TODAY   |  June 13, 2013

Turning graffiti into a public art education program

Graffiti is a common sight on city structures throughout America, but the Mural Arts Program is taking what is commonly a crime and using it to change the face of city art and arts education. NBC’s Craig Melvin reports.

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>>> we're back at 8:37. this morning on "education nation," an inner city art program changing the way we look at graffiti. nbc's craig melvin has that story. good morning. good to see you.

>> good morning. good to see you as well. graffiti, common images on city structures all over america. the mural arts program in philadelphia has changed the face of city art, and in doing so, has become the largest public art program in the country. to stop graffiti gangs tacking the city of brotherly love , officials started getting creative.

>> a lot of colors, really complex, really layered.

>> reporter: they harnessed that talent and energy to help thousands of young people transform their neighborhoods and themselves.

>> all kinds of things. i'm working in the industry, and somebody's seen my art. hey, that's her.

>> reporter: bridges and sides of buildings became places to promote peace and celebrate equality.

>> we saw that murals could be a catalyst for positive social change in a very real way, and that inspired us just to do more.

>> reporter: since 1984 , philadelphia 's mural arts program has connected students with teachers and world renowned artists to design and paint more than 3,800 murals city-wide. jane golden oversees the process.

>> we're using mosaic and ceramic. we're working with light and sound and new technologies. we're working with photographers and video. then we grid out the wall, and part of it is sketched on the wall. part of it is on parachute cloth and created in studios all over the city.

>> reporter: their most recent mural is a tribute to philly's favorite sons and grammy winning artists, the roots.

>> this is one of the greatest moments of our career.

>> reporter: what started as an innovative way to reach spray can street artists is now open to all children as young as 9 and old as 22. more than 30,000 have taken part. some are budding michelangelos, but others, like jamie grigsby, weren't quite sure.

>> at first i didn't know where i was going with this whole art thing. i just know i wanted to do it. being part of the program has really changed me.

>> reporter: grigsby recently graduated from art school and is now a teacher with the mural arts program , and she's helping launch a new art project.

>> we did it so kids could be interested in throwing stuff in the trash can. so basically, we put designs on it.

>> reporter: dozens of the solar trash compactors sit on city street corners.

>> that'sed g egood.

>> reporter: organizers insist this is more about sketching, drawing, and painting, there's math, problem solving, and teamwork too, which provides a boost to their education.

>> the skills they learn in art class, they tie into the classroom for motivation and engagement, and it helps increase their achievement.

>> reporter: while giving invaluable life lessons.

>> even if i mess up, just keep on going. all you have to do is fix it up a little bit.

>> i learned that everything is not going to be perfect or turn out the way you want it to be.

>> reporter: in a world that is disconnected and sometimes seen by barriers and divisions and borders, this is something that is uniform.

>> the free art education program annually serves 2,000 youths throughout the city of philadelphia . for the first time, the mural arts program will be introduced into the curriculum of a school in philadelphia . and also paid tours are offered to the public to support the work and to help share the stories. savannah guthrie , possibly most notably, high school graduation rate for all the kids who participate, 100%. all the kids who go graduate from high school .

>> it's inspiring. love to see a program that's really working.