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Street Artists Add Color to Washington, DC Buildings


Welcome to American Mosaic from VOA Learning English.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Washington D.C. has a graffiti problem. That is a problem it shares with many large cities around the world. Graffiti is an illegal form of artistic expression. Graffiti artists are usually young people who use a kind of paint that is sprayed from a can. They illegally paint words and pictures on the sides of buildings -- especially in low-income neighborhoods. Some cities are fighting the graffiti artists with education and possibilities instead of punishment. In Washington, DC, officials are working with graffiti artists to help make the city more beautiful.

About twelve young artists have gathered at a workshop in downtown Washington. They are learning how to use spray paint to make graffiti that people will want to see. Michelle Chen is one of the artists.

“So at first it seemed like a very crude instrument, but just being able to see what artists are able to do with it is really amazing!”

They practice on small walls. They are taught by Eric Ricks. He is a graffiti artist from Liberia. He used to paint on buildings illegally. But now the city is paying him to teach young people.

“It’s one of those things I love to share and to see young people pick it up with the passion that I myself had, because I feel like I’m a big kid just as much as any one of them.”

The program is called “MuralsDC.” City officials created it to try to solve the graffiti problem. The program provides the young people ten weeks of training. After the training, the students travel with Mr. Ricks to a neighborhood in the north of the city. They will create a large painting called a “mural” on a wall that once had unappealing graffiti. That makes Mr. Ricks happy.

Eric Ricks paints a mural in Washington, D.C.

Eric Ricks paints a mural in Washington, D.C.

“I guess being an immigrant I have to say I’m truly living the American dream, because it’s the only place I can think of that I’ve ever been that you could take something so off-the-cuff like graffiti and turn that into something that you can live off.”

Mr. Ricks draws an image. Then the students help him spray-paint the colorful clouds behind the image. They add shapes and words in the same style as graffiti artists.

The city has paid for 50 such artworks since the program began in 2007.

Artist Aniekan Udofia recently painted his eighth mural for the city. It is at a public pool. He used spray paint and house paint. He has taught others how to make beautiful graffiti. He likes teaching.

“So instead of defacing property, what we do is I show them how they can collaborate with artists like myself and create something that not only they can get paid for, but they can also get praised for.”

Sarbjit Singh Kochhar owns a store in Washington. Artists in the MuralsDC program painted a colorful mural on a wall of his store.

“I think this is a beautiful contribution from my part for the community -- clean building, nice artwork, and everybody’s happy.”

Ernesto Zelaya used to create illegal graffiti. He is now paid to paint. He helped Mr. Ricks paint a mural.

“… to express myself, because I get to explode and show a lot of emotion as well and just be who I am, I guess.”

Mr. Ricks says he will go on a trip across America. He hopes to paint a mural in every state.

I’m Caty Weaver.

VOA Washington Correspondent Julie Taboh reported this story. Christopher Cruise wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

graffiti – n. pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall or building, usually illegally

neighborhood – n. an area of a town or city

gather – v. to bring or come together into a group or place; to collect

artist – n. a person who creates art

problem - n. a difficult question or situation with an unknown or unclear answer

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