taggers “are in their early 20s now, and they realize they have to get jobs,” said Guthrie.

Anthony Rico, who grew up in Watts, used to be a tagger “because I wanted people in school to know who I was.” Alfredo Amar of South-Central used to leap on moving buses to scratch his tags on the back windows. Louie Robles of Huntington Park started tagging because it was better than gangbanging.

They are drawn to sign-making--the craft of creating custom signs for businesses--because it requires a talent for painting, a deft hand with letters and scripts, and a knack for designing for distance--things that come to them almost as naturally as breathing.

For Guthrie, 58, they are the apprentices of his dreams. “They have skills like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. The problem is, they are not always the easiest students to teach. “We don’t listen,” explained Rico cheerfully, dabbing a brush in some paint. “We show up late. And we don’t follow directions.”

Rico, 20, is a stocky youth with a wry sense of humor. He said he began tagging in 1992, when he was 12 and tagging was a fad across Los Angeles. “I guess it just engulfed me,” he said. “The rebellion side of it and the expression side--just having . . . a voice.”

As Rico’s tags grew increasingly complicated, he alienated his tagger friends, who couldn’t understand why he was lingering to fuss over his work. He said he soon left tagging for what he terms “sophisticated” graffiti, then progressed to murals, photography, and finally, sign-making.

As he talks, Rico’s palm is balanced on a Mahl stick--an ancient artist’s tool that keeps the hand steady and prevents the paint from smudging. Working freehand, he slowly drags the paintbrush down the side of a giant letter E to give it a long, razor-thin border. The line is dead-straight.

Rico is all concentration and control--a student who, whatever he might say, has obviously listened and followed directions. As he stands back to examine his work, his tone grows serious. Sign-painting “is a discipline,” he said. “I’ve never liked discipline, but I realize you won’t get anywhere in life unless you’re disciplined.”

*

Trade-Tech, on Washington Boulevard, serves a swatch of the city south and east of downtown, neighborhoods with double the county’s poverty rate--and a good share of its graffiti.

The Sign Graphics program here attracts about 25 students at a time. It draws a wide range of students, including professional artists and, occasionally, a woman. But the typical students are young men like Rico, whose first experiences with lettering were as graffiti vandals. They are grown up now. Some are fathers. Most are badly in need of good jobs.

Such students tend to be highly talented at the craft, Guthrie said, and he sometimes attends gatherings of graffiti artists at Venice Beach to recruit them.

But usually, they come to the Sign Graphics on their own. The program, like all California public community-college programs, costs $11 per unit. Students earn trade certificates, or--if they are willing to take a complement of college general-education classes as well--a two-year associate’s degree. The program has been around since 1924 and is one of only a handful in the country. Guthrie, who owned a sign business for years, is himself a graduate.

Often, the students who are drawn to it are those who love to draw but never liked school. Sometimes they have been in trouble with the law.

They conform, more or less, to the demanding requirements of the Sign Graphics program, a two-year degree course, which requires them to show up at 7 a.m. four days a week for four hours. They don’t even seem to mind Guthrie’s frequent scoldings.

“Always before, I couldn’t wait to get away from school,” said Nelson Banks, 27, of South Gate. “Now I want to go to school every day, and some days, I don’t want to leave.”

*

To students who may once have seen themselves as artists and outlaws, Guthrie preaches an unsentimental doctrine of practicality.

Responsibility and honesty, along with design principles, are themes he harps on constantly. Students learn to shape and space letters, lay out designs and use contrasting color values to emphasize certain elements. Sign-making is about making money, not self-expression, Guthrie tells his students. It’s about supporting your family, working hard, building a better life.

Class rules reflect this ethic. Late assignments are not accepted, and students get Fs for picayune mistakes, such as forgetting to put their names on their papers. For homework, Guthrie tells them to go a weekend without drugs or alcohol--and to tell the truth about it on Monday morning. The point is not to moralize, he said. It’s to teach self-control.

On days when Guthrie is really worked up, he insists to his long-suffering students that he doesn’t care about them. Why should he? What happens to them has no effect on his life, he tells them. If they are screw-ups, if they show up late, that’s their problem. He says he wants them to know he is just like every middle-aged, white boss they will ever have.

The students, nearly all Latino, describe how he helps them find jobs, sends them on trips, fills their weekends with mural projects. They call him “Doc,” and sketch cartoon portraits of his round face, which deck the walls. They bring him cardboard crowns from Burger King to mock his autocratic style--knowing that he will wear them.

