FORT WORTH -- Miriam Villegas isn't a tagger, but the teen has spent the last week perfecting her wall art.
She cautiously lined up masking tape for the faux brick wall she was painting on the side of a nonprofit organization's warehouse that was hit by graffiti taggers three times in recent months.
"I like to paint and I like art, so I wanted to put it all together for something good," said Villegas, a junior at Carter-Riverside High School.
Craig McClintock, director of Operation Stitches, said the nonprofit group had just moved into the small warehouse at Calvary Cathedral International church's complex when graffiti appeared in the spring.
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Since the warehouse faces Interstate 35W near the Yucca Avenue/Northside Drive exit, he joked with police that he should leave a sketch of what artwork he wanted on the building so the taggers could do it when they returned.
That's when police connected him with the Fort Worth Urban Art Academy, a group of art teachers and students who have done murals for businesses plagued by graffiti.
"Instead of getting all mad and frustrated about what these taggers were doing, it was an opportunity for us," McClintock said. "Good things are happening where we can reach out to give these kids an avenue to express themselves."
The art academy is made up of students from Carter-Riverside, Diamond Hill-Jarvis and North Side high schools. The mural efforts are part of the academy's W.A.L. project, short for We Are Legal.
Carter-Riverside art teacher Mary Boswell said some students involved have done graffiti in the past and had to sign an oath to no longer deface property. The students have learned that there are legal ways to do their art, she said.
"This gives the students some ownership of their artwork and a sense of pride," she said.
Boswell said the murals help prevent graffiti problems because taggers respect the artwork.
A south Fort Worth convenience store tagged by dueling gangs hasn't had such graffiti since the student mural went up last summer, Boswell said.
Operation Stitches, an outreach of Calvary, does ministry work across the city and helps collect school supplies, groceries and other items for families.
The mural for Operation Stitches will have the group's cartoon dinosaurs leaning on a brick wall in front of an urban skyline.
Tagged messages on that faux brick wall will include "God rules" and "Live right." The scene is similar to what the nonprofit has on its mobile ministry trailers.
Robert Pena, who graduated from North Side High this year, is excited that the group already has another mural to work on soon after this one is complete.
Pena loves all forms of art and said he became involved in W.A.L. because the public can appreciate the art. "There's a lot more painting and details you can do on a wall," he said. "It's art for everybody."
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700