08/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
The writing was on the wall and its message was clear: Chris Coggan, 17, was a full-fledged addict. "It was an obsession," says the Los Angeles high school senior. "I couldn't stop." Coggan skipped school. He disappeared for hours at a time. He spent more than $150 on 11-ounce cans of spray paint. During a three-month rampage last winter, as one of L.A.'s most infamous graffitists, Coggan sprayed his "tag" name, Ozone, on walls, benches and mailboxes. Then, in April, he had a change of art.
Coggan saw the owner of a local shop struggling to scrub a bright blue Ozone from the wall. "I felt sick," he recalls. "I wanted to repaint the whole building for him. I never tagged Ozone again." Coggan about-faced with fervor. He laid down his logo cold turkey and began "piecing"—painting murals—on specially designated city walls. He spoke to high school classes about the evils of illicit spraying and helped organize cleanup projects.
But Coggan's conversion may have come too late. In May, long after he'd sprayed his last Ozone, he was charged with felony vandalism and sentenced to 40 hours of community service. Now Coggan, who has enrolled in art school for the fall, is keeping his name—and works—on display in the aerosol art world. He "muralizes" friends' bedrooms on request, has just finished a 20-foot piece for a small theater in the San Fernando Valley and has plans for a retaining wall in his Woodland Hills neighborhood.
The citizens there remain skeptical. "They have some heartburn over making a hero out of a kid who made such a mess of their community," says officer Tom Shaw, 43, of the LAPD. "My son is not a bad kid," protests Coggan's mom, Jean, also 43. "He's just a mixed-up middle-class teenager."
Hmmm...it's just possible the judge may have heard that one before.