It’s easy to pick out Linda Sheridan’s car in a lot on the outskirts of Fashion Valley Mall.
“I get comments on it all the time,” she said, stepping out of her graffiti-covered Subaru Forrester to shake my hand. “It’s hard not to feel special with this car.”
Sheridan is CEO of San Diego Cultural Arts Alliance , a nonprofit she founded to help kids caught doing graffiti find legal ways to express themselves through art. A year ago, she had a few of the graffiti artists at Writerz Blok  – an art park in southeastern San Diego where people can freely paint large-scale murals – cover her entire car in spray paint.
She felt the flashy ride might help her credibility.
“I wanted to show everybody my commitment to what I was doing,” she said. “Because, I really don’t look like the kind of person who’d be involved with the subject matter.”
Joined by Saratoga Sake , an artist who works as an instructor for the Arts Alliance, and Tracy Ann Thalo, a board member who runs an art-supply store in Hillcrest , Sheridan led the way across an empty dirt lot toward a nearby underpass beneath Highway 163.
The walls and lampposts on either side of the sidewalk running under the highway were recently tagged with dozens of scribbles of white spray paint. Sheridan made her way through tall weeds, brush and mud to another section of the underpass where more works of street art covered the concrete walls. Her admiration for the more thoughtful pieces is palpable: Where others see destruction, she sees potential.
“So, this is where the art park would be,” she said.
Sheridan hopes the space will soon become another art park where graffiti artists would be legally allowed to paint the large concrete pylons. Graffiti artists are already painting the place anyway, Sheridan reasons, so allowing them to do it in a more structured way could actually prevent the kind of hastened, careless tagging that costs thousands to clean up and often reappears soon after it’s wiped away.
“This is where the kids already are,” Sheridan said. “So I say, let’s come to where they are and see what we can do. Frankly, when you read the stuff they’re writing on the walls, they’re crying out for help.”
Prevention Cheaper Than Clean-up
A little over a year ago, Sheridan invited graffiti artists, San Diego Police Department officers who work in the Street Gang Unit, representatives from the county juvenile probation department and members of the juvenile division of the district attorney’s office to a meeting under the 163 underpass. She wanted to give the juvenile-justice stakeholders a better sense of the graffiti problem while introducing her idea for a solution.
The park is just one small piece of the puzzle. As Sheridan explained in the meeting, the main goal of what she calls the San Diego Graffiti & Mural Arts Program  is to start a new juvenile probation diversion program geared specifically toward kids who get arrested for graffiti.
The county juvenile justice system currently offers dozens of diversion programs  run by community-based organizations like the Arts Alliance. The programs are tailored to specific offenses and offered to kids who first enter the system as a way to keep their records clean and prevent recidivism.
Kids deemed right for Sheridan’s proposed diversion program – those with artistic ability who weren’t picked up for gang-related tagging, which is a problem Sheridan said should be addressed differently – would complete an arts-based curriculum that includes field trips to museums, interactions with professional artists, a course in art history, education about the actual costs of graffiti to a community and instruction on how to create an outdoor mural.
Those who complete the course would then be invited to work with experienced muralists to create an outdoor mural.
“Generally, taggers won’t cover up street art or murals,” said Ken Fortier, a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department who heads the Street Gang Unit. He was at the underpass meeting and said he supports Sheridan’s new program.
“SDPD can help by finding places where Linda can get a mural up,” he said. “So, rather than the city going out and painting over tagging and graffiti every week, if she were to get permission from whoever it is – Caltrans, the city, the school district – she could do a mural in an area that taggers are hitting and it could end up helping with the problem.”
According to a county study released in 2012 , graffiti removal tracked in the region in 2011 was conservatively estimated to cost almost $16 million. Sheridan, who currently funds the Arts Alliance through her own grant-writing and fundraising efforts, would eventually like to see a small portion of abatement funds go toward her program’s prevention efforts.
“It’s education over enforcement and to me, it’s a no-brainer,” she said.
On the Brink of Implementation
Sheridan’s in the middle of running the third pilot of her San Diego Graffiti & Mural Arts Program by testing the curriculum at a local elementary school. She’s also been getting murals up  around town in an effort to spread the word. 
It’s been more than a year since players in the local juvenile-justice system came to the freeway underpass. But just in the last few months, they’ve gotten close to finalizing an agreement that would get the program officially going.
“We’re in the middle of identifying each agency’s roles,” said Jason Rasch, a probation officer with the gang unit in the county’s juvenile probation department. “My priority is to get this course up and running so we can offer the youth another component of the diversionary program. … Taking these kids’ artistic expression, which is illegal, and turning it around into a positive and making it legal by giving them an opportunity to invest in their own community by doing a mural after they successfully complete the course – yes, I think this is going to be a very good program.”
It turns out to be an opportune time for launching a diversion program. The county is in the middle of overhauling the juvenile justice system . As part of that effort, it’ll be redirecting $500,000 to its current diversion programs. Since 2009, there’s been a dramatic drop in recidivism so there are fewer juveniles under probation supervision, said a county spokesperson. The county said the drop in numbers shows just how well diversion works to keep kids out of the system.
Once considered the kingpins of graffiti in San Diego, Sake said Sheridan’s program would have helped a kid like him. He didn’t quit doing illegal graffiti until he was arrested and spent months in jail. He said he joined the Arts Alliance because he sees the need for an arts-based diversion program that helps artistic kids find better outlets.
“If I had an opportunity to paint murals legally, or if I would have had someone mentor me and push me toward art school, that would have helped,” Sake said. “I mean, didn’t know art schools existed when I was young. … I didn’t even walk into an art museum until I was in my 20s. I didn’t have that push, that direction or anyone telling me I could do something with my art – become an entrepreneur.”