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Teen tagger now an art teacher

Miguel Aguilar 36 former illegal graffiti artists now teaches kids process aesthetics graffiti art Yollocalli Arts Reach center Chicago. |

Miguel Aguilar, 36, a former illegal graffiti artists, now teaches kids the process and aesthetics of graffiti art at the Yollocalli Arts Reach center, in Chicago. | Chandler West~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 20, 2012 6:28AM

To members of the underground graffiti subculture, he’s one of Chicago’s most respected artists.

But in the eyes of the law, Miguel Aguilar was for many years simply a teenage criminal.

“If the punishment had been stricter, it’s possible I may have stopped sooner — it’s hard to say,” says Aguilar.

Now 36 and teaching the history of graffiti at the Art Institute of Chicago, Aguilar started writing graffiti as a 13-year-old. He was twice arrested in his teenage years, spent a couple of nights in jail and was forced to pay fines and to do community service, he said.

But Aguilar — who says he has been painting legally for two decades — believes the real turnaround in his life came when he entered a graffiti contest sponsored by the Chicago Transit Authority.

“One of the rewards was a small scholarship to the Art Institute — I’d never even heard of it, but once I went there I got serious about the art form,” he said. “It gave me that confidence to ask permission from store owners to paint on their walls.”

Aficionados draw distinctions between mindless vandalism and the type of creative street art and murals Aguilar favors, but Aguilar acknowledged that it is not easy for police to see “in shades of gray” when it comes to graffiti.

Still, he says, tougher punishments “miss the point” when it comes to tackling vandalism. What is needed are arts programs that give youths “a creative outlet and a direction.”

He runs a program through the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen that teaches youths how to paint murals, legally.

“What we need is a more comprehensive approach, that offers kids an alternative to illegal graffiti,” he said.

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