Twenty years and counting—you are an artist.
Twenty-three cans of Montana Gold. Each one is dappled with fingerprints of white primer. Most of their caps are lost along the wall, launched away to your conductor's sway.
Two open cans of 4Hands Citywide Pale Ale. Neither is finished, but they're too hot to drink, so they sit, souring.
Nineteen cans of mtn 94. They spritz northern lightness across the dead-dropped dew point, their green actuators peeking out like pines.
One can of Folgers Black Silk, empty and on its side. You brought your coffee maker on the assumption that the AV crew would have extension cords. You brewed a few cups of the black dust; the rest crunched on the concrete after your overcaffeinated hands got too greedy.
Two cans of latex paint. The brand is unrecognizable from spillover, but they're Glidden. You only get Glidden for pours. The apple-red color, dried down in dribbled drips, looks sweet as candy but smells sharp as Clorox.
Three cans of Armour Treet, torn open and turned over by another artist. Apparently, they still make those things. The meat blocks bubble on the grill like buffet gelatin after it wobbles onto your brisket.
Meat and paint and ale and aerosol—the worst conglomerate you've ever smelled moshes against your sinus walls. You smile. The last day is always first in memory. You grip your roller and climb the stepladder—paint and perspiration dripping down to earth, possibility rising with the sun.
You are an artist, twenty years and counting. And for once, it doesn’t feel like your years are counting down.
You are Can, an eight-year-old, pit bull-lab mix. You're resting, sideways, on a patch of grass-pocked gravel. The steady breeze in the morning sun reminds you of winter car rides on the floor, the vents whispering heat into your snout. Your memory summons a sneeze. You hear a human coo in adoration. Many humans are walking by. Humans are not usually walking by when the man stops to paint. Most of your life is in motion. The man usually stops only to shop, sleep, or shit—in that order. You do your best to match, though you cannot shop. Occasionally, the man stops to paint. He unpacks his paints and shakes them up and sprays them on whichever building is closest. He likes color, although his car is gray, just like you. You look at the man. He is painting. Other painters are in packs, but the man stands alone. You lower your eyes and start to doze. You notice a puddle and see yourself. You feel a little lonely. You wonder if humans can feel lonely. If the man can feel lonely. You rise and walk to the man. He sees you and smiles. You wonder why you cannot smile, but you settle to wag and pant. You are happy.
“You want chicken or beef on your taco?”
You are someone who asks questions like that on odd weeks and follows up on their answers during even ones. Today’s an exception, even and odd, so you’ve already loaded up the tortilla with greens and beans. You didn’t want to work the stand this weekend. Out of every event your boss could’ve chosen, why was it this one?
“Do you guys have fish?”
“We ran outta fish yesterday. I would’ve mentioned fish if we had any.”
“No fish? Huh.”
“Yep, the pescado’s parted ways. So, you want beef or chicken?”
You know why, of course. Your boss has always been big into street art. He never shuts up about how much the West Coast colors popped back in the eighties, how it was really the California scene that pioneered graffiti writing as people know it. The only way you could care less about this festival is if you weren’t getting paid.
“What about tofu?”
“What about it?”
“Do you have any? Tofu?”
“We’re a taqueria. Are you maybe at the wrong stand? Aubergine’s set-up is down past the Red Bull tent.”
Street art, graffiti, murals—whatever the gentrifiers-that-be choose to call it, it only reminds you of home. Stop signs covered with gang tags. Evidence of beef plastered all over the town butcher; haloed names floating up the Save-a-Lot near the graveyard. Friends snuck out after school and never came back. Paint mixed with their blood while you mixed the soup for your Mom after her second shift. You worked so hard to get out of that life, and you’re still working to get her out. If those fools wanted to write their name so badly, maybe they should’ve tried writing checks.
“Is your beef lean?”
“Yeah, I mean, we don’t use ribeye.”
“OK, but is it lean?”
That’s not to say you don’t think the people here are talented. It’s just that, to you, their artistry is nothing more than mnemonics to misery. Just more work to weather. They do your thing, you do yours. There’s an artistry to food, too. You like to think there’s art in everything despite never having been a creative type. There’s art in earning money, too. Beauty in making a living. It’s all about attitude.
“Actually, can I just get two sodas?”
“Sure can. That’ll be four fifty, thanks. Cooler’s over there.”
And now, you have an empty taco to eat on your break. You load it up with chicken and note an artist eating one of your tacos while rolling out block letters.
Now that you think about it, a little beef sounds good, too. You are someone whose tastes are broadening beyond greens.
You are a sticker despite not knowing what that means. A sign is the consummation of signifier and signified. You hold together through no force resembling consummation. Are you signifier or signified?
