Way Past Taggin

Graffiti Art, Detroit

I ain’t no toy, not no more. I been writin’ since I could tip a brush and a spray can, and now I can tag, piece and get up better than Smak and Daze, and they call themselves the kings of Krylon, rulin’ the buildings and billboards from midnight ‘til mornin’. But I don’t do what they do, fat cappin’ their gang tags so everyone can see, bubble letters in gold and red across freeway overhangs and laid up train cars. I used to do throw ups, tag Doom in huge black around white letters on garage doors, telephone poles, the urinals at Coney Island, hell, anywhere I could reach. But that ain’t art, that’s just writin’ your name like you learnt in kinner-garten. Listen, taggin’s alright, especially for toys, but it’s wac if you ain’t got much else after five years.

Smak and Daze, they ain’t got much else, and that’s why they want me in the Bloodhounds. They say I got to get hooked up, that it ain’t good writin’ alone with the city puttin’ cameras all up in here, that they won’t bother with the face cuttin’ but I gotta wear the cap with the BH on the side. I wanna ask who did that, like did their grandmas stay up late watchin’ TV and sewin’ these bloody letters with red thread and not askin’ what it all means. What it means is Smak and Daze know I’m good and they wanna keep me close ‘cause the best writers get respect and they ain’t the best writers no more with their loose taggin’ and their sloppy taggin’ and their ain’t got no play taggin’. What I know is I’m way past taggin’ and they ain’t got nothin’ on me. I got my own style. I got my own beefs. I got eyes in the back a my fuckin’ head.

I never told no one I went to the local art school for a year as the poor, hungry black kid after my grandma showed ‘em my stuff, that everything I learnt there fell right through my head, that I just stared at the old white dude who taught colour and light, watched him match up colours on a wheel, watched him shade boxes and circles to make ‘em jump off the page, watched him do shit I’d been doin’ on the side of Bank One and Compuware for three years.

The jewellery lady was nice with her frizzy hair and her hippie clothes and her small hands she used to touch everybody like she meant it ‘cause she did. She’d thread glass beads onto wires with those tiny fingers, starin’ ‘til her eyes were crossed, forgettin’ about everything but the bead and the wire. I thought bad shit then, like I could crack her in the skull and steal her purse and she wouldn’t be able to figure it out ‘cause her life right then was the bead and the wire, but I never did ‘cause I saw that she was just like me when I was piecin’: my life was the paint and the wall and the need to get them together. My life still is the paint and the wall and the need to get them together, and that’s why Smak and Daze want me in their crew: I’m good ‘cause I feed off the hiss of the nozzle, the rattle of the can, the masterpiece that keeps me goin’ ‘til I can do it all over again.

But they had no room for what I did in school, no wild style, no piecin’. I couldn’t do with an airbrush what I did with the can so the teachers kept me down, kept sayin’ I had to do the time. It wasn’t so bad feelin’ like I was in prison, but I couldn’t take my art bein’ in prison, the pictures and ideas stuck somewhere between my head and my hand, me feelin’ full up all the time. So when I was 16 and flyin’ between funk and mind rage I left school. I was tired of itchin’ to get out while I was in, tired of the white boys tryin’ to get in with or to get over on me, tired of teachers tryin’ to figure out what art is instead of just doin’ it. Ain’t no explanation for lettin’ the thing inside you come out but that it gotta come out, and ain’t no thing to do but love or hate the thing after it does. When I left I was full of stuff I held in for too long, things I couldn’t even try to explain. Instead I just burned, got up everywhere and on anything standin’ still: phone booths, garbage cans, alley walls. Didn’t care right then if I got arrested or shot. I was free—no hassles, no memories. Then one night when I was piecin’ Dr. Doom across the side of a dead bus on Second somethin’ come to me without me knowin’ knowin’, and it was the eyes, not X-Man eyes but human eyes, and they were so damn good and perfect I didn’t care if they were on a cartoon. I thought then that maybe everything didn’t fall through my head at art school, that I had memories I could let come if I was careful and didn’t let ‘em fuck with my head the way the ones of my mom did. So I let in the old white dude and the hippie jewellery lady and the Chinese geek who drew faces so good it jabbed your gut to look at ‘em. They all came back in pieces—I saw the geek fleshin’ out a saggy mouth or the hippie woman twistin’ a wire. They came back when I was eatin’ a junior Whopper I begged from the drive-thru chick or loadin’ the cans into my backpack. They came back when I jumped the fence outside the train station and slit my leg on razor wire. They came back when I sat gaggin’ in a dumpster while copters slashed their lights across the truck yard. But when Ma showed up at the door of my memory I slammed it in her face. It’s all about choices. I sleep during the day so I can write at night, I steal or beg money to keep the paint stocked, I remember only what’ll make me a better writer ‘cause writin’s all I got and all I really need.

