As a boy growing up in northern Philadelphia, Thomas Bellmon spray- painted abandoned buildings for "Zulu Nation," a large, well-known gang he associated with in "a pretty rough section" of the city.
Zulu Nation members were like family, who fought for each other and spray painted buildings to leave their mark, he said. "It was kind of sacred."
But Mr. Bellmon soon learned the dangers of gang life. Five of his relatives ended up in prison, and his youngest brother was shot.
Today, he is a Howard County Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) police officer who is trying to do what a Philadelphia officer did for him: help at-risk youngsters.
"Every time he [the officer] saw me out there, he said, 'Kid, you don't need to be out here,' " Mr. Bellmon said. "He was like a guardian angel because when something negative was happening, it's like this guy was right there."
Mr. Bellmon, 32, has helped county teen-agers find constructive uses for their graffiti and other skills -- with colorful, streetwise posters and a funky line of $17 T-shirts called "Real Wear."
Many of the teen-agers Mr. Bellmon helps have spray-painted buildings or had other brushes with the law, he said. Some youths who get into trouble come from broken families and lack the love and guidance they need, he said.
"There are a lot of kids who have a lot of potential but get caught up in the games of life," he said.
One of the T-shirt designs shows a macho-looking brown bulldog and is emblazoned with the words, "Bad To The Bone, 100 Percent Stubborn."
"What I try and do is give them an avenue where they can just be free and do what they feel," Mr. Bellmon said. "My objective is giving the kids an outlet -- to get them to do something constructive instead of, you know, vandalizing people's property . . and have it recognized. Their whole thing is recognition."
Mr. Bellmon persuaded Roy Davis, owner of Associated Business Products, a commercial and business supply shop in Ellicott City, to display the youths' creations in his store.
"These boys are talented," Mr. Davis said. "If they can keep their heads together and be creative, why not help them?"
An artist himself, Mr. Bellmon studied industrial art at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He left Philadelphia in 1986 to work for the Howard County Police Department. He is married and has three sons, ages 8, 9 and 12.
Eventually, he wants to establish a site where the teen-agers can meet to create their designs. Until then, Mr. Bellmon picks up the youths' work and delivers it to Mr. Davis' store.
Many of the youths, whom Mr. Bellmon met in schools during his D.A.R.E. duties or through referrals, repeatedly call him, pledging to study and work harder.
Their creations include air-brush and spray-painting designs and hip-hop drawings.
A poster designed by Chris Gogel, 15, reads: "I'm not a vandal, I'm an artist."
Chris, a sophomore at Mount Hebron High School who Mr. Bellmon calls "The Philosopher," said the experience has changed his view of police officers and of graffiti.
His mother, Rona Gogel, is pleased that Mr. Bellmon helps Chris and says her son is more confident.
"Chris has seen his troubled days," she said. "This is a way of turning something that really could have been trouble into something positive."
Ms. Gogel admitted that she hasn't always considered Chris' "art" to be art.
"At first I thought of it as graffiti -- now I try and look at it differently [to see] what kind of message he's trying to get across," she said.
"They say, 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' I guess art is the same."
The Ellicott City woman said the project allows teen-agers to do something constructive in their spare time.
"It would be a shame to see [their talent] wasted," she said.
Mr. Bellmon decided to help the youngsters after hearing complaints two months ago about graffito defacing county buildings.
"I didn't really realize how much graffiti was being done in the county," Mr. Bellmon said.
The officer said it can cost as much as $3,000 to remove.
The county Police Department does not keep separate statistics for graffiti offenses. Police spokesman Sgt. Steven E. Keller said graffiti falls into the vandalism/destruction of property category, which last year totaled 3,178 reports, down from 3,337 in 1992.
Rodney Cook, 18, a cartoonist, said Mr. Bellmon gives him and the other teen-agers a chance to express themselves.
"Graffiti was never me," said Mr. Cook, who hopes to become an animator for the Walt Disney Co. "I need something with a point -- a pen, pencil or even an air brush, these are my utensils."