:: Article

Spray Can Romance

By Stuart Snelson.

His first crime of the night yet to be committed, he considered the circumstances through which he had arrived at this point.

They had met a few months previously. At a party, both bored, they had fallen into conversation. Instantly struck by her look, he had attempted to summon a flirtatiousness he didn’t possess. His guard reluctantly lowered he proceeded to babble. Discovering she was studying art, sensing connection, he divulged more than he would have wished when she had asked him what he did. A graffiti artist, she had repeated, a wry smile upon her lips. It was a smile that vindicated his actions, in which he saw a flicker of hope that for once he may not return home alone.

They talked exhaustively, eventually realising that they hadn’t even exchanged names. Unintentionally, they complicated formalities. Rather than giving his actual name, he had proffered the tag with which he signed his work. Through a combination of competitiveness and drunkenness, and in order to add a dash of mystery to her own life, she had responded in kind, contrived an exotic name on the spot. People call me Red, she had said, although nobody ever had.

They drank themselves deeper into conversation until they were the only ones left in the room. As drinks begat more drinks, they became entwined. Upon summoning a taxi, familiarities continued in silence upon the backseat, the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror occasionally monitoring proceedings. Stumbling from their cab, struggling through his front door, they had fallen into immediate, inebriated intimacies. His bedroom’s disarray at once revealed its unfamiliarity with visitors. Strewn with art detritus, his was a bed in which sleep seemed unlikely and sex an impossibility. Against the odds they persisted, a romantic tryst betwixt paint sodden rags and rusty cans. In this toxic air, they consummated their passion.

From such shaky beginnings, a relationship struggled into existence. She had supplied a false name but no number; subsequent meetings were always upon her instigation. Dutifully he would respond to her summons. She revelled in their relationship’s inherent duplicity and instantly set about inhabiting her new persona as best she could, engaging in a playfulness that was to her liking, and that her youth would still allow. She committed fully to such fabrications, refused to let him tell her his real name. How long could they go, she had wondered, without disclosing their true identities? A pseudonymous couple eloping to marry, their real names revealed by the registrar? Once more, she was getting ahead of herself.

He had not lived in London long, had arrived to make his mark upon the city, to impress himself upon the landscape. He had been overwhelmed, upon his arrival, at the extent of graffiti’s prevalence. In certain parts of the city it constituted a background blur, a peripheral phantasmagoria wherever he went. In the east, at least, it seemed as though every inch of every wall had been commandeered to this end. With vigour, he had set about the task of shoehorning himself into this overcrowded marketplace. Unbidden he searched for virgin walls upon which to enact his spirited disturbances, negotiating space for his interventions. What others saw as desecration he saw rather as enhancement, infusing bleak landscapes with blasts of colour, aerosolled flowers that blossomed overnight. This was urban regeneration.

He was enchanted by graffiti’s possibilities, the allure of slipping into the night, can in hand, leaving artwork drying as he returned home, the unmitigated thrill of this illicit creation. His works would often fail to survive, a momentary notoriety as they awaited their fate: to be eradicated by rivals, or obliterated as bored council whitewashers returned walls to routine glumness. Their brief exposures he captured digitally for posterity, maintained an online archive that gave permanence to transient forms.

He knew that she romanticised what he did, supplied her own mystique to his lifestyle, but as he clambered over chain link fences, engaged in grim gymnastics to get to untouched walls, waded alone through the city’s litter, it was a romance that failed to materialise. The excitement, the thrill was there though, that was all too real. He would arrive home, energised by his experience, adrenalin coursing through him. His days seemed mundane without the frantic heartbeat that became his nightly soundtrack.

Her romanticised view of his world soon dissipated. In her smitten assessments, she had failed to take into account the anti-social hours. Throughout their time together, he refused to allow besottedness to distract him from his art. Post-coitus he would climb back into his paint-spattered clothes, drawn by the cover of darkness to continue his campaign. Alongside the lycanthropic, he obediently observed the moon’s beckoning light. Outside, in the cool night, walls awaited their adornment. She soon tired of waking alone, a fanned hand revealing the cold depression of his absence. Was she unique, or was she one of a legion of graffiti widows? As she would wait, impatiently, for his return, she would ponder her predicament. Speculating idly, she imagined, across the city, a dormitory’s worth of half-occupied beds, restless women awaiting the return of their fume-laden heroes, their loving embrace traded for the allure of virgin walls. This struck her as unlikely. She imagined, rather, that it was a singular pursuit, bachelors of the arts returning home to empty beds. It seemed an inherently male culture, struck her as unlikely that there existed a similar sisterhood of spray-can spinsters, women foregoing intimacy to spend their nights outlining their thoughts upon walls.

For her own artistic purposes, she too found inspiration on the streets. She had taken to photographing street posters for missing animals. They were the domain of lampposts and tree trunks: sad-eyed portraits of much loved pets; wind-battered, rain-streaked posters of photocopied cats; faded, speech-bubbled dogs offering rewards for their own safe return. An archive amassed but with no real idea as to how it would be used.

