The Philanthropy Collaborative

Regional Case Studies

San Diego, California

"When I first started with WriterzBlok," said Jose Venegas, the program's production manager, "my mom didn't want me to come here. She wanted me to get a real job. But I loved it so much that I couldn't stay away."

Jose Venegas has been with WriterzBlok, a San Diego-based graffiti art project that offers training in silk-screening and graphic design, since he dropped out of high school in the late 1990s. By stressing the importance of art in public space, Writerz Blok has also helped turn dilapidated, abandoned or blighted areas into sanctuaries for graffiti art. It also keeps kids out of trouble and off the street.

The program started in 1999, when the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation purchased some land in San Diego and hired a muralist named Victor Ochoa instead of security guards to work with the local community and keep the space free of illegal graffiti. The program (originally known as Graff Creek) grew, and soon had more than 300 young people who volunteered on graffiti art sites throughout San Diego.

Sergio Gonzalez, the program's finance manager, has been a friend of Venegas since they were in 6th grade. Venegas introduced him to WriterzBlok. "I just started coming every week," said Gonzalez, "and here we are."

One of the first cooperative relationships the two started, said Gonzalez, was with the San Diego Police Department. Teenagers caught with graffiti paraphernalia or tagging walls were allowed to come to WriterzBlok instead of getting a ticket and paying a fine. "These kids would come to us, and we'd teach them about the history and the values behind graffiti," said Gonzalez. "And they'd learn about the consequences of their actions, too." In San Diego, vandalism that causes over $2,000 worth of damage is a felony.

With the passing of No Child Left Behind in 2001, arts programs in public schools have been slashed all over the country as districts have emphasized improved performance on national, standardized tests. Arts education has struggled to remain in many schools throughout the country. Senior education officials have repeatedly noted that anecdotal evidence indicates art curriculum is narrowing nationwide.

Foundation funding, says Gonzalez, is what helps them run the educational programs at WriterzBlok even though the program is not a traditional arts program. "Sometimes, it's hard to justify what we do," he said. "People think we're training vandals. But what we're really trying to do is help them use the energy and the love they have for art in different ways."

In 2003, WriterzBlok found a permanent home in San Diego, when a half-acre facility was donated to the program, including a large yard that houses an open-air art park.

"This is a dream job for me," said Venegas. "In a busy month, we work with 1200 kids and adults. In a slow month, it's maybe half that - but they all come by and they paint. Adults will take off work to paint here. They paint so much that we end up painting over the walls in the yard every day."

In addition to a regular core of volunteers, WriterzBlok has built relationships with museums and visiting artists from all over the world. In 2008, when The New Children's Museum opened in San Diego, WriterzBlok completed a mural for display. And in December of 2011, WriterzBlok completed a mural at the San Diego Museum of Art. "That's our biggest accomplishment," said Gonzalez. "It lets these kids see that what they do really is art that could be in a museum or part of a business. Our mural is part of the museum's permanent collection now."

He added wryly, "It's the first time they [the museum] ever let anyone paint on their walls."

WriterzBlok is also a site for court-ordered community service. "It used to be that we would have them [community service attendees] just pick up trash," said Venegas, "But we started having them help us paint over the walls, and now we actually try to teach them a skill, like running a screen print. We're learning more about how to work with these kids every day."

The group is eager to expand. Although they're dependent primarily on donations and foundation funding for their operating income, WriterzBlok has started to earn money working with local construction companies and they're looking forward to becoming more self-sufficient. They are finding, however, that the current economic slowdown, that's easier said than done.

"We have a big wish list, and we want to start bringing in revenue so that we can offer more to the community," said Venegas. "But it's a tough economy. Without the Jacobs Center [which works in partnership with the Jacobs Family Foundation], we wouldn't be here. Their support has been critical to WriterzBlok's success." "Plus," Venegas added, "my mom is pretty proud of us now."

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