The river flows steadily, its rich brown current sweeping away the cigarette butts and empty beer cans. He stands on the ledge beneath the bridge. The wall before him is a dark grey canvas dappled with moss and faded tags.
He lifts a paint-stained hand, rattles the can, and brings it to the wall.
A mist of colour bursts out into the air before the particles settle onto the concrete. When the can is empty, he grabs a different one, and adds another layer to his work. Each can brings a new colour to the mix. He pulls his sweater up over his nose to block out the fumes as he works.
When he’s finished, he takes a step back to admire his handiwork.
Each layer of paint swirls and combines until the bleak grey bridge is alive with colour. It makes his heart feel lighter. Freer. All the misery of the last year fades until even the sharp shooting pains in his back feel duller.
He was squatting in a house near the factories when it happened. The grey morning was just starting to seep through the grime-stained windows when he heard the machinery.
Leaping to his feet, he ran for the door.
But the workers had been quicker. The roof came down above him. Heavy rafters and broken plaster buried his thin, spindly body. He lay beneath the rubble, choking on dust and asbestos. A thick plank of wood pinned him down and all he could do was scream through the pain until he had torn his vocal chords.
The men eventually heard his broken shrieks over the noise.
They looked at each other with terrified eyes. No-one wanted to move him. No-one wanted to be the one responsible if he ended up a cripple.
The doctors said the incident had damaged his spine. He could move, but he would always be in pain, no matter what they did. The demolition company paid his medical bills, and he limped out of hospital a month later with no place to go.
The spray can in his hand hisses with nothing but air.
He shoves the empty can into his backpack, rinses his hands in the river and walks away into the night.
She sits at the tram stop with her hands buried in her jacket pockets. It’s early and her eyes sting under the light of morning.
There’s still another ten minutes until her tram is due.
She stands and wanders down the road. Someone passes close by. She gets a whiff of fresh coffee and cigarette smoke. Smoking is something she still misses. It helped, better than the booze and the weed and the one-night stands. If there was anything that made the pain ebb away, it was that first cigarette in the morning. One deep breath and the pressure rushes away like the tide.
She starts to chew on the inside of her lip.
She turns and walks back the way she came, feeling that same old sinking feeling dragging her down until she can barely lift her feet as she walks.
She was fifteen when she started smoking, and looking back, she had always had a cigarette in her hand at every house party and every drunken night spent wandering the streets with her friends.
And while they ended up hooked on meth and prematurely aged by alcohol, her cigarettes were all she wanted. They were her saviour. Until she started waking up with a brutal tearing cough, and she knew it was time to quit.
But somehow it had made her feel more hollow.
She sits back down at the tram stop. The street is empty and silent around her. She takes a permanent marker from her bag and begins to draw across the glass wind-breaker. Images coalesce. They turn into silhouettes across the translucent glass, forming a black-lined crowd of faceless people.
The two boys reach the bridge and stop to look at the freshly placed graffiti. They turn to each other with a smile.
‘You know whose work that is?’ asked Jimmy.
‘Yeah,’ replied Alex, tugging his beanie over his acne-scarred forehead. ‘Yeah, I think I do.’
They look at the piece for a moment, searching for the tag. They find it in the bottom-left corner of the wall in unassuming black paint.
‘Show him how it’s done, Alex,’ says Jimmy with a huge grin. His crooked teeth are stained with tobacco and the front tooth wiggles back and forth as he prods it with his tongue.
Alex crosses the bridge to the wall on the opposite side. He removes his backpack and brings out a spray can. It doesn’t take him long. It’s the only thing he’s good at; the only thing he’s ever liked doing. He’d failed almost every class in school. He couldn’t work out the numbers in maths, and he couldn’t focus long enough to read a whole book.
But he had grown to love art class. The teacher had seen something in his abstract lines, and even wrote on his report card that his colours take on a life of their own.
But you can’t live on art.
So he turned his back on the only teacher who thought he might be worth something, and dropped out of school.
Jimmy stands behind him, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette as he watches. He maintains a respectful silence as the image takes form. Before chucking away the can, Alex leans down and sprays on his tag in garish red paint.
It’s his signature.
And the reflex of it feels as natural as breathing.
The bleak grey city began to transform into something else, one wall at a time. Tags took over the streets. Graffiti ran rampant. And art had reclaimed its place at the forefront of the world.
He takes out his phone and snaps a photo of the wall. There’s an image of a woman’s face looking out from the bricks. Her cheek and forehead are a tapestry of personalised tags, while her hair forms rivers that spread outwards across the brickwork.
The city was changing.
Evolving right before his disillusioned eyes.
He sighs, adjusts his over-sized work vest, and dips the roller into his tray of paint.
One bleak grey stripe at a time, he erases the image from the wall.
The government sent more men with buckets of paint to whitewash the buildings and cover them with colourless paint. They didn’t see the beauty. Only vandalism.
All was made bare and sullen once more.
And there the walls stood like sentinels, waiting for the kids of the city to reclaim them.