Writing on the wall
Dennis Callwood’s art project with young gang members speaks volumes about ‘SKIN’
By Julie Riggott 10/18/2007
Artwork by gang members covers the walls of the lobby at Boston Court.
It’s not what you might think — no taggers have vandalized the performing arts venue.
No, the lobby has become a gallery. On the walls are black-and-white photographs of young men framed with bold, sometimes colorful graffiti-style writing and illustrations.
These young men were inmates at a juvenile rehabilitation facility in Lancaster between 1993 and 1996. Award-winning photographer Dennis Olanzo Callwood was their art teacher. The pictures, their collaborative artwork, are part of Boston Court’s contribution to the SKIN/Art & Ideas Festival.
Callwood, who retired in September after working as a probation officer at various facilities over the past 29 years, took the photos of the inmates at Camp McNair. Then he gave them back to the young men and asked them to respond with their own words and images. The classes were Callwood’s attempt to show his students a positive outlet for their talents.
“I was interested in young people with artistic skills who were not aware they could use those skills to become artists,” said Callwood, who lives in Pasadena and has a studio in Los Angeles. “They already had the skills but were using them for tagging and graffiti. The idea was to reduce the gang graffiti in the camp by giving them an avenue to express themselves artistically.”
Many of the young men exposed their tattoos in the portraits, looking tough and hardened beyond their teen years. Callwood did not judge or censor the young men’s self-expression, which covers a range of emotions: anger, regret, helplessness, even love.
A Latino teen has “In Memory of Jasmine” tattooed across his chest. Drawings of gravestones flank the photo, while in the stylized writing of graffiti he writes, “I’ve been locked up three times before” and “I have crazy ass familia that are gangsters like myself.”
On another wall, a white gang member revealing a swastika on his chest has painted the same symbol on his frame and scrawled the names of countless bands around his photo in “Skin Head.”
In contrast, the young man in “Korean Pride” wrote, “I deeply regret my crimes. My only goal is to make my parents proud of me. I wish I could start over but I can’t.”
Graffiti appears in all of the works. Sometimes the young men were from rival gangs, but in Callwood’s classes they got along and even competed to produce the best artwork.
“Art itself was the glue that held them all together,” Callwood said. “If it wasn’t for art, they’d probably be trying to kill each other.”
In another photo, a man who goes by the name of Mr. Nogood shows off the words “East Coast 76” inscribed in ink across his upper back. Callwood said the name is a common one in gang lifestyle, aimed at evoking fear in enemies, but it also “shows you where kids degrade themselves so much that they pick names that diminish their own humanity.”
Part of Mr. Nogood’s handwritten note reads, “Ask her can I see my baby and the bitch said no. So since then I stop talking to the bitch,” and “Fucc the white man. All he’s trying to do is fucc a nigga’s life around bye keep a nigga locc down.”
“Mr. Nogood” and “Skin Head” have caused some controversy. Executive Director Eileen T’Kaye remarked that a couple of staff members were concerned about the content, though feedback from theatergoers during previews of “dark play or stories for boys” has been positive.
T’Kaye said there are often differences of opinion when it comes to art, and this time, as in the past, the staff has gotten together to discuss their views and come to an agreement.
When it was suggested that the two most controversial works be covered up when high school students attend the play, T’Kaye rejected the idea: “That’s censorship,” she said. Instead they will either replace those two when the students visit or move them to a less conspicuous location.
Even though she said the exhibit may be “rough” or “disturbing,” T’Kaye defends it
as a healthy stimulus for discussion about important issues. “Our stuff is not tame, but neither is the world we live in,” she said. After all, Boston Court’s mission is to support fearless and passionate theater that “challenges both artist and audience,” according to a pamphlet for the theater’s current controversial production, which also features “adult language and situations.”
T’Kaye said Boston Court had wanted to contribute art, dance and poetry as well as theater to the Pasadena Arts Council’s Art & Ideas Festival this month. So when Board Member Dr. Greta Mandell introduced the idea of Callwood’s work, they asked her to curate the show.
Mandell knew Callwood when he was working on this project in the 1990s. She said the contrast between the outward persona of these young men —“a thick skin of aggressive bravado” — and the personal revelations in their art fit perfectly with the SKIN theme.
She explained that she chose “Mr. Nogood” primarily for the “aesthetics of its composition” and “Skin Head” because she wanted to include as many cultures as possible. If people read what the young men wrote, she said, they might feel empathy instead of being shocked.
“The language might be offensive, but you also see the complexity of these young men. They are not violent monsters on the street endangering our lives; they are complex people with a range of emotions,” said Mandell, who lives in Altadena and works as a medical consultant for the state Department of Social Services’ Disability Division.
Callwood wasn’t surprised by the controversy. He said some people who attended early exhibits of the work were offended and did not consider the work to be art. After one of the pieces was included in a 1996 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art though, “attitudes changed slightly. But it’s still a hard sell. The controversy is always there because the ideas of gangs and graffiti are not accepted,” said Callwood who earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA in photography from USC.
Unfazed by Boston Court’s decision to cover or replace some of the photos, Callwood said, “I hope people learn something more personal about these young men and some sense of how they see themselves — the whole rejection of society, the sense that we as adults failed them in so many ways. When you talk to them as individuals, you realize they are still kids, still growing and developing. But they have to protect themselves; they’re living a hard life, a street life.”
Callwood still keeps in touch with some of the men who took classes with him in various correctional facilities, sometimes inviting them to art shows he thinks they might be interested in. He had just heard from one of his students, who called to say he’d enrolled in art courses at Santa Monica City College.
“My intention was to get them to see they’re artists,” Callwood said, “and they can go to art school and use their skills in a more positive way.”
Mandell thinks Callwood accomplished much more. In the notes that accompany the exhibit, she wrote, “Sometimes people get lost and it is only the humanity of others that help the lost find their way home.”