Tony Villaneda touches up a painting in a graffiti art exhibit about the school-to-prison pipeline in the Bush Barn Annex on Nov. 7, 2019. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The smell of spray paint hung thick in the air of the Bush Barn Annex Thursday evening as a half dozen teen artists touched up their work, snacked and listened to music.

Over the past three days, the group has transformed the typically white walls of the exhibition space into a red and yellow canvass of graffiti art, mixing spray paint and acrylics to speak about their experiences as Latino young people in Salem.

The exhibit, which opens Friday night with a reception from 6-9 p.m., focuses on the way young people of color are disproportionately disciplined in schools, a system advocates often call the “school to prison pipeline.”

The exhibit is part of a partnership between Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth advocacy organization, and the Salem Art Association.

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READ: Latinos Unidos Siempre teams up with Salem Art Association to highlight urban art

Tony Villaneda, 16, painted white bubble letters across the walls saying things like “no justice no peace,” “power to the people” and “no sellout.” He said art has given him a way to understand and speak about social issues that he otherwise might have glossed over in school.

“Textbooks make things look boring, but using art attracts more attention to it,” he said.

In the Salem-Keizer School District, about 40% of students are Latino, but they account for half of district expulsions, according to federal civil rights data from 2016. Black students fare worse: they’re more than three times as likely to be suspended as their white peers.

Villaneda has personally experienced that system. In third grade, he said he was suspended for bringing a nail file to school.

“From there, it got worse,” he said. Teachers who knew of his suspension viewed him as a bad kid, and he continued getting in trouble over things he saw go overlooked when white classmates did them: wearing a hoodie to school, for example.

“I never felt welcome at school. My confidence of speaking up to teachers was really low,” he said.

In middle school, he discovered Latinos Unidos Siempre and began hanging out with other young people, making graffiti art and studying the lyrics of hip-hop songs, which he said improved his reading. It was the first place he felt welcome.

Each wall in the barn has a black backdrop with layers of white letters and red and yellow sections. There was no coordinated plan for the space when the artists entered early this week: it was all improv.

Latinos Unidos Siempre coordinator Sandra Hernández-Lomelí adds detail to a painting in an exhibit at the Bush Barn Annex. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, said young artists will be in the Barn most afternoons and evenings, adding to the walls and speaking to people who come in about the messages in their work.

The exhibit runs through Dec. 5, and artists will host a panel discussion and community potluck Nov. 23 once more of the walls are complete.

Jesus Arrellano painted one of the larger pieces, showing a young person wearing a blue cap and gown behind bars in immigration detention.

Arrellano said the pieces depicts his own challenges as a young immigrant who’s the first in his family to attend college. He’s close to many immigrants who are undocumented and said there’s extra fear over getting in trouble at school because any arrest or referral to law enforcement could result in contacting immigration authorities.

“You have to try to be as a good of a kid as you can because any sort of trouble can bring deportation to your family,” he said.

Arrellano’s family is originally from Mexico, and he grew up on the East Coast surrounded mostly by Puerto Rican and African-American families. He didn’t have much connection to his culture until moving to Salem in high school.

Now, he’s in his final year studying graphic design at Chemeketa Community College.

“It’s hard sometimes to express your feelings and when you have art, you just go,” he said.

A graffiti art exhibit by young people with Latinos Unidos Siempre will be on display at the Bush Barn Annex through Dec. 5.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.