Caleb Davenport, left, Tavias Williams, center, and Jawon Young paint a mural at Mark Making's Glass Farms neighborhood studio on Friday, July 7, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mark Making employed East Chattanooga teenagers to paint murals for the Glass Street area.

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Magic Marker TeensMark Making camp employs youth to beautify Glass Street

Guitar music sounds softly as nearly a dozen local teens color strokes on a canvas to hang on a vacant building.

By beautifying the building, they hope to raise Glass Street and the East Chattanooga community out of the disinvestment that pulls it down.

"We put this up," says a 13-year-old painter, Tavias Williams, "and they'll look at it and say, 'Wow' that's good."

Instead of being a place of boarded-up buildings with a crime rate twice as high as the national average, these teens want people to see the value in uplifting East Chattanooga's people and property.

Tavias is among 40 local teens painting a better world for the community this summer and getting paid while doing it.

The Lillian L. Colby Foundation and the George R. Johnson Foundation funded $26,000 to local arts organization Mark Making for the project, called Magic Marker Teens.

The majority of the money goes toward teen salaries, explains Zach Atchely, Mark Making's assistant director.

Each teen works for one week Monday through Friday and gets paid on Saturday.

Ten of the 40 participants have worked all three years since the Magic Marker project began. They get paid at least minimum wage for the minimum requirement of being at work every day on time. Those with more artistic and social skills get paid up to $10 an hour.

This summer, the students have hung the canvases on the vacant building in the gravel lot across the street from the Archway building.

The goal is to bring positive attention to Glass Street, and it's working, says Atchely.

Within the past five years, eight businesses or nonprofit organizations have moved to the Glass Street area, and public and private investors have bankrolled $1.3 million for sidewalks, bus shelters and street lights, says Glass House Collective co-founder Teal Thibaud.

Magic Markers is a camp, but organizers treat it like a job. Teens have studied neighborhood issues like poverty and gang violence, and they think about how they can solve the problems, Atchely says.

"This artwork is meant to help transform the community. It's the opposite of the dirty mattress theory that says if you walk by an empty lot and throw a dirty mattress there, other people are likely to put trash on an empty lot because they think it's OK. But if you beautify a vacate lot, then more people will follow suit."

At the Mark Making Studio on Glass Street, colorful graffiti-style paintings depict the words "Lead," "Own" and "Care," attitudes teens want implemented in the Glass Street area.

Local poet Russell McGee Jr., aka Genesis the Greykid, helped youths with the word choices.

"Words," he says, "can be bullets or they can be seeds."

Contact Yolanda Putman at or423-757-6431.