Here’s another story from around June of 2013. This one is about graffiti writers in the ’80s and was highly influenced by the documentary Style Wars which you should definitely watch if you haven’t seen it. Enjoy.
length: 5,000 words
Lionheart lives forever.
I’ll tell you this much: Lionheart is gonna live forever. And he knew it, too. He knew it when the gravel crunched under his feet, walkin through the train yard at midnight. He knew it with the rattle of a fresh can in his hand, and when he breathed in its first puffs of fumes. He knew it puttin the finishin touches on a burner, and celebratin at the playground after a successful bomb. I know he knew it, because I knew the same things when I was bombin. But, I think most of all, he knew it on this particular day, with the smell of iron and grease in his lungs, and the afterburn of whiskey and adrenaline mixin in his stomach, starin into the early mornin sunlight creepin over the railway tunnel, waitin for the clickclack, clickclack, squeal, clickclack, clickclack, squeal of the Monday mornin run.
A few days before that day—you know, this is where it all started, or the idea came about, or whatever—but a few days before that, me and Lionheart and Trap, we were all sketchin at the 149th Street writer’s bench. We used to always go down there, you know—it was a subway bench—and we used to always go down there to sketch and to show off and to just hang out back then. And it was always filled with writers no matter when you went and every piece of wall and ceiling and ground was covered in tags. It was beautiful.
So we were sittin there, sketchin as always, when a couple of kids I had never seen before came lurkin around the bench and gigglin to one another like a couple of toys. And, you know, I could see they were lookin at Lionheart’s sketches when they were doin it, so I stood up to them and I thrust out my chest, like this—which, lookin back, probably wasn’t impressive at the time, seein as I was younger and smaller than any other writer there—and I said to them, “You got somethin to say?”
And one of em says back, “Nah, but it don’t look like none of you do either.” or somethin like that. And then he giggled some more and shook hands with his toyfriend like he had said somethin worth sayin.
That’s when Lionheart, bein Lionheart—because he was always like that, you know, so cool and collected—that’s when he said, “You got a problem with my style?” and he didn’t even look up from his sketches when he said it, like those toys didn’t deserve any respect. Which they didn’t.
And you know what that toy said back? He said, “Problem is: I don’t see any style.”
And I couldn’t believe what I heard. I don’t think anybody could believe what they heard. Everything got quiet. I mean, no one coughed, no one breathed, they even stopped sketchin. I swear, though, I could hear the sound of Lionheart starin through his sketchbook.
And when the silence had gone on long enough, I took it upon myself to break it by sayin, “You better watch yer mouth, toy. You don’t know who yer talkin to.” I had been ready for a fight all week, you know—for personal reasons unrelated to this story, let’s just say it had to do with money troubles, the trouble bein my mom didn’t have any—but anyway, it looked like one—a fight that is—had finally come walkin up to the bench where it knew it would find me.
And that toy didn’t stop there. He said, “Shit. I know who I’m talkin to. Lionheart the has been. The probably never was, I should say. And from the looks of you, you must be his little toy poodle Daz.”
And I couldn’t take it anymore after that. I jumped at him swingin but Trap was quicker than me and he grabbed me by the arm to hold me back before I could land anything.
“Looky, looky,” the toy said, gigglin some more. “He even gets his poodle to fight for him.”
And I wanted to pound his face in at that. I wanted to beat his nose to a bloody pulp while his toyfriend watched. The things I would have done to him if I could just get a hold of him. I’m tellin you. But before I could, Lionheart said, “There isn’t going to be any fighting.” And that ended their gigglin. Then he said, “If we have somethin to prove we’ll do it with paint.” And that calmed me down. Because I knew it was true. I knew it was the best way–the only way–to prove anything to these toys, you know. So I stopped struggling. And Trap let go of me. And I brushed myself off and I sat on the bench.
“You’ve got a lot to prove,” the toy went on and on and on, diggin himself deeper and deeper. He said, “I say your five-car bomb was a lie. I say it never happened and you could never do it again.”
