Wednesday, August 7, 2013
R -- everything begins with red
If I crane my head at just the correct angle, the flag looks like it’s peeling off the concrete. When the sun rises over the park and river, the fabric will seem to wave, maybe even twinkle if I’ve gotten the white paint in the right spot. I step back and admire my own work; a flag raised at half-mast over a cemetery of broken tombstones. Each slab of rock has a name on it that I painted with a brush, bent on my knees, making sure they would be visible. The tombstones would pop, looking like the real, standing stones.
I wait the long moments for the sunlight to start to break across the wall. Now all that was left was the red.
I use red in everything. Not that I go around painting blood baths or forest fires or anything, but I leave a splash of red. On that mural of Argentina on the concrete underpass right off campus, the masterpiece of the ocean (that took me six sessions in the middle of the night, lit by three camping flashlights) by the bridge two blocks away from my apartment. I did a lot of flags, of bright red against a blue sky or rising blackness, with peaks of whiteness for stars. It makes the duller parts of the city look better, I think. The underpasses, the condemned buildings that line the streets from my apartment to campus, and the side of the Escher Building that just begs to be decorated. And now it’s done. I planned it in my head for days, doodling in the corners of my notebook during Art History and figure drawing classes. It took three days to find the right colors at the student run art store and Home Depot.
The street smells of heavy pavement from last night’s rain, and honeysuckle rolls off the air from the wind just outside of the city limits. I kneel in front of the Escher Building, shaking a can of carmine red paint to add a lit candle to one of the tombstones.
“So, you’re the tagger that the school paper keeps writing about,” a voice behind me observes.
I turn around. The rising sun illuminates the standing figure, a halo around his head, his blond hair practically glowing. He sips from a thermos, eyebrows quirked upward, a hand in his jacket pocket. I know his face. His name is Luke Something-fancy and he runs one of those student government groups. I’ve seen their flyers and rallies. Every time bigoted church leaders come to campus to condemn the gays and women of the university, Luke arrives with his group, complete with their own, counter-protest signs. He sits at tables in the Student Commons with a signup sheet for new recruits and greets everyone with a warm smile.
“Technically, I’m not a tagger,” I say, placing the cap back on the can. “They do the real kind of graffiti, with the lettering and little symbols.”
“So what are you then?”
“Uh, most people call me a nuisance? Bad influence, a rogue, menace. All uttered by philistines who don’t appreciate art.” I fold my arms. “Are you going to tattle on me? I am almost done.”
“No.” He steps closer. “I admire your work, actually.”
I grin. “Thanks.” I’ve seen countless pieces painted over by kids from the youth center. I watched from across the street as the wayward children and their supervisors vigorously and joyfully draped white over my work. I crushed my cigarette under my shoe, my sister laughing at me, but she rubbed my arm. She took pictures of all of my public works and kept them in a folder. “You’re not going to get your little organization to do it are you? Or tell the YMCA or whatever?”
“Our efforts are usually spent on things more important than street art.” He sips his coffee and purses his lips together as he swallows. “I’d like to commission you, actually.”
I start fiddling with the spray can again, popping the top on and off. “Like, pay me? Money?”
“You’ve never been paid for your art?”
I shrug. My canvas work has been displayed at school and in a few galleries around campus that supported local artists, but no one has offered to buy any of it, so far shattering my dreams of a mysterious stranger secretly buying something for six grand. I’m very close to being a starving artist. “Not this stuff.” I shake the can.
“I’m Luke.” He offers his hand.
I smirk and shake his hand, his palm warm and smooth. “I know who you are.”
“My reputation precedes me?” The grin on his face sweeps upward, a grin that I know well, deep in my bones. “I’d love to discuss this further.” He gives me a business card. Crisp and perfect, like him. A phone number, his name and email. “I do have to be going.”
“Sure,” I answer.
“I like that shade of red.” He points. “You use it in all of your work.”
“I guess my reputation precedes me as well.” I couldn’t imagine that he saw what I did downtown by the river, where people were usually mugged and a student killed himself a few years ago, or what I’d done on some of the overpasses lining the interstate.
“I don’t know your name though. Are you like one of those guys who go by a symbol or a mask?”
I want to laugh. Maybe if I wore a mask or went by a question mark, someone would be keen to buy one of my oil on canvas pieces. “No.” I gesture to the corner of the piece where I left my mark. Capital R.
“Yup. Like Cher, or Bono.”
“Do you sing as well?”
I crouch down to complete the candle. “Depends on how much gin I get in my system.”
When I finish the last of the painting, I discover that Luke has gone. I look over his card again, running my fingers over the embossed letters. Luke d’Arc. Something-fancy indeed.
I gather my supplies, stuffing them the best I can in my worn out messenger bag, some of the ends of brushes poking out through holes. I’d done my best to patch it up, literally, with gaudy fabric, but my sewing skills aren’t really up to par with say anyone who can actually sew.
I take a picture of my work. Being on campus and all, there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be covered in white by the end of the week and I’ll have to paint it again, or make something so beautiful that the administration would fall to their knees in awe.
Campus police start to round the corner. It wouldn’t be the first time that some well-to-do onlooker narced on me. I hop on my skateboard and push myself away towards the blinding sun, Luke’s card burning a hole in my hand.