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Former graffiti artists put talent to work in Woodside

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"We were notoriously known in our high school," said Maspeth resident Mel Soto, 34, who along with his high school pal Rolando Rodriguez spent a lot of the Ô80s putting up graffiti.Eventually they got tired of hurriedly scrawling their art on any flat surface they could find, always looking over their shoulders for the cops, said Rodriguez, 36, who still lives in East New York, where the pair grew up.So Soto, now a music teacher at IS 125 in Woodside, and Rodriguez, a UPS worker who plans to dedicate himself full time to art, decided to clean up their act and a few graffiti-ridden neighborhoods while they were at it.Their outfit, dubbed "Two Famous Artists Productions," volunteers and hires itself out to replace chaotic graffiti scrawlings with mural images rooted in an area's character."For about 10 years we took away a lot of stuff doing graffiti, now we're giving back," said Rodriguez, who admitted he had a few brushes with the law while he was plying his artistic trade with illicit graffiti.They have taken their graffiti and "melded it really with traditional art," he said. During the next couple of months Ñ provided the weather holds Ñ Soto and Rodriguez will restore the aging mural located on 61st Street just north of Roosevelt Avenue. They said the they will update the people and their clothing while weaving in some original elements to reflect the new face of Woodside forged by recent immigration.The original mural, which Rodriguez said was covered over with removable gray paint while a movie was being filmed in the area, featured the No. 7 line and some other neighborhood symbols. "It's so much more diverse now than 12 years ago when that mural was done," Soto said Monday while out taking measurements for another mural they are slated to work on around the corner, under the 61st Street station on Roosevelt Avenue.The Roosevelt Avenue mural will be a "cornucopia," they said, and will include scene of neighborhood vendors.First up this year, though, will be a graffiti-laden Sunnyside roof visible from the No. 7 subway train, Soto said. "We're going to be up there for a while because it's got a lot of graffiti," Soto said of the project on the roof of a building at 39th Street and Queens Boulevard. The pair have already worked out a couple of sketches Ñ leaning more toward art than graffiti, Soto said Ñ which they will share with Sunnyside Community Services, the group they are working with.Soto and Rodriguez just completed some touch-up work on a mural they painted last summer with the help of Woodside on the Move, neighborhood youth and some of Soto's students at the intersection of 39th Avenue and 58th Street.Now scenes of an aqueduct at sunset, images of aquatic flora and fauna and a more than 30-foot-wide homage to the 2000 Subway Series between the Mets and the Yankees grace three of the walls there."It was so dark, it was just garbage," Soto said of the shaded stretch where Jamaica-bound Long Island Rail Road trains pass overhead. "Before people were scared to walk through here. Now they come just to see (the murals.)"The pair has big plans for the future."I think this year we're gonna take it full blown," said Soto, who wants to extend the model of community-based mural painting to other areas throughout the borough. They hope to collect donations from local businesses to cover the cost of supplies Ñ paint, scaffolding and the like Ñ for projects in other areas.Rodriguez said he originally came to art after watching his brother draw comic books. "That was like the little bug," he said. His love of graffiti came from watching his friends in school, wondering what the markers they brought to school were all about.For the most part, taggers and other graffiti artists have respected the murals, said Rodriguez, who said he wasn't too worried about people who failed to steer clear of the pair's work."You can put up your tags, but we have more paint," he said. "Find a wall you can do yourself." The artists can be reached at twofamousartists@hotmail.comReach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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