This railroad crossing sign was so unassuming till you came along. Your presence attracted attention, and now a vinyl commune sticks out like the sore thumbs which affixed you. The sign has been silent since you arrived. Did it die of disgrace? You think many thoughts in your sleepless existence, but the troubling ones always stick around. You glance across the way to a sign bearing a peer:
This area monitored by C.C.T.V. To enhance you—BDANK CANZ—ety
Being a sticker is boring. Although your cardstock arteries pulse with the artistry of the murals encircling you, people are indifferent. Sometimes they'll slap down a new cellmate. The merciful ones, hands gloved and brandishing thinner, might peel you off and end your purgatory. Even if they don’t, no sticker stays forever. You've seen it happen, slowly. You remember with envy the elation of your peers as the mid-morning sun slowly baked them away, each day their edges curling closer to freedom. You imagine how wonderful it must be to curl upon yourself, to finally see yourself—at least your own edges. A hand enters view, and your hope wells.
It points. It retracts. A phone appears and flashes. Briefly, two suns bear down. When your vision readjusts, the hand is gone.
What was with that? Someone took a picture of you—why? Do you have a cool design? Some famous heritage? Maybe someone riffed you from Jim Phillips—your existence squeezed into a screaming handful. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Wouldn’t that be awful? Your thoughts smile.
Signifier or signified? You’re no sign! Those things don’t stick into anything but the ground or the wall—they’re fixed. You’re a sticker. Although everyone else knows what you are, you know that you could be anything.
Actually, scratch the “anything”—you’re not a picture of a brain.
You feel like the oldest motherfucker along this whole mile—for what it’s worth, you are. Every year the festival grows further from its roots, but not apart from them. It’s growing straight up, and you swear it’s about to scrape the sky.
Sometimes you forget that this all started with you and your homies trying to find a place to be at peace. No gangs, no cops, nothing and nobody. There wasn’t even a road leading out to the arch back then. Somebody’s dad worked at the plant nearby. If it wasn’t for that, nobody would’ve even known about the flood wall.
Time rolled on, and eventually the weekly partying and drinking turned into something more. People came out to paint. Everyone set their car stereos to the same station, and they’d break till morning. Rappers came out with amps and stickers. Eventually everyone started coming out. Skaters, hardcore kids—if they were “different,” they would show. The wall became more than just a place to hang. The city noticed, and they wanted in.
Some homie or another—their cousin was a lawyer, you think—decided to help get the festival official. Nobody else wanted to take it, so you stepped up and took ownership of the LLC. It’s still yours all these years later, even after the city canned the wall for years after tagging got carried away.
You still remember when the last chunk of the Berlin Wall was knocked down. The people from Guinness came out and handed you the award for the flood wall: “Longest graffiti wall in the world.” Back then you didn’t really grasp it. You barely knew about Guinness World Records. There weren’t Barnes and Nobles downtown back then—not like you would’ve gone inside one if there were. But as more and more people from all over the world started coming every year, talking about how they’d seen the wall in graffiti magazines or on forums, saying how excited they were to finally be able to attend the festival, it started to sink in.
Now you’re here. It’s 2022 and even people from Saint Louis are starting to notice. You do your best to make sure the event stays real—no Budweiser buy-outs, no moving to Soulard. At the end of every festival, if you made a space where everyone can be comfortable, where they can paint and party and just forget about the shit they deal with every other day of the year, you’ve done your job.
You’re just somebody, standing on the sidewalk with a beer and a smile. And you wouldn’t live any other way.
You are the mascot of a graffiti writer with a nuclear namesake: Kritical Mass. For some reason, that means you are a tomato. You wonder if he came up with his handle after you already populated several volumes of blackbooks. Your mind, belying your bright eyes and brighter smile, floats off to your past selves. You exist in every version of you that’s out there—painted on walls, printed on t-shirts—every one. Though some are cleaned or covered, you can still see their memories.
Years ago, Kritical scaled the sides of a skeletal triplex to paint you. He had already finished his painting for the festival and wanted an extra challenge. You remember that face of your consciousness waking up. It watched as he dangled from a burnt-out fire escape, while the you which he had already painted on the flood wall looked on. That was the first time you saw yourself.
Today, you are already complete. He has left. He left last night to get back to Florida before Monday. He’s got kids now, a family. He still keeps up with the Atomiks. Every member who didn’t die young has families, too, but the crew still gathers every year at the flood wall. By now, most writers would’ve paid attention to the writing on the wall and called it. Kritical’s creative wellspring has yet to dry, and you respect that. But nowadays, the core fueling your faces feels less like inspiration and more like grit.
Your newest faces feel off. Lately, Kritical has been pressing you onto more cotton than concrete. The kids’ sizes have been especially profitable. Is that it? He’s splicing in goddamn Mousketeer DNA? You swear with every silkscreen, a pinch of the pain which made you flakes off.
They always looked out for each other. Train bulls were always one step behind the Atomiks, and they were half past Eleventh by the time any twelves rolled around. Being in a crew for so long taught them how to be responsible for other people, something the boiling crab bucket they grew up in couldn’t have done.