And that sent the entire bench into a frenzy of argument. Sheeit, I remember yellin down Seen who for some reason was on the side of the toys and not us. I told him, “You’re toyfriend over there wouldn’t of said he couldn’t do it again if he didn’t know it already happened.” and that shut him up. Most of the voices I heard were in support of the truth, you know, in support of Lionheart, but I knew there were too many skeptics for him to let it slide.
And so he waited for everyone to shut up before he said anything. And he said, “Alright. Even though all of you know I’ve been all city longer than anyone here,”—and that was true—“and even though you all know I threw up that five-car burner—painting by myself”—and that was true, I knew, because Trap and I were his lookout when he did it—“I’m still gonna do you one more to talk about.”
And everyone held their breath at that. Waitin to know what that “one more” was. But those new toys were too impatient and one of em said, “Well, spit it out.”
And Lionheart didn’t like that. He didn’t like to be rushed. So, you know what he did? He waited a good half minute longer before he said, “I’m doing six cars this weekend. All in one night. And everyone’s invited to come to the unveiling on Monday.”
And after that the roar was louder than the arguments. And with the noise of it echoing through the subway halls behind us, Lionheart and me and Trap packed our sketchbooks and left.
The next Sunday, Trap and me got a ride from his cousin to pick Lionheart up at the bench. We got there first, but we didn’t have to wait long until Lionheart came up and said, “You don’t have to come. I’ll be out there a long time for six cars.”
“Sheeit,” I said to that. “You think we’d let you go alone?”
And Trap said, “We want to be a part of this, too. This shit is legendary.”
Then Lionheart stared at us all quiet for a while before he cracked a smile, and snickered, and said, “Shit is, isn’t it?”
At that the three of us shook hands and sat on the bench. This was the night we went down in history, and—like I said—we knew it. We stared at the wall for a while and I got lost in the tags and dreams about future burners I would paint until Trap said, “So, what’s your plan?”
“Paint fast, fuck an outline,” Lionheart said. And, “I don’t know. This is almost twice the cars I’ve ever painted in one night.”
Trap nodded at that and said, “Guess that’s all you can do.”
Then I asked him what he was plannin on writin and he got out his sketchbook to show us. And, you know, I could tell that he had been thinkin about three-car burners for a while because there were so many designs to choose from. His sketches covered every style from straight letters and blobs, to blocks and arrows, to 3D and texture. I mean, there were so many doo-dads and bits that it was easy to get lost in the patterns.
“Sheeit,” I finally said when I had gotten through them all. “You think you can do two of these in one night? I mean, damn. You know.”
Lionheart just said, “I can do it.” Then he looked over at Trap—who was still lost in the sketches—and asked him, “What do you think?”
Trap didn’t take his eyes of the book. He just said, “Legendary.”
And it was legendary. I knew it. They knew it. We were ready for this. So I said, “Well, what are we waitin for?” And we packed up and walked out to Trap’s cousin’s car where Trap’s cousin was already ready to leave.
“Come on,” he yelled at us out of the window as we walked up. “I don’t have all night.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Trap said. “Whatever.”
As usual, he dropped us off a block away from the train yard. As usual, he reminded us that we had to find our own way home. As usual, Trap said, “I know, man. Shit.”
Then we walked the short block and we were there. My heart started beating faster with just the sight of the train yard, surrounded by one tall fence with razor wire at the top. You know what I’m talkin about? It’s the kind that if you fall into it, struggling only makes things worse. That’s what they say, at least. We’ve never tried to climb over the fence, though. We always just climbed through the hole that every writer knew was in the dark corner. You see, it was a small hole, and much harder to get into than out of, but I was small enough to climb through and make it easier for Lionheart and Trap, you know, from the other side.
When I climbed through on that night, I could see where it looked like they were building a new fence goin around the inside of the old one. “Two fences?” I said, and I laughed, holdin the hole open. “They think that’ll stop us? We’ll just cut another entrance.”
And Lionheart said, “I hear they’re putting dogs in between.”
And Trap said, “Dogs?”
