Youth therapist Paul Phillips was shocked when he visited a client’s home in Lismore. Some truly upsetting graffiti had been scrawled all over the house’s internal walls. “Not just tags, but real depressing stuff,” Paul sighed.

The youth worker had an idea: if the walls were to have graffiti on them, it may as well be of a better quality. “I suggested to the workers there that we come in and do some pieces on the walls of something positive,” he said. “We got the young people involved in each of their walls.”

The move was a great success. One young person came up with a colourful tag reading “Good Vibes” and another, even more creatively, commissioned a car doing a burnout with the word “family” written in smoke. “It came out really well,” Paul said.

The idea worked so well that Paul’s organisation, The Buttery, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Lismore on the NSW North Coast, rolled it out as part of their outreach, harm-reduction and early-intervention program.

Throughout Australia, many young people struggle with substance abuse. To counteract this before it becomes a serious issue, Paul runs counselling sessions and workshops full of fun activities that are designed to give the kids something else to do. “It’s early intervention with kids who are at risk – they might just be dabbling in drugs, or they might come from difficult backgrounds,” Paul said. “We get in with those kind of kids and do loads of positive activities that help them build resilience, strength and confidence, and at the very least give them a hobby.”

Together with some of the finest graffiti artists in the country, Paul takes groups of kids to walls around town on which it is legal for them to paint, so the artists can teach them the finer details of street art. A grant from Coca-Cola Australia Foundation enabled him to invest in materials for the program. “The main problem is that the paint’s really expensive,” he said. “One of the first things I did with the grant was to buy a heap of good quality paint so I could have it there when things come up.”

Paul said he sees victories from the program all the time. He often bumps into former participants who have overcome serious problems such as ice addiction and taken up apprenticeships or jobs around town. One is a promising artist. “One of the girls was quite heavily into dope,” said Paul. “She loves street art, but she’d never really done it before. Since then, we’ve gone down to a legal wall in town and done her first proper, big piece.”

Paul is certain that the street art program not only encouraged the young woman creatively, but built trust between the pair. “Now I don’t doubt that if she runs into any problems in the future, she’ll easily reach out,” said Paul. “It breaks down the barriers.”