And despite Guthrie’s admonishments, the students see sign-painting as more than a practical pursuit.

Most of them are keenly interested in making a living, of course. But to spend time among them is to understand how beautiful signs can be. On the city’s cluttered boulevards, the Trade-Tech students see opportunities for artisanship--not to mention, plenty of business.

The best of their signs have an antique look rarely seen now, like billboards from the 1920s. One example is the Trade-Tech sign itself facing Washington Boulevard, which sign students painted for practice several years ago.

Students hope they can cultivate a taste for such handcrafted signs among Los Angeles business owners, although they say people sometimes must see the work to appreciate it. After all, most people don’t give signs a second thought.

This was the case for Jerry Beech, the owner of McPherson’s Sandblasting in Long Beach, who received a free sign from Trade-Tech students after he donated services to the school. “I was astounded,” Beech said. “This thing is stark, raving beautiful. Everyone says, ‘Wow, Jerry, great sign.’ ”

*

The ability to make striking hand-painted signs was a highly valued skill in decades past, when handmade commercial signs served to accent the urban landscape. Today, they’ve been largely replaced by computer-made signs that Guthrie calls “urban blight.” But there is still a niche market for artistic, handcrafted signs.

Owners of theme parks, casinos, diesel truck cabs and high-end shops and cafes often prefer handmade signs to those made by computers and will pay more for them, Guthrie said. The student who masters only computer skills might earn $10 per hour or less, but those who know traditional techniques as well can earn $20 an hour or more. By running their own sign businesses, the best students may earn $40,000 yearly or more, far better pay than the warehouse jobs to which many are accustomed, Guthrie said. It’s a career path well-suited to independent types with a fascination for lettering--exactly the traits that so many of these students possess.

They are also helping to preserve a craft that is fast disappearing. Preventing traditional skills from being lost is the goal of a loosely organized, international group called the Letterheads, which holds sporadic gatherings to help pass on the tradition. Letterhead members say Trade-Tech’s is one of the few formal training programs in existence.

“The sign business has a problem with not being an organized group and having one voice,” said Doc Welty, an active Letterheads member and Indiana sign painter, who called Guthrie’s program unique. (Welty is considered a leading Letterhead, although the group, by choice, has no officers, dues or formal structure.)

*

Guthrie wants sign-making to give his students a livelihood, not just a hobby, and he counsels them to get full-time, hourly jobs to pay the bills while freelancing in their off hours. Many work in Home Depot’s internal sign shops to get experience. After building up a clientele, they can then open up their own shops and go full time.

The strategy has worked well for South-Central student Amar, 26, who recently got a license for his business, Eye-Catching Signs, and hopes income from signs will someday replace his office job.

Amar grew up among competing South-Central gangs. As a young teenager, he was so shy that he could barely talk to strangers, but he was bold when it came to tagging, and he served time in jail.

Today, he is one of the hardest-working and most successful of Guthrie’s students, a clean-cut figure in khakis and a ponytail who aims to be “a high-end person in life.”

Guthrie teaches advanced students, such as Amar, in the same classroom as beginning students, encouraging them to learn from each other.

Most days, he keeps lectures to a minimum. Students work. Guthrie paces, offering commentaries and criticism.

“Fernando! Guidelines, guidelines!” he chides one student working on a project in vinyl, then directs his eye to another student’s midterm project. “Louie!” he barks. Luis Ohm shuffles over, mumbling a dejected, “What’s wrong?”

Nothing, said Guthrie. “This is your best work so far!” he tells him, without altering his tone. “This is the first time you got the spacing dead on! . . . Your values are right, your brush control is really good. Look at how much you’ve improved! This is your best job to date, right?”

Ohm looks thunderstruck. “Right,” he murmurs.

Meanwhile, across the room, Rico has run into problems. He had finished his midterm project by deadline and put his tools away when he realized he had forgotten to paint a 6-inch section of the border. The mistake would mean a certain F, since the project was technically incomplete and the deadline passed.

Just a minute earlier, Rico seemed elated. Now his face was red, and he couldn’t stop staring at the error. For a tense moment, he considered sneaking over to fill in the missing section before Guthrie saw it.

But then, he stopped. “No, I can’t do that,” he said aloud, more to himself. “The deadline is past. I have to accept that I missed the deadline.”

He turned back to cleaning his tools, demonstrating, once again, that he was listening all along. “Doc--he sets it straight,” he said. “He tells us, this is the way life is, and you just have to deal with it.”


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