That’s why when I’m paintin’ The Black King across a buffed-up billboard I remember somethin’ about proportion, and I work all night and into the day, and cars slammin’ down 75 honk and the people scream and they’re happy with the proportion, and so am I. Not even Ace’s gone over The Black King, and he’s about the only other writer good enough to maybe do somethin’ better. That’s the rule on the street: if you can’t outdo what you wanna go over, stay the fuck off.

Before I spray those cops shootin’ rainbows from their guns into the hearts of two gangbangers across the side of the City County Building, I sit in the bushes for a long time rememberin’ what that white dude said about mixing, about colours at war and colours at peace, and then I put up some shit you ain’t never gonna see on top a Krylon can. After that I stop taggin’ my work, and that’s tag enough. Everyone knows what’s mine, the ship named Detroit sinkin’ into a river of garbage on the bridge, the fat black Mona Lisa flippin’ people off above the museum entrance. The girls start smilin’ at me at the matinee, flash me signs I don’t flash back, smile again anyway. But Smak and Daze, they through. They follow me home from the show one day, bang on the door like to give Gran a heart attack. They say they don’t like it, say a brotha gotta take credit for his work, gotta get creds for his crew, especially with all these punk ass white boys out taggin’. But what they mean is they ain’t got room for no renegade writer, arrogant bastard shit bombin’ the fuck outta the city solo.

Scab absorbs other people’s pain, and that’s why I painted him over my bed where Ma used to be. Next to Scab are Ninja and Nefarius, and that’s the wall Gran took to the art school in a picture, and that’s why they wrote me a letter tellin’ me not to worry about tuition and books. Gran’s heart is bad, always been, and that’s why I can’t tell her I quit school. That and she also got me in and told me every day to be strong, to show ‘em I’m as good as they are. That’s easy for her to say, but even if I believed it there’s a whole other part she don’t know and won’t understand, and that’s the part about me seein’ every day that I’m different, that I ain’t got twenty dollar pencils and hundred dollar sweat shirts, that I don’t know nothin’ about Picasso or Wright and that what I do know don’t mean nothin’ in a place where they all know things different. So now I’m just a liar, hidin’ out, layin’ low. I find buildings to sleep in during the day, steal Fritos and Jolt from Tony’s or hit up the drive-through chick for lunch when Gran thinks I’m at school. Sometimes I eat dinner with her before the dark starts me cravin’ the wall and I tell her I’m studyin’ with some guys at school or that I’m goin’ to the computer lab. She startin’ to look at me funny, like Bloodhawk looks at the Rogue, with X-ray eyes.

* * *

I started out drawin’ comic book characters, over and over and over. I never got tired. I stole X-Men and Masters of the Universe comics, and I drew ‘em on napkins and cardboard and all over the walls of the flat Gran rents. When I was eight I used a picture to draw my mom over my bed, her long brown arms reachin’ for me. When I was 10 and she was still gone and I started to forget how she smelled and how she sounded, I got mad, and Grandma slapped me hard after I painted needles comin’ outta Ma’s arms but she cried when she did it ‘cause she knew I was paintin’ the truth, that she was never comin’ back and that those needles would kill her and by the time I was 12 I couldn’t give a fuck if they did. Smak and Daze fools if they think they can make a family outta their crew, if they think a homey gonna stand up when your own mother don’t.

