Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lessons from Graffiti Camp by Kai Strand

A person's motivation isn't always apparent.

Photo Credit
“You don’t have enough contrast. And your shadows are off. Where is the source of light? Come on, Poppy! This is Art 101 stuff. You’ve got to determine the source of light.”

I gritted my teeth and shook the can of spray-paint slowly up and down, up and down, while biting my tongue. Log’s abrasive teaching style always made my concentration scatter like autumn leaves. “The fricking source of light is moving,” I growled. “Like the train.”

Log rolled his eyes and waved a dismissive hand at my picture. “Doesn’t matter man. It’s your job to imagine the constant. That’s a mess. Fix it.”

As he walked away I imagined fixing his face. I’d tell him the source of light is my fist just before slamming it into his gaunt cheek. Ah, who am I kidding? I’m two-thirds his height and less than half his weight. He’s got years of street experience. And I’ve got none. He’d see my weak handed throw coming before I started to throw it. And who’s he calling “man” anyway?

“Hey, Poppy. Why you frowning?”

My stomach swooped like it was on a carnival ride as soon as I heard the low rumble of Axiom’s voice. My gaze devoured his lean frame and I knew by the time I was staring doe-eyed at him, all signs of my anger had evaporated.

I shrugged. And though I wanted to glare at our camp host’s retreating back, I smirked instead because my mind filled with memories of Axiom and I sneaking away from the campfire and the feel of his calloused fingers skimming over the swell of my hips. How the tangy smell of paint from the day mixed with the earthy smell of the woods around us.

Ax chuckled. He leaned forward until our foreheads almost touched. His voice growled lower and gruffer than before as he whispered in my ear. He trailed a knuckle down my bare upper arm. “Hey, Poppy. Why you grinning?”

Goosebumps erupted. A shiver ran through me. Should I admit I hoped we could sneak away again? He shifted closer and the warmth of his body radiated against me. I ached to touch him. He held a can of paint, but his fingers were clean and no telltale scent enveloped me. I considered wrapping my fingers with his, but mine were stained with paint. When my gaze met his startling blues—heavy lidded like a contented cat—I forgot everything but sneaking to the woods.

Ax parted his lips like he was going to speak, but then turned to scan my art. When he cocked his head and frowned, my heart skipped a beat. He didn’t like it anymore than Log. Then his eyes rested on my signature flower and his face relaxed into a mixture of pleasure and – what, longing?

“Of course your poppy is fabulous. I love how it’s half crushed under the kid’s boot. Really powerful image for those who follow your work.”

His gaze zigzagged across the mural. His brow furrowed. An eyebrow arched. My stomach clenched as it waited for his verdict. I turned my attention back to my art and finally saw it from Ax’s and Log’s perspective. Gah! It was crap! The kid’s shadow loomed in front of him, while the shadow of his nemesis reached toward the kid. What was I thinking? Shadows can’t be facing each other.

Wait. What was I thinking?

I stepped back, drawing Ax’s attention. He stepped with me, an amused expression on his face, as if he couldn’t wait to hear how I would attempt to explain this hot mess of art. He mirrored another step backward with me.

It was from that vantage point that I saw it all. The shadows of all the living things in the mural; the people, the plants, the pets – all stretched inward toward a center point.

I felt the presence of other campers as they gathered around. Maybe it was my serious reflection that drew them. Maybe Log quietly urged them over, hoping to make a ginormous fool of me. Since the first day I arrived, he’d been playing a two-faced game with me, trying to humiliate me all while he smiled and played nice. Was it because I paid my own way instead of getting in on scholarships like the gang member kids did? Was it because my mailing address was The Acres instead of down in the barrio?

I reached over and grabbed a can of deep purple paint in my right hand and a can of silver in my left. Shaking them aggressively, I stepped toward the mural.

“In the immortal words of William Shakespeare; all the world’s a stage,” I spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. “And all the men and women merely players.”

I started to spray. The cans moved with fluid flourish, creating flowing script. The right hand did the heavy lifting and the left swept in to add highlights and a sense of “pop” to the graceful cursive. I stepped back and smiled.

Each of us lives in our own spotlight.

Ax snaked an arm around me and kissed the side of my head. “Brilliant, babe.” I ignored the tension in his embrace. With one final squeeze, he walked over to Log, while dozens of campers crowded around me asking questions about the symbolism I’d only just identified.

But the surrounding voices were only drones. My mind was elsewhere. See, we all have our secrets. Including us rich kids. From the tender age of five, in order to give me a leg up in the office politics of my future, my privileged parents had me trained by an ex-KGB agent, in the fine art of reading lips. I was his prized pupil until he dropped dead of old age eight years later. Even though Ax and Log both stood mostly in profile to me I could see their conversation and my blood thrummed in my ears and my temper rose.

They were both disappointed I’d pulled off another piece of work my fellow campers considered a masterpiece. Ax had been sure I’d be too distracted by my raging hormones to pull it all together in the end. Log growled that Ax had promised he’d be able to discredit me, but now they were even more threatened by my work.

That made me pause. Why would they feel threatened? Log was a camp counselor at an underground camp for graffiti artists and Ax was a fellow stude…oh no.

I pushed my way through the crowd of students still firing questions at me, even though I wasn’t responding. I marched up to a surprised Ax and grabbed the hem of his shirt while doing the same to Log. I yanked upward. A line of X’s snaked across each of their ribcages as if erasing the rib that lay beneath.

“You’re both part of The Missing Rib?” I snarled. “Is this camp just a ploy?”

Log’s smile curled with malice. “The Missing Rib is everywhere. We infiltrate all aspects of life. Ax and I are doing exactly what’s intended of us. Rooting out the females intent on moving into positions hirer than is appropriate.”

I’d heard the mission statement of The Missing Rib before, about how women should be beholden to men for the sacrifice they made for their creation. But I’d never heard someone who so thoroughly believed it. It was graffiti camp, for crying out loud. I mean, seriously, are female graffiti artists threatening to take over the world?

My stomach soured. Then I remembered Ax’s part in the deception and my breath caught. I swung my accusing gaze on him. “This is what you believe too? Women don’t belong in graffiti?”

“There are only two places women belong.” Ax held up a finger with each point. “In the kitchen and in the bedroom.”

My head felt like it was going to explode from the anger building inside me. Ax’s stare was devoid of emotion and I knew the night before had been a complete ruse. A part in a play.

A play.

I spun and looked at my mural. The artwork that so threatened their – what – machismo, manhood, artistry?

Just then a whistle blew and the train car my mural decorated lurched forward.

Log leaped