Graffiti Zone is an after-school arts program in which youth can connect with themselves and their community through art making and arts promotion.  Art is used as a tool to develop business skills, leadership skills, increase self-esteem, strengthen community involvement and encourage advanced education. Artist Jody Cooley founded Graffiti Zone in 2006 as a drop-in arts studio for children and teens in West Humboldt Park.

The program was established in direct response to a pressing community need: to keep young people off the streets during the critical afterschool hours when drug and gang-related activity is at its peak. Cooley generated interest in the studio using street outreach methods common to social services organizations. Upon identifying at-risk youth hanging out on street corners, staff members invited them in to the studio to work on arts projects, learn new skills, and find support in a safe environment. Graffiti Zone now provides art classes, workshops and art shows at Cameron Elementary School, Rowe Clark and West Town Academy.

“So many of the kids on the streets are just bored and looking for something to do,” explains Cooley. “We wanted to provide them with something constructive to spend their time on, to keep them from getting involved in risky activities.”

With an outpouring of interest from youth in the community – and a never-ending need for quality afterschool programming – Graffiti Zone continues to grow and evolve. Throughout its history, it has remained flexible to meet the changing needs of its constituents. Now in its seventh year, Graffiti Zone offers a variety of programs and activities, in addition to its flagship drop-in studio. These include:

Afterschool arts programs and classes for children and teens;
Arts business activities, where students learn to put on their own art shows and generate income from their work;
Neighborhood beautification projects, including murals and lot cleanups;
The Humboldt Park Art Fair, an annual celebration of art, music, poetry and dance in the community;
An Artist-In-Residence program for young adults ages 18-26; and
Ongoing academic, career development and life skills support for all participants.
Anti- Violence Marches and  other group projects

Many Graffiti Zone youth are victims of abuse and neglect, and the trauma that results from a culture of substance abuse, gang violence and community despair. For disadvantaged children and teens, the abstract idea of “the future” can seem distant, scary, or even unattainable.
Rather than asking children what they want to be when they grow up, Graffiti Zone encourages them to define what they want to be right now, in the present moment. What role do they want to play in the community? How can they avoid the problems, and be part of the solutions?

In keeping with its youth-centered approach, Graffiti Zone’s organizational objectives reflect input from its participants. They include the following:  

Provide a safe space to be creative
Provide access to a variety of art mediums and resources
Provide opportunities for artists of all ages to show and sell their work
Introduce business and money management skills
Engage the community in the arts
Share resources and collaborate with artists, organizations and businesses
Provide support for academic success
Encourage secondary education
Provide income potential
Offer opportunities for young people of all ages, including those transitioning to adulthood

Notes on population served:

West Humboldt Park – particularly the stretch of Chicago Avenue where Graffiti Zone’s studio is located – is one of Chicago’s most impoverished, crime-ridden and underserved communities. Every day, young people in the neighborhood struggle with the threats of gangs, guns and drugs. Nearly every Graffiti Zone participant reports having lost a loved one(s) to gang violence. West Humboldt Park is a community made up almost entirely of minorities, and Graffiti Zone serves a population that is approximately 80% African-American and 20% Latino.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s Crime in Chicago Report for the Humboldt Park Community Area, covering the period of October 2012 to October 2013:

913 violent crimes took place, including 19 homicides and 307 instances of battery;
2,358 property crimes took place, including theft, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson;
5,972 quality of life crimes took place, including narcotics, prostitution and criminal damage;
Nearly 3,000 narcotics-related crimes were recorded, placing Humboldt Park among the 10% of Chicago Community Areas with the most active drug trade.

Of over 56,000 people living in Humboldt Park, nearly 40% lack a high school diploma or equivalent. 12.3% are unemployed, with thousands more underemployed and uninsured. The per-capita income for the Community Area is a meager $13,391 – less than half of the per-capita income for the City of Chicago. Poor, undereducated individuals and families are concentrated on the west side of the Humboldt Park Community Area; and, based on staff experience, Graffiti Zone estimates that the number of families living in poverty in its immediate vicinity approaches 100%.

On April 25, 2012, the Chicago Reader published an article titled “Besieged,” which began: West Humboldt Park is one of America’s biggest open-air drug markets. What does that mean for its residents?

The article paints a picture of all that Graffiti Zone youth are up against. It goes on to describe the poor living conditions in West Humboldt Park, both a cause and result of the rampant drug activity. In this vicious cycle, the community’s young people continue to fall prey to the drug trade, which offers a tangible source of income and connections, in spite of its violent consequences.

Graffiti Zone falls within police beat 1112, which consistently ranks among the top three beats in the city for narcotics arrests. The article goes on:
The volume of drug busts here is astounding: more than six a day, for everything from low-level pot possession to dealing crack. But the neighborhood is probably best known for heroin. In those two beats alone [beats 1112 and 1121], there were more than 1,000 arrests for dealing or possessing heroin last year, accounting for one of every six heroin arrests citywide.This is one of the city's most violent areas as well—hardly a coincidence, since, police say, the drug market is tied to most of the area's bloodshed. Last year at least 17 people were murdered in the two beats, more than the three- or four-year totals of many of the city's quieter neighborhoods.

