By Shirl Sazynski

"Why do we criminalize creativity?" Johanna Kohout, an intense speaker with frayed blonde braids escaping from beneath her cap, asks as she walks briskly through the College of Santa Fe's sculpture garden. "Young people who just want to make art shouldn't be put into the judicial system in the first place—especially when our public spaces are filled with other people's creativity. Why is an advertising billboard more valuable than what a teenager has to say?"

Kohout, outreach education coordinator for the Santa Fe Art Institute, has been waging an uphill battle to educate property owners, lawmakers and—most importantly—teens about the community benefits of providing a safe, accessible forum for budding street artists to display their work.

Armed with testimonials on the decrease of illegal tagging, graphics and vandalism during several successful "open walls" programs underway in Toronto, Ottawa and Gatineau, Canada, she hopes to gain four strategically placed free walls within Santa Fe in the next two years: large spaces, in full public view located on main streets and parks, to be used as measurable test sites for reduction in tagging in surrounding locations.

While illegal tagging gives some Santa Fe youth a satisfying sense of leaving their mark on the world, it's frustrating to local businesses, residents and city officials who spend considerable time and resources buffing over unexpectedly altered signs, walls and outdoor objects.

Through its Graffiti Mentorship program, the Santa Fe Art Institute channels that spontaneous creative spark into art education, social responsibility, leadership training and community activism by pairing seasoned volunteer artists with local youth from across the social spectrum. Teen members recently got hands-on experience with civic government by directly petitioning the City Council for their free walls during a preliminary meeting. Solid schoolwork is also stressed, as slackers can't stay on—participants must keep above-average grades to remain in the program, something the students seem to accept with pride. Homeless teens (one of whom Kohout picks up at a nearby mall), preps and students from Santa Fe Indian School routinely mix together. They are welcoming to new members and many recruit actively within their communities. With affectionately swapped insults, constant banter and ongoing creative dialogues, the democratic spirit and camaraderie among participants runs deep.

As we approach the open walls (two large, upright and permanently installed slabs of concrete on loan from the college) the smell of lacquer is heavy in the air—so dense that a layer of fog hangs over the artists as it slowly sinks onto the winter-petrified lawn. Experimental writing has drifted onto a newly appropriated octagonal bench, a clear improvement over the bench's pea-soup neglect and sadly vacant flower well. That well now conveniently serves as a holding pen for milk crates filled with extra spray paint cans.

Several College of Sante Fe students wander past, keeping a safe distance from the fumes, smiling at us encouragingly or cocking their heads curiously as the wall art rapidly evolves.
One of the program's regular kids stands by surveying his friends' work with a bandanna pulled up as a temporary vapor mask.

"C'mon. When you gonna paint?" someone calls, waving him over.

He grins and stays put, affecting an insouciant slouch. "See, I'm what they call the painting coach…"

Hearing this, Parrish, the group mentor, pokes his head from around the other side of a wall, brandishing a can.

"Oh yeah? The coach coaches, he doesn't just observe…stage coach!'

Everyone laughs, including the "stage coach" who grabs a pair of latex gloves, an orphaned can of paint and joins his friends. He then adds a tentative streak to an already vibrant group mural.