Zachary Messinger was 16 when he was arrested the first time for graffiti vandalism. Two years and a couple more infractions later, he found...

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Zachary Messinger was 16 when he was arrested the first time for graffiti vandalism. Two years and a couple more infractions later, he found himself on house arrest. Ankle bracelet and all.

“It got to this point where it’s just like, OK, I’ve got to find something to do, or else I’m just going to get caught doing something bad again,” says Messinger, who’s now 18.

That’s where ArtWorks’ summer mural painting project came in. Beginning July 2, Messinger and 14 other kids were hired as mural artists, to help design, paint and erect two pieces of public art: one at Harborview Medical Center’s expansion site and one along the bus corridor in South Seattle.

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As part of the two-month program, each kid is taught a series of basic skills, such as how to paint and how to erect scaffolding, and — perhaps most important — how to hold a regular job. At the end of August, the kids are rewarded not only with a paycheck but with the satisfaction of seeing a project through, from conception to conclusion.

“A lot of these kids have never stuck with anything, so being able to say, ‘Look, look what you’ve made,’ is pretty great,” says Jesse Brown, the lead artist, and half of the two-person ArtWorks office staff. “For some of them, it’s a huge self-esteem issue.”

ArtWorks is a broad-reaching arts-based nonprofit that began in 1995 and serves around 1,000 kids every year. The mural-arts project is a small program within ArtWorks, serving around 20 to 25 kids a year but producing about 150 projects, both temporary and permanent, since its inception 12 years ago. ArtWorks founder Michael Peringer’s recent book, “Good Kids,” is an anthology of some of those projects.

Each year, kids are recruited for the mural-art program from three different arenas: King County Juvenile Court, Seattle Parks and Recreation and the Center for Career Alternatives, which works predominantly with immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Some of the kids are labeled “at-risk,” others are still learning English, and a few — such as Ming Lau, 17, whose family is from Hong Kong — applied to ArtWorks to build résumés for future jobs and college applications.

“You’ve got a whole mix of kids from probation and juvie, and kids still in high school, so you’re going to get a weird scene,” says Messinger, who says his fellow artists are “very different” from one another. “But mostly people are good and work hard. They’re paying you to do art, right? It’s cool.”

Laura Harper, executive director of ArtWorks, says there’s a learning curve at the beginning of each session: Many of the kids are flunking or have already dropped out of school, and many feel estranged from the community, either for cultural or socioeconomic reasons.

“All of a sudden, we’re asking them to show up every day, not to be late and stick with a two-month project. It’s 150 hours of work for some of them,” she says. “And by the end, hopefully, we encourage this community connection. If they can walk around and feel like they belong, like they’re a part of Seattle, that’s a huge step.”

Sean Hurley, one of the assistant artists on staff this summer, says it a different way: “A lot of these kids are just walking a tightrope. We catch them right at this moment” — he imitates a person losing his balance — “And you can see them fall on the good side. They’ll be productive instead of getting into trouble.”

One of the projects the kids are working on this summer — the one in the bus corridor in South Seattle — is funded by Sound Transit and headed by a guest artist from Chicago, Juan Angel Chávez.

A month and a half ago, during the first week of work, Chávez asked all the kids to close their eyes, listen to music — any music — and draw whatever came into their minds. Chávez then incorporated at least one image from each kid’s drawing into a larger mural. The result is an amalgamation of fantasies — golden El Caminos, music notes, smiley faces, Chinese characters and guns with hearts for bullets — set on a background of black-and-white vines and leaves.

“A lot of times, murals are designed by professional artists and the kids end up being hands for hire. So it’s nice that this time, they get to look up there and see their own ideas,” he says. “I like their aesthetic, too. It’s not professional, but that’s the whole point.”

The other project — an interpretative tribute to modern architecture at the expansion of Harborview Medical Center — is a mural, broken down into 67 panels, a third of which are laid out like a handful of enormous playing cards in ArtWorks’ gallery space off Pioneer Square.

There, Messinger and two fellow artists dab at distorted buildings with mustard-colored paint and dryly compare notes on their experiences in juvenile hall. Talk wanders to their hopes for the future. One girl, Alexis Skinner, 16, hopes to use her artistic skills to go into makeup design for Hollywood stars. In the meantime, she’ll sign up for ArtWorks’ fall graphic-design program.

As for Messinger, he looks forward to being off probation next month. After that, he plans to pass his high-school-equivalency exam and begin taking art classes at a community college. He’s already been practicing his pencil and ink drawings — fantastic Escher-esque renderings of legs and women and trees.

“All I know is I don’t want to go back to jail,” he says. “They don’t even let you have a pencil in there.”

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or

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