“Between the two fences,” Lionheart said. “It won’t stop me, though. Nothing will. Now shut up.”
And so we were inside. And, I tell you, there’s nothing like the crunch of gravel you feel under your feet when you’re walkin through the train yard at night. It sends shivers up my spine just thinkin about it. And the smell of grease and trains, and their ghostly blue glow when the inside lights are left on at night. Sheeit, I’d almost be too scared to even be there if bombin weren’t the greatest experience ever. And, I have to say, the fear was a good part of the fun.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all grease smells and crunchin gravel. The train yard had its dangers, but they didn’t come from the trains or tracks as much as they came from the transit authority pigs who wasted their time chasin artists rather than robbers and murderers, you know. And all three of us were always lookin out for those exact dangers every second we were there in the yard. Well, Lionheart was up until the moment he felt that rattle, rattle, rattle of a fresh can in his hands—after that he got lost in the burner—but that’s why me and Trap were there: we were his eyes and ears while he was lost.
“Hand me that glossy green,” he said to me, without lookin away from the line he was painting. We were lucky, we found a train with three freshly buffed cars in a row in no time. As soon as we did, Lionheart started on his first car which said: “Just a kid”. It used a straight line style, you know, which was more like the original writers. And he did something most writers wouldn’t do, he added some smaller tags on it like TAKI 183, and Juno 161, and Eva 62, to the background as–you know–like a nod or whatever to some of the writers who invented bombin. You know. They were the first ones to do it and all they wanted to do was spread their names wherever they could. They had no real design or style. They just plastered their names up everywhere.
On the next car there weren’t any words, just two pictures of Lionheart. One, on the left, with his back to the world, paintin an “L” on the train, and the other, on the right, with his hands in cuffs, bein led off the car by a cop. He finished the second car and started on the third when Trap made a shushing sound. Lionheart stopped sprayin. My heart almost beat out of my chest. I kept lookin around to see if I could see anything, but it was just the blue glow of train cars.
Lionheart asked, “What?”
Trap held his finger up to his lips then whispered, “I think I heard something.”
“Where?” I asked, still searchin for the sound of steps or the flash of a pig’s light.
Daz took a step toward one of the trains, “Right,” he took another, “over,” with one step closer he screamed, “here!”and jumped back from the train. A fat, hairy rat crawled across the gravel after him.
“Sheeit, Trap.” I whisperyelled at him. “It’s just a rat.” And the disgusting thing crawled across the tracks to find some garbage can somewhere to eat out of.
And Trap said, “Rat, pig, what’s the difference?” But I could tell he was trying to play it off, you know how people do that, and he wasn’t doin a good job of it, you know. He was always too cautious and that could be a liability out there in the yard, you know. That was a liability. The rat thing as evidence.
Anyway, Lionheart just sighed and went back to paintin the third car which read “Growing up.” This one looked more modern than the first car. It had arrows and doo-dads, and so much camouflage I don’t think anyone who wasn’t a writer would be able to read it. When he finished, he dropped the can and took a step back to admire his work.
While he was, Trap said, “C’mon, man,” pickin up the paint and puttin it in Lionheart’s bag for him. “It’s almost three. You got, maybe, two and a half hours to paint three cars.”
Lionheart stared for a second longer at his work before he shook himself out of it and said, “Yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
Then It took too long to find another canvas: Three clean cars in a row. It seemed that our luck had run out for the night. The only thing we could find was two empty cars and a third with a toy-lookin “Cap” in terrible, half-buffed blob letters that were barely even filled. I mean, it looked like it took all of three seconds to throw up. And we even passed it once, lookin for another spot, before we gave in and decided we had to use that one. Cap would have to take his toy work somewhere else. And so Lionheart rattled his can and started from the last car going backwards.
The last car in the burner said, “Will you?” and it took almost an hour to paint. One thing I have to say, though, is that those words were the clearest most easy to read words I’ve ever seen painted on a train. Now, don’t get me wrong, he didn’t skimp on the arrows and doo-dads, but he didn’t camouflage the words, you know. He just gave them style.