Recently the 11th districts Capt. Roger Bay who was featured in another article in the reader about West Humboldt park, wrote Graffiti Zone a letter stating, “Once the Graffiti Zone took residency , nothing but positive events have been occurring…Graffiti Zone has hosted such event as an art show and anti-violence march in which the police have been invited. Their work, as a part of After School Matters Program, has benefited our community by providing guidance to local youth and providing a location for positive activities.”

Children in the neighborhood usually have no means of leaving. Many cannot afford fare for public transportation, and have rarely left the few blocks they call home – if ever. Because underserved youth lack access to transportation, it is imperative that afterschool programs are offered within walking distance of their schools and homes. For this reason, Graffiti Zone maintains its studio in the heart of this troubled community, ensuring a safe and accessible place for at-risk youth.

 Current programs and activities

Afterschool drop-in studio

All young people in the neighborhood are welcome to visit the Graffiti Zone art studio on weekdays after school. Upon arriving, new visitors are given art books to look through, and instructed to choose a picture that they like. To help them start creating, staff members guide them through the exercise of copying what they see, and teaching them skills to recreate the image. During this process kids learn about new artists and styles and eventually start to choose their owns style. Children who regularly come to the studio complete increasingly complex projects in a variety of media. Staff members work with each student, providing individualized instruction and imparting new skills. Several art shows are scheduled each year, and children are responsible for fundraising, planning, publicizing and running the events. They have the opportunity to speak about and sell their work, keeping the income that they generate through sales.

 Graffiti Zone’s approach combines art instruction with social services practices, such as street outreach, youth empowerment and referrals to additional community resources. In the process of working with the students, Graffiti Zone instructors learn about their lives and the challenges they face, and identify additional supports to help each child.


Artist in Residence program

Graffiti Zone partnered up with School of the Art Institute to help provide valuable teaching experience for students who are going into arts education. The college students lead classes and workshops and help with events. This program also offers space for kids who have graduated high school to continue their craft. The teaching artists receive a stipend for their support.

West Town Academy

Graffiti Zone is a proud partner of West Town Academy. WTA enrolls former Chicago Public Schools drop-outs ages 17-21 and helps our at-risk young people get a fresh start in life by providing them with a second chance to earn a high school diploma. We partnered up to provide service for GREAT (Gaining Re-integration through Education, Advocacy and Training) Opportunities program, which provides education, training and support services to youth and young adults returning from the juvenile justice system. Graffiti Zone provides support for 2 internships and 2 art and business classes to teens 4 dya s a week.

Next Top Artist

Next Top Artist Contest, one of the few, if not the only, annual competition for Chicago youth- 10 years of age to 18 . The Next Top Artist contest offers participants a chance to win cash prizes, discover their hidden talents, increase self-esteem, network, develop business skills, and display their art for sale at our annual NTA contest. Last year we held the contest at Alternatives, a youth program on the Northside, this year we teamed up with Rowe Clark Math and Science Academy to give their student an opportunity to participate.

 Humboldt Park Art Fair

Graffiti Zone presented the first-annual Humboldt Park Art Fair in 2006. A collaboration between emerging and established artists in a variety of disciplines, all proceeds from the festival benefit Graffiti Zone’s programming. Sponsored by partners Aldermen Reboyras and Burnett the Humboldt Park Art Fair is a grassroots expression of Chicago’s urban arts scene. Each year artists and musical/performance acts come together for the fair.

Graffiti Zone’s young artists and Artists in Residence play a lead role in organizing the festival. They communicate with partner organizations, identify participating artists, schedule performances and festival events, promote the festival to the public and help secure sponsorships and donated goods.

 Murals and Neighborhood Beautification

Graffiti Zone has nurtured partnerships with dozens of individuals and organizations in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, working together to improve the community through collaborative projects. With support from local business owners, community organizations and aldermen Walter Burnett and Ariel Reboyras, Graffiti Zone completes several murals and  lot cleanups  each year. In 2013, Graffiti Zone youth participated in a community gardening project, which exposed them to the growing urban gardening movement. Graffiti Zone and it partners have created 6 community murals.

 Partners and Sponsors

Graffiti Zone partners with dozens of local organizations and businesses who host its shows, collaborate on community art and beautification projects, and participate in the Humboldt Park Art Fair. These include, but are not limited to:

Kevin Durant Foundation

After School Matters

Chicago Department of Family and Support Services

Department of Children and Family Services

Chicago Public Radio

Springboard Foundation

Field Foundation

Chicago Tribune Foundation

Richard H. Driehaus Charitable Lead Trust


Blick Art

Chicago Children’s Museum

Chicago Urban Arts Museum

Best Buy

Peggy Notebaert Museum

Rowe Clark High School

Whole Foods Stores

Urban Arts Society

Vocalo Radio




Green Star Project


Rumble Arts

Alderman Reboyras

Alderman Burnett

Alderman Maldonado

Bethel New Life

Haugen Middle school


WBEZ Graffiti Gives Creative Outlet to Youth

WBEZ The Changing Face of Humboldt Park

Gapers Block  Graffiti for Good

The Red Line Project   Legal Graffiti hopes to change the face of West Humboldt Park

DNA Info Graffiti Zone starts an Artist in Residence program

The Youth Project   A House of Art Offering Inner-City Youth a Creative Out

Chicago Talks   Graffiti Zone Provides Creative Outlet for Students in At-Risk Neighborhood

Color Lines


2011 Next Top Artist



2008 Humboldt Park Art Fair