Bobby Rodriguez started tagging when he was 13, spray painting illegal graffiti art from San Pedro to San Bernardino. Life in that world led to other illicit activity and several arrests.
"I got really involved with the criminal aspect," he said. "I don't want to go into much detail...but there's basically nothing I haven't done."
Today, at 25, Rodriguez is an aspiring commercial artist, thanks in part to the efforts of a Santa Monica-based nonprofit called Streetcraft L.A.
Streetcraft co-founder Jonathan Mooney calls it a social venture, designed to show talented but troubled kids like Rodriguez that their art can be a source of legitimate income.
"There’s this misconception that graffiti is gang related," Mooney said, adding that most is not. "It’s often creative young people who don’t have a different channel for their creativity."
The channels they do choose can get them into trouble, especially since graffiti can be treated as a felony, he said.
"There have been young people who have gone away for lifetime sentences as a result of three strikes, three graffiti strikes," Mooney said.
Mooney and a partner, Emmet Ashford-Trotter, founded Streetcraft L.A. about two years ago. It operates out of a small showroom on Main Street in Santa Monica. Mentors teach teens and young adults - recruited from the streets and continuation schools - how to turn their art into a sellable product.
On a recent morning at the showroom, about ten young artists sat around a table in front of laptops getting a lesson on how to use Adobe Illustrator to create their own designs.
All around them, the work of other Streetcraft artists was for sale. It was emblazoned on clothes, baseball caps, even on high heeled shoes. When classes aren’t in session, the showroom is a retail store open to passersby.
In the space’s courtyard, Rolando Martinez, 18, was finalizing a design for a new T-shirt.
"It’s just stuff I see in my neighborhood," he said. "This one’s a dumpster with an alleyway and some trash."
Martinez said he used to draw on his desks in middle school, and he would come along to watch his cousin tag buildings. They had several close calls with police. Though he’s always loved art, Martinez said he never thought he could make money off of it.
In the last year, he said he’s made about $2,000 selling the T-shirts and baseball caps he’s designed with Streetcraft’s help. His products have their own display in the showroom, accompanied by his picture and biography. Streetcraft takes a cut of all sales to cover operating costs.
Martinez said he uses the money he earns to pay tuition at West L.A. College.
In the two years since Streetcraft was founded, about 75 young artists have taken its classes, though the organization doesn't track how many kids give up illegal tagging after going through its program.
Streetcraft co-founder Mooney said the nonprofit is also working to become something of a diversion program for kids arrested for graffiti.
"We have begun the process of building a relationship with folks in the juvenile justice system to see Streetcraft as a way to perhaps give a kid a second chance to apply that creativity in a different way," he said.
The program is a spinoff of an earlier effort by the nonprofit Mooney works for, South Bay Center for Community Development. It set up a large graffiti wall in Wilmington where kids could spray paint legally. It was near where Bobby Rodriguez lived, and he started going. He had decided to straighten his life out after having a son at 17, but he still had the itch to paint in public.
Today, after his experience with Streetcraft L.A., Rodriguez scratches that itch by painting legally, for pay. One of his recent projects was at Pacific Park, the amusement park on the Santa Monica pier.
He designed a mural to cover the roll-up doors that house the carnival games. The mural spans 18 large panels and is a giant ocean scene, featuring dolphins, tortoises and fish. Rodriguez got the commission a few months ago, with Streetcraft’s help.
"By the age of 15, I already knew that I didn’t want to be appealing to just a certain crowd," Rodriguez said. "I wanted a bigger audience than just a graffiti culture."
The Santa Monica Pier draws about 6 million visitors a year, according to a Pacific Park spokesman.
"That’s pretty much the type of audience that I want to continue working for," Rodriguez said, laughing.
The best part, he said, is that he knows his work will be up for a while. No one’s going to go over it with a paint roller.