Graffiti Artists and Drug Dealers Put Skills to New Uses

Jesus Romero, 26, and Jacob Robles, 24, are leading a community self-reliance group in Barrio Centro, a neighborhood struggling with poverty in central Tucson. The group, Flowers and Bullets, invites members to use their skills in new, productive ways, through projects in agriculture and art.

The two men, friends since childhood, started Flowers and Bullets in 2012, a response to the Tucson Unified School District’s decision to shut down its Mexican American Studies department under financial and political pressure from the state.

Mr. Romero, known as Tito, and Mr. Robles, former students at the Tucson Magnet High School, worked for the department as assistants and mentors right after graduation. They joined the community effort to preserve the curriculum by protesting outside school board meetings.

Opponents charged that Mexican American Studies, including Chicano art and literature classes, were politically radical and racially divisive, although they were open to all students.

Supporters of Mexican American Studies, known as MAS, touted the cultural connections, critical thinking and community activism that the curriculum and teachers inspired.

We always told them to “go back to where you come from and make it better,” said Jose Gonzalez, a former MAS teacher who had Mr. Robles and Mr. Romero in his government class.

Mr. Robles and Mr. Romero lost their jobs when the department was dismantled.

“In the end we weren’t left with much for ourselves. We have no college degrees, we work working-class jobs. There are no prestigious titles or any recognition for that work we did.”

— Jacob Robles

He and Mr. Romero decided to put into action the lessons from MAS in their own neighborhood, Barrio Centro, through the creation of Flowers and Bullets.

“Our neighborhood is a big Mexicano Chicano neighborhood,” Mr. Robles said. “We try to glorify our indigenous background and kind of acknowledge our history.”

Barrio Centro is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood bordered by a rail yard and a cross-town parkway. It is part of Ward 5, which has the city’s highest percentage of people receiving food stamps or cash public assistance and residents older than 25 without a high school diploma.

Everyone is welcome to participate in Flowers and Bullets — teenagers who have left high school, drug dealers, addicts, single parents, taggers and convicted felons. It has approximately two dozen members, ages 19 to late 50s.

“When we work with some of the guys in the neighborhood, we’re like, ‘Yo, we know that you’re using the scale for something other than food sales,’” Mr. Romero said, referring to drug dealers. But that is O.K., he said, because Flowers and Bullets is about working with members’ reality, not forcing a change from outside. Mr. Robles and Mr. Romero both made it a point to say that knowledge is an asset, even if it comes from an illegal activity.

Members are taught to become more self-sufficient through agriculture. Mr. Romero raises goats. He said two of them, Chino and Cajeta, would soon be slaughtered. Eating meat from the animals they raise is part of the indigenous process of connecting with the earth, he said.

Jesus Romero, 26, a co-founder of Flowers and Bullets, with carrots that he grew in his yard.
Jesus Romero, 26, a co-founder of Flowers and Bullets, with carrots that he grew in his yard.NOELLE HARO-GOMEZ/NYT INSTITUTE

Ten members have backyard gardens. They produce food for themselves and also sell some of it at the downtown farmer’s market. In addition, they make and sell soaps, canned products — such as pickled jalapeños — and seasonal jams and jellies.

“We started a co-op,” Mr. Romero said. “Two of our members have chickens, so we have eggs for ourselves. We trade food for ourselves, and one of our youngest members has, like, an indoor-grown garden and we buy plants from him.”

Members take orders online and by word of mouth. They plan to hold their own Flowers and Bullets market this summer at the Wooden Nickel Tavern, a neighborhood bar.

Joseph Varela, the bar’s owner, agreed to let the group use his licensed kitchen to cook, can, label and sell their food.

“This guy, he tries to keep the other guys out of trouble, and that’s why I like them and want to help them,” Mr. Varela said.

Mr. Gonzalez said he is proud of how his former students have “responded to a need in their neighborhood by going back to what our people have always done: agriculture and having a relationship with the earth.”

Flowers and Bullets also searches for ways to help its graffiti artists showcase their work and gain recognition and compensation, without the risk of arrest that comes with tagging in public spaces.

Member artists design and sell t-shirts for $15 at events and local coffee shops. Proceeds are plowed back into the enterprise.

Flowers and Bullets members were hired to help students create a mural inside the ACE Charter High School in 2012.

“We have to get beyond the stigma that graffiti is a gang thing or just a marking of territory. It is a form of expression for kids who are in a loop of poverty.”

— Emily Ruddick, an ACE teacher

Some Flowers and Bullets artists have become entrepreneurs. Nito Bravo, 24, was one of the organization’s first members. He belonged to a gang in high school but eventually gravitated to the graffiti crowd.

Mr. Bravo now sells his artwork in Phoenix. “I hope we can keep pushing Flowers and Bullets forward for the community, kids and other generations to know that there is something positive out here and that we can do this in our small community and make it a big thing,” he said.

Another member, Dora Martinez, 27, said Flowers and Bullets’ agriculture and art projects are only a means to help the community address the systemic causes of poverty that are part of life in Barrio Centro.

German Quiroga, an officer at the Barrio Centro Neighborhood Association, said he supports what the group is doing even though he is not wild about its name.

Shirts designed by graffiti artists with Flowers and Bullets are a source of income for the group.
Shirts designed by graffiti artists with Flowers and Bullets are a source of income for the group.Noelle Haro-Gomez/NYT Institute

“I believe their mission is economic justice, which we support despite the name that has a bitter irony,” he said. “That’s how they depict their reality.”

The name Flowers and Bullets is confrontational by design.

“The bullets are like that struggle — that resistance,” Mr. Robles said.

“Everything we and our homies have gone through to make the flower beautiful.”