But Smak and Daze don’t let up, and this mornin’ when I go to see The Black King—a piece so tight even the city ain’t rushin’ to buff it—somethin’ twists inside me. The king’s throat’s slashed in red, and his eyes are black and he’s smeared in globs of brown paint look like shit. Their tags are on it, the bent Smak and the bubble Daze I can hardly read but I can read, and below that it says Join the crew-BH. I wanna cry but I just get madder and start thinkin’ about joining another crew so they can help me roll over the B-Hound’s stuff, keep my pieces safe on the wall. The sinking Detroit and Mona Lisa are already gone, but I go anyway, and see Smak and Daze bombed both walls over the whitewash with tags, claimin’ territory, and they sprayed red X’s over my phone booth rat and on all my dumpster murals. They dissed my crew: Cyclops, Storm, Iceman, Kulan Gath. I start thinkin’ about the pieces I’ll do next: Cyclops cuttin’ Smak to shreds with his eye-beam or Storm stabbin’ a lightning bolt through his chest. But that’s just stupid since my crew can’t back me up when Smak and Daze and Metro and Booh come callin’. I go to the library and sit at a table and think about the bent Smak and the bubbled Daze and then I draw ‘em on library scrap paper ‘til it gets dark, ‘til the security guard tells me to shove off and puts a five in my pocket which lets me know I can buy some food straight up for a change and he’s an angel and I’m gonna write him large somewhere someday, like Thor or Captain America. I sit at the Burger King and draw the Smak and the Daze some more, draw ‘em ‘till I can’t stop, ‘til I get the tilt and even the paint drips right, ‘til even Smak and Daze won’t know the difference.

Then I’m on, and I’m over the fence at the train station and I’m hittin’ the cars with shit so bad I gotta work to mess it up and I sloppy ass tag it Smak and Daze and hope the other nightcrawlers see it before they do. It feels good to piece even when it’s bad, like a fix, but I’m still pissed my shit’s been pulled down by fucks can’t even throw up a clean tag. I’m a bomb tonight, change my style ‘till it only gets worse and lay it all on them, start a diss explosion, an ass beatin’ by the other crews who don’t play up in here, who ain’t havin’ bullshit on the city canvas.

Outside the Town Apartment where the wall’s been hit by every tagger in the city I start to throw up some wac mural until I see it blinkin’, a little red light on the front door awning. I throw up my hood right before the camera flashes, and then I step to the side and watch it for a while. There’s some old pallets stacked against the building, so I lean one against the wall under the camera, keepin’ my face down, and before I climb up I yank the Minted Gold and the Crimson Red markers out the backpack. Then I do what I could do in my sleep: I tag the bent Smak backward across the camera lens. After that I scout the overpasses for more cameras, and then I throw up a rabid dog with crossed eyes wearing a MCH cap and tag it big, the Smak and Daze pieced on leashes around the dog’s neck. This gonna bring out all the Motor City Hoods, and I only wish I could be there to watch ‘em roll up on Smak and Daze and their crew. Next I jump the Junior Bombers’ latest work with some trash, piece a JB tag with a bloody sword through it over their train car mural after checkin’ for camera lights. Now the Hoods and Bombers gonna be huntin’. After that I stop for the night; I know I gotta be cool. They ain’t gonna know it’s me—the work’s too sloppy—but without a crew I got to be cool.

I hang out with Gran the rest of the night, watch some TV, keep her company. She don’t look so good, and she say she feelin’ tired.

“The doctor say I need some test—”

“I love you Gran.” I say it ‘cause I do and there’s nothin’ else to say and I can’t stand to look in her eyes and know that she can’t have nothin’—a healthy heart, a nice house, a grandson who can make it in art school, who can plant his foot into the backwards system and step right anyway.

She leans into me, the ratty ass sofa squeakin’ like it’s bein’ tortured, her hair stickin’ up around her head like Apocalypse’s in the Grand Battle. “I love you too baby.”