Then, when Lionheart was almost done with the second car—“lives forever.” in the same lettering style—Trap shushed us again.
So I asked him, “You sure it’s not another rat?”
And he says, “Shhhh. Listen.”
But Lionheart just kept paintin. Time was tickin, you know, and he was just startin his last car, his masterpiece, the burner that would make sure he was remembered forever. It had to be exactly right, you know.
And then I saw just a little bit of light slip between the gravel and a train car up ahead of me, and I knew what it was so I said, “It’s a pig. What do we do?”
And Lionheart—like I knew he would before I asked the question—said, “I’m finishing. You do what you want.”
So, Trap—the cautious one he was—said, “Nah, man. C’mon. It’s not worth it. We can try again. We already did five and started the sixth. That’s more than anyone already.”
And Lionheart said, “I’ve done five. And I’m not leavin until I’m done.”
And Trap just said, “Man. We. I—“ Like he was stupefied by the reaction or somethin. As if he didn’t expect Lionheart to say that.
So before he could say anything else and make a bigger ass of himself I grabbed his arm—just like he had done for me with that toy earlier—and I said, “Trap. We can’t stop now. You know what we have to do.”
And Trap nodded, and he patted Lionheart on the back and said, “I’m sorry, man. Finish up. Get a clip if we don’t make it in the morning.”
At that Lionheart stopped sprayin for just a second. He said, “Thanks.” without turnin around then the sound of spraying came back.
Me and Trap took one look at each other then headed off in opposite directions, jumpin between cars and over tracks to put as much distance between us and Lionheart as we could. When I got to what I thought was a good distance away—you know, a couple of tracks or so—I climbed up to the roof of one of the cars and I looked out across the white backs of the metal giants. I could see Trap climbin up to the roof of another car across the yard and I couldn’t help but smile even though my heart was poundin and adrenaline was rushing through my veins.
When I saw that Trap was up and ready, I yelled, “Olly-olly-oxenfree! Soooooooiiie!” as loud as I could. The pig’s flashlight shot in my direction then started bouncin up and down as it moved closer to me.
After the pig got a couple of tracks closer to me, Trap yelled, “You’ve got the wrong guys, officer! We’re just here for the bacon!” And the flashlight did a one-eighty to point in his direction.
The pig took a step closer to Trap then couldn’t decide which way to go so I yelled, “You’ll never catch us!” and started runnin up the train, away from Lionheart—and away from the hole in the fence.
And then I was alone. Cut off from Lionheart. Cut off from Trap. Even cut off from the pig except for the thought of him chasing me which kept my feet movin. The metal of the train roofs gave and bent under each step I took, especially when jumping from car to car. It was so soft I felt like I could run like that forever, but I knew the train would end and I would have to find some way to dodge the pig. I took the chance to glance behind me and I could see that he was gettin further away even though he was still followin me. I knew it was my opportunity and I jumped off the side of the train furthest from the pig and rolled along in the gravel.
It took me a second to catch my breath, and I could feel the scrapes and bruises the fall gave me, but as soon as I was up I was runnin back the other way to try to get closer to the hole in the fence. And, I’ll tell you this, the crack, crack, crack of the gravel when you’re runnin away from a pig gives you such a different feeling than the crunch of the gravel when you’re first walkin to the yard at night. There’s the same adrenaline, you know, but it’s different. It’s tinged with fear and it’s shaky, you know, it kind of sits heavier on the stomach and works the heart harder. Well, it pushed me and it pushed me and it pushed me until I didn’t think I could take it anymore and I jumped between two cars and I waited.
I was just sittin there, pantin like a dog, cornered like a rat, waitin for the pig to find me, and, to be honest, I didn’t care if he did. I didn’t care if he took me to jail or told my mom or anything. I guess that’s why I just sat there. I knew it didn’t matter, you know. We had done it. We had given Lionheart time to finish his last car, to finish the first car: “Lionheart”. And I was a part of that, whether I got caught or not—probably more if I did get caught than if I didn’t—and Trap was a part of that, and all three of us would live on forever because of it.