Upon his nightly disappearances, she came to feel somewhat underappreciated. He would arrive home, sweat-drenched and short of breath, simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, his fumigator’s aura preceding him into the bedroom. Climbing from speckled hems into bed, sleep would fail to find him. Her fingers upon his bare chest would detect the flutter of the trapped bird of his heart. As she felt its frantic beatings, she wondered what escapades its exertions spoke of. Overcome eventually by sleep, she would listen to him wheeze, the toxic inhalations an unfortunate by-product of his passion. The respiratory problems of the urban graffiti artist: a Lancet article patiently awaited its author.

Initially, she did not concern herself with the legalities of his actions. But soon she took to lying awake in his absence, uncertain as to whether he would return. She had not previously considered the attendant hazards of his escapades: scrambling on rooftops, negotiating derelict buildings. On the upside, he never sprayed trains, he wouldn’t join the roll call of those who had fallen in that particular line. Each night she would visualise an array of unfavourable scenarios: a policeman’s hand safeguarding his head as he was guided into the back of a van, a vision of him as he lay bleeding nursing crumpled limbs, a failure to tumble into a stuntman’s roll as he had fallen from some illegally accessed vantage point. She no longer slept well in his absence.

By day he had taken her around some of his sites, the insalubrious wastelands in which he skulked nightly, had acted as a tour guide to his own work. He would watch her keenly as they strolled past oversubscribed walls to see if she could pinpoint his additions. They were areas one would generally wish to avoid, especially at night, for fear of disturbing nefarious transactions. His willingness to creep into such dead spaces, she thought, was a mark of both dedication and madness. His tour had done little to ease her concerns. Unwittingly he had supplied her with a backdrop to his imagined misfortunes, all too readily conjured crime scenes.

What was she to do? To spend time with him meant to become an accomplice, an accessory to the act. She realised that if the only prospect of seeing more of her man meant acting as a lookout for the police then something had gone seriously wrong in her life. Thus far, he had gone unapprehended without the luxury of a lookout, a graffiti groupie ever watchful as he disappeared down alleys to spray his territory. He relied upon a sharp ear and feline agility. Was anyone presently serving time for such crimes? She wasn’t sure she was up to prison visits, for the role of dutiful smuggler, a spray can baked into a cake.

At night, his life was lived in the shadows, out of view of streetlights. With the bill of his peaked cap, he avoided closed circuit identification. But his night time paranoia seeped slowly into daylight hours. He was forever watching his back, routinely shielded his face from security cameras. His body resigned itself to a slump-shouldered slouch as he shuffled suspiciously with downward cast eyes. Sirens set his heart racing, unfortunate considering their prevalence. The city’s soundtrack took him to the brink of nervous anxiety.

What of his future? Would he ever be solvent? She thought it unlikely that anyone had ever entered the world of graffiti with long-term ambitions. It was not a path for the career driven. To make his art financially viable he would have to cross the divide, move from exterior to interior, from the criminal to the critically acclaimed. She didn’t imagine that he would willingly join the parade of hooded, cowering men brought in from the cold, shivering street artists dragged nervously blinking into the lights of gallery spaces, self-regarding renegades trading night for day. He didn’t seek establishment approval. His art, he felt, belonged only on the streets. He had no desire to see it neutered upon gallery walls.

Knowing not what the future held, and having woken once too often in an unshared bed, she felt she couldn’t take anymore. No longer would she endure his five o’clock in the morning showers as he scrubbed away the aerosol’s noxious aftermath. She refused to become an accomplice, his complicit laundress rinsing telltale stains from his nightwear. Note dutifully placed upon his pillow, for once she would disappear into the night.

So now, he prowled the streets indiscriminately. He would respond the only way he knew how, would recapture her heart through the medium of vandalism. What were his other options? Of her background, he knew little. How had they exchanged so little information? Their relationship had unfolded as an ongoing present; the past was never mentioned. He knew that she studied art but not where. He could cold call colleges, harangue administrative staff with enquiries concerning a girl who takes photographs of lost pet posters. The detective instinct was not within him.

He had hatched his plan almost immediately; he would express his love through that which had come between them. In a bag upon his back, a template and several cans of spray paint. Painstakingly, he had transformed his favourite photograph of her into a workable stencil. He planned to spray her face on every wall he could find, an outlined image beneath the word LOST. It was to be a final, fervent declaration of love, sprayed scattershot throughout the city. He hoped, through such dutiful replication, to command her attention, provoke her into getting in touch. With a rattle he would summon her face from the ether; black toxic clouds, filtered, would see her smiling face emerge. A love declared through repetition. If the night went well then by sunrise her face would be resplendent across the city, her stencilled ubiquity hard to ignore. She would wake oblivious to her domination of the city’s walls.

He would cease spraying only once she had broken her silence.

Stuart Snelson‘s work has previously appeared in Litro, Paraxis and Notes from the Underground. He is also due to feature in a forthcoming Soul Bay anthology. He is currently working on his second novel whilst seeking a publisher for his first. He can be contacted at skullandbubble@gmail.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 10th, 2013.