“I got to tell you somethin’,” I say, feelin’ that old guilt blade sawin’ at my gut. “You can tell me about the doctor after. But I gotta tell you now.”

She hugs me, hard, and she starts cryin’ and she says, “I know, baby. The school called lookin’ for you and they didn’t say nothin’ but I knew. I was just waitin’ on you to tell me.”

“I’m sorry, Gran.”

“Maybe someday you’ll go back, show those people how to draw.”

“No,” I say. “I’ll find me a job, maybe at the Burger King.”

“Well,” she hugs me again. “We’ll figure it all out, baby. We’ll figure it out.”

She tells me her heart murmur’s changed, somethin’ about goin’ from a blip-blip-blip to a blip-blip. The doctor don’t like it, say she need some special test and I say I’ll take her and I will. I think for a long time about what it all means, Smak and Daze houndin’ me, erasin’ my soul in pieces, Gran gettin’ sicker. Maybe it’s time to stand up since I ain’t real interested in gettin’ arrested or killed right now. Maybe after I square up with the Bloodhounds I’ll stay off the wall for a while. I’ll throw a few more punches, make sure the other crews know the B-Hounds are frontin’, stakin’ all out claim, and then I’ll try to lay down.

“So, you a bat now?” Gran asks. “Where you go all night?”

She looks at my wrist, checks for watches, and I know now she been in my room lookin’ for CD players and Gameboys and all that, and I know all she ever find besides comic books and sketches are Krylon and Rustoleum.

“You be careful,” she says before I can answer, and she squeezes my hand and I can’t explain what I want to, how I always felt stupid in school and always feel good at the wall, a little high on fumes and pictures runnin’ through my mind like a mad wind I gotta run to catch. Sometimes I wanna pick up the whole wall, to touch everything I pieced all at once so I can make it part of me, put it back in once it gets out. It’ll be gone the next week, or the next day if it’s on big time turf, and that’s what I wanna tell Gran. That the only time I’m real is when I’m doin’ what I do better than anyone, that when I’m throwin’ what’s in my head onto the wall I’m alive. That the only time I’m happy is when I’m a criminal, and she ain’t never gonna understand that.

A few days later Gran sets the paper next to my cereal bowl and taps her finger on a headline: City Prosecutor Engaging in Smak-down. The article says the police have a “high profile” tagger in custody, someone cost the city over 30 grand in clean-up, a guy so arrogant he even tagged a security camera.

“Do you know this Theodore?” Gran asks.

“No,” I say. “But he sound stupid.”

“Sure does,” she says, starin’ at me through her frizzy hair. “Paintin’ on walls with cameras all over.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I guess so.”

I don’t know how long Smak’ll be in lockdown or if he already out on bail. Either way I’m a give myself one more night to finish the job, to take out as many B-Hounds as I can, to avenge The Black King and Cyclops and Nefarius. So when Gran falls asleep I head out to the UA theatre building on Bagley and look at how the punks done tore it up: lights ripped off the walls, velvet seats slashed, heads of sculptures bashed in. That’s just wac, though I guess lots of folks on the city council don’t think what I’m doin’ is much better. Look like someone took a sledgehammer to the old vending machines, and with the broken heads and the empty paint cans it look like nothin’ but death up in here. But I shake it off ‘cause that’s usually how it is when you piecin’—dark, empty buildings, dead cans layin’ like bodies all over, the hissin’ sound of huffers, addicts lookin’ for that last high off a near empty paint can. Sometimes the zombies come up and watch me, tell me how tight the piece is, but I know they can’t even see straight, they just gonna try to beg or steal cans. Once in a while I throw ‘em a dead one, but they too slow and pathetic to jump me for more. After I scout the huffers I climb the broken stairs to the 12th floor where there’s still some clean windows. I don’t like writin’ shit but I know if I piece again for real the B-Hounds gonna roll over me. So I start hidin’ messages in the piece just for fun, just to keep myself there. On the first window I draw a bigass crooked beetle crushin’ a tiny, bubbled Daze in his teeth, and the bent Smak is sliding out its asshole. I wanna do a Transformer on the second window, like Smak turning into a skeleton, but that’s too close to my MO so I just throw up a nasty blob of colours, my arm snappin’ like fire, and just as I start the bent k I hear the glass crunchin’ on the floor behind me and when I wake up my head’s bleedin’ and my paint’s gone and the window above me say Smak and Daze. My right hand’s fucked up, the fingers all bent, probably broken, and I figure they stomped my hand to put me off the wall.