And as I sat there thinkin about it, I saw the light. The pig was comin. From the look of it he couldn’t have been but two tracks over. I could even hear his heavy breathing. He was beat. He prolly couldn’t have caught me if I had bolted out right then for the fence, but that might have given Lionheart away so I just sat there and held my breath, hopin he didn’t hear my heartbeat.
And he didn’t. He walked by—after a short pause to catch his breath—without even seein me. I waited ten, fifteen, I don’t know how many minutes, lettin my heart calm, then I snuck back out through the hole in the fence and made my way to the playground where we always celebrated after a night out bombin.
When I got to the playground, Lionheart was already there, but not Trap. The first thing I did was bring him in for a handshakehug, sayin, “I got away. Did you finish?”
And he said, “Yeah. We did. But I haven’t seen Trap yet.”
And I just said, “Sheeit. You serious? That pig followed my ass. I figured Trap was home free.”
And Lionheart said, “He might still be. He just isn’t here yet.”
So I said, “Well, shit, two outta three ain’t bad. I can take a shot to that.” And I fished through my backpack to find my flask, took a quick shot, then said, “You want some?”
Lionheart thought about it for a second and said, “You know what. After that: yes. I almost got caught by a pig myself.” And he took a shot. When I reached out to take the flask back he took another swig and said, “Maybe two shots. Two shots for two burners.”
And then I said, “Be cool. There’s not much. That’s all I could sneak from my mom without her noticin. Sheeit, she’ll prolly notice that, you know. If I’m gettin whooped I at least want a few shots out of it.”
“Alright, alright,” he said, givin me the flask back. Then, “I guess we better get to it, anyway. Our audience’ll be waiting.”
And so we started the winding walk to the tracks, you know, where the trains came out in the morning. And this is where we were on that day that we knew we would live forever. We were starin into the early mornin sunlight creepin over the railway tunnel, waitin for the clickclack, clickclack, squeal, clickclack, clickclack, squeal of the Monday mornin run. But we weren’t the first ones there. A few writers from the bench were already there, and the two toys who didn’t believe Lionheart could do it, but we didn’t say anything to any of them. Most of them didn’t believe we could do it, so they didn’t deserve to be spoken to, you know. Especially those toys. So we stood a few steps apart from the rest of them, just starin into the sun in silence.
Then eight o’clock came and the clickclack, squeal everyone was waitin for. Trap still wasn’t there, though, but that was a small price to pay for eternal life. I shaded my eyes with my hands and took in a deep whiff of the greasy air because I wanted to remember everything about that day.
And when a few cars started rollin by that I recognized, I couldn’t help myself, I just kept sayin, “This is it. This is it, this is it, this is it, this is iiiiit!”
As I was countin cars to find ours, I tried to imagine what could’ve happened to Trap but I was too excited to think about it. I was so excited, in fact, that I was still repeatin, “This is it, this is it, this is it…” for a few seconds after everyone saw the burner before it registered in my brain. After that, there was silence for another second, with only the clickclack, squeal to fill it, then I said, “Sheeeeeit. That’s an unforgivable action, man. Unforgivable. That type of thing can’t ever be forgiven. I’m tellin you, man.”
And someone in the audience said, “That’s bullshit.” Because it was.
And Lionheart just stood starin at the cars as they passed, with three of them carryin his masterpiece, but each burner was covered in three squiggly, childish, barely filled letters: “Cap”. They had been defaced before they ever made it out for the world to see, in the same night that we got chased out of the yard by pigs putting them up. It was the most absurd thing ever to happen in the history of bombin.
And someone else said, “I wonder if he got the uptown cars, too.”
So I said, “He better not have. That would mean war.”
And Lionheart just shrugged and walked away from the track, sayin, “Whatever.”
So I jogged to catch up with him and I asked him, “Well, what do we do now?”
And you know what he said? He said, “We do it again. But with more cars this time.”
And that was exactly what we were going to do.