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.”