When I get home I’m real quiet so I don’t wake up Gran with her worried face and her blip blippin’ heart. My crooked fingers throbbin’ and my head’s still bleedin’ and I dab at it a little with some toilet paper. But all that’s nothin’ compared to the paints—I lost 12 cans, two of ‘em brand new, the red and gold of the B-Hounds. Maybe I should be glad they didn’t kill me, though in a way they did; I know now I ain’t never be able to write again, not in this city, not without a crew. I sit on the toilet seat with my head drippin’ red into the sink and for the first time since Ma left I cry like a baby. I get dizzy watchin’ the red lines rollin’ down the drain, and then I just get more tired than I ever been. I start to think for the first time about givin’ up and wonder why I ain’t never thought of it before. Ma did it, ‘cause maybe she knew somethin’ I’m just learnin’, that it’s easier to just quit. Maybe I’ll leave this mess behind, take Gran down south where she grew up. Hell, I could get a job down there just as easy as here, maybe even piece a little to get the fix. When the bleedin’ finally stops I wrap my head in my old Superman towel and head for the kitchen where I can stare out the window at the blinking airplane tower and think about Louisiana, the gumbo vendors and the mist hangin’ over the streets like Gran told me about. I can see myself there or in Georgia or on the moon; right now with my bloody head and my throbbin’ hand I can see myself anywhere but here.

When I get to the kitchen Gran’s layin’ on her stomach on the floor, and it look like she sleepin’ and my heart starts poundin’ and I yank the phone off the wall and dial 911 and the operator says check her pulse and do you know CPR and I touch her wrist but
I can’t tell and when I turn her over I see it all at once: the bruised throat and the blackened eyes and the bent Smak and the bubbled Daze sloppy ‘cross her chest.

The 911 operator’s yellin’ through the phone but it ain’t nothin’ she can do for us now. When I take the carvin’ knife off the wall to kill myself I can’t even hold it in my broken fingers so I scream and scream and scream until I’m on a stretcher and then I’m asleep and then I’m tellin’ two detectives the whole story from a hospital bed, admittin’ to the piecin’ and taggin’ and they say we’re sorry, but we have no witnesses. They say Smak and Daze told ‘em they been set up, say I killed Gran, say I stole their tags to get ‘em arrested so I could collect her Social Security. We found this in your pocket, they say, and hold up some library scrap paper full up with Smak tags. We’re tryin’ to sort this all out.

But I ain’t waitin’ for them to sort it all out. I don’t belong in Georgia or Louisiana or on the moon; for now I belong right here. I know what I gotta do. I’m a join the Bombers and the Hoods—hell, I got enough pictures in my head to join five crews, but it ain’t the wall I’m after now.

Dorene O'Brien

About Dorene O'Brien

Dorene O’Brien is an award-winning fiction writer from Detroit. She has won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award and the Wind Fiction Prize. She also won the international Bridport Prize and is the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories have appeared in the Connecticut Review, Madison Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Montreal Review, Cimarron Review, Detroit Noir and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first full-length short fiction collection, won the USA Best Books Award in Fiction. She is currently writing a novel featuring fossil hunters in Ethiopia.

Dorene O’Brien is an award-winning fiction writer from Detroit. She has won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award and the Wind Fiction Prize. She also won the international Bridport Prize and is the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories have appeared in the Connecticut Review, Madison Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Montreal Review, Cimarron Review, Detroit Noir and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first full-length short fiction collection, won the USA Best Books Award in Fiction. She is currently writing a novel featuring fossil hunters in Ethiopia.

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