A Captive Audience 

Things get pretty weird for young cutting-edge muralists when their audience, and their potential funding, are products of the juvenile justice system.

Page 3 of 5

"I could handle a moon," the brightest of the bunch says. "Maybe a crescent moon ..."

Real smiles and laughter appear, and spontaneous thoughts begin to pour out: "Maybe you can do a maze like those mazes that they put rats into, and they have to find their way to the cheese," one boy says. "Maybe have a kid where the rat is, with the staff watching him run ..."

Herschel calls for the next question.

"Who's your favorite artist?" one finalist asks.

Silence. The kids look at their nails or kick at their sneakers.

"Steven Spielberg?" one says.

"You!" says the crescent-moon kid, pointing to Isis' T-shirt. "I've seen that before in Low Rider magazine. I like that."

Isis is flattered.

"He's an artist too," boasts Crescent Moon's friend. "I'm his roommate and he draws all the time. His drawings are good."

Crescent Moon blushes and tells him to shut up.

Soon after, the boys file out, hands behind their backs. Next up are the girls: nine young ladies in Velcro sneakers, white socks, and red and blue Juvie sweats. They appear sullen and a bit nervous. No makeup or hair products. The intro is similar, and Herschel asks what they'd want to see in "their house."

"Stuff about girls not getting pregnant ..."

"Something inspirational ..."

"Something funny ..."

"Something with community support ..."

"Quotes from poets and community leaders ..."

"A relaxing ocean scene ..."

"Maybe some stars ..."

Not much to work with, figures Isis, who can recall her own bitterness upon getting her period at age thirteen and realizing she could never again feel carefree about sex.

The Kansas-born cartoonist teaches art one day a week, but subsists mostly on illustrations and the murals she has done in the Mission. She arrived in the Bay Area from the Midwest after getting her undergraduate degree and enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. Finding it too expensive, she dropped out and immersed herself in the Chicano and sex-workers'-rights scenes, living in bad parts of town and battling against strip-club owners who imposed stage fees on their girls. By 2002, her cartoon tough-girls had developed a distinctive Chicano-ness along with a sly, fun wink.

When someone asks the juvie girls what animal they'd most like to be, Isis notices that nearly all choose predators: "Tough. Independent. They can't be herded," she says. "My dad used to call me Tigress, and that imagery has always been important."

Isis' 1997 series My Life as a Comic Stripper features a telling picture entitled No More, a topless woman wearing an American flag bandanna, and waving a gun with her legs spread wide. A Bengal tiger leaps from her crotch. Her work has since mellowed to more studied comics that eschew action in favor of form. She's going the fine-arts route, but unlike Keba, is willing to do whatever the kids want. "I do two types of art," she tells them. "Stuff for myself, and stuff for other people.

Catalina, who has otherwise remained silent during the meeting, asks the day's most revealing question: "If you could open yourselves up and show us what's inside of you, what would we see?" When the girls don't respond, she tries again: "If we could rip open your chest, what would come out?"

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