A few months back, a trendy sheet metal piece of you sold for three grand. Kritical set aside enough for the plane tickets to and from the flood wall, then put the rest into the Atomik’s college fund. Not college for them, obviously—the old geezers. They all decided to set up a pool of money for all their kids to draw from once they get old enough to be first generations. College. You can’t imagine it. Kritical never made it out of high school. Whenever Kritical winces while milling this bird seed for the culture vultures, all he has to do is think of his kids. He thinks of their steady future, and his hand steadies in unison.
At their core, the Atomiks are family people. At your core is past pain, with every new layer born from the ideals of painless futures. You smile despite your ambivalence. Not like you have a choice.
Smiling does make it easier to be happy, though. If you’re ever crowbarred into a children’s book, maybe that can be your big lesson. You are a family mascot, now, and that’s OK.
Back on the business cards you forgot at home, you are the picture of an independent reporter. Your tongue coated in more street-mined silver than all the Callaghans of the world.
Today, you’re feeling more like a shadow. Your credentials and accomplishments are self-supposed in the light of so many others whom you gaze up to as greater-than-thous. Your mouth fumbles out a question, but all you hear is a garbage disposal grinding peanuts.
“They don't pay us shit to come out here.” Her candidness surprises you. Wait, what did you ask? Never mind, just roll with it:
“But I figured, what with how much they promote it—I mean, the city's always making a big deal about how it's legal to paint here. I just figured they'd give some sort of incentive.”
“It's hot air. How much you think they really care about this? About us?” You blink to think, but you already know your answer.
“Not much. But it's better than caring too much, right?”
“They throw us dogs a bone so we don't chew up the couch. We come out from Colorado every year just to show up. We don't have to, but we do. It's not about the money. If it was, I woulda stayed in for the business degree my old man was payin' for. It's about the spirit. Places like this, painting like this, around people like this—it's the only time I feel like me.” You turn and point to the mural; the afternoon sun casts both your shadows into its scene.
“So your art, that's you?”
“Damn right. Way more than I'll ever be.”
You are a flood wall. The buildings across the way wonder if you’d prefer to be known as “The Mural Mile” or “The Collective Canvas.” But you know you’re just a wall.
It is a common myth that all walls know each other, but you find that strange. Walls were devised to keep people apart. To bar communication and protect ideas. If any building would be talkative, it most certainly would not be a wall.
You like to think of yourself as more outgoing than most walls despite never having met another one. Maybe your nature as a flood wall predisposes you to a more prosocial mindset, but you opt to take most of the credit. Because although you’ve never talked with another wall, you’ve met thousands of artworks.
Whenever a new spray can or paint brush comes along, you take the time to listen. You hear the intent in every fwoosh and the significance of every swish. Then you ask questions: “Does your vision offer something new in the light of those which came before you?” “Can you cover this piece without being disrespectful? What if you were to build upon it instead?” “Have you accounted for my pipes? My pockmarks? Do you have a plan?”
Swirling within this silent dialogue, a piece emerges. Slowly, art crests above the waves of reality which you embody. You flake off old paint here, or reflect light just so there, to inspire your collaborator to embody their vision as best they can. What seems like a setback to them, as hot- and airheaded as aerosols tend to be, is really a boon. In your mineral muteness is a wisdom honed over decades. A wisdom that knows what one needs is rarely what one wants. You can see beyond the moment. And until some final flood washes you away, your counsel will be free to all who wish to see themselves upon you.
You are the bigger picture.
You are the world’s most enthusiastic wallflower, photosynthesizing your passions for the fourth time this year—a new personal best. You peek up from your feed and it's already a quarter past six. The sun glares out from the west like an overbearing parent. Did you forget to apply sunscreen? You reach up to your neck and feel a sting, raw and red. Instinctively you recoil, and you swear you can hear your scorched skin scrape. You glance at a nearby train car, hunched over with rust, and feel a kinship. You walk into its shade. Your eyes inhale the coolness and you notice the moon. It's reflective—a gold-lit, gibbous ghost hanging above the hundredth industrial husk you've seen today. The building's bricks wear the weight of an expert: PHASES is sprayed in script so flowing it drips while dry. The letters have a rhythm; the safety vest yellows and citrus soda oranges and October oak pinks bounce their fingers to a bebop sound. Between each curve rests odd, dotted designs, bus terminals carrying the sound out from the in-group and into the world. The surrounding bricks are splattered with a brainstorm's murky mercury. “Phases,” you mutter to no one else, proud of your write-reading skills. You lean back against the train car and fall concave as a rust patch crumbles. Metal scrapes your nape, and you jolt forward. In your start, gravel rabbles against an empty spray can.
“Guess it's magenta, not pink.” You step back under the sun. You are someone with a lot left to see.
David A. G. Guerrero is a local cryptid who’s rumored to appear if you wait someplace where the light catches color. An English and Applied Communications Studies double major, he seeks beauty in mundanities and lives to spend time with the people and passions he loves. He thanks everyone who has ever supported him, insisting his work would've withered without their compassion. He is humbled to again be published in the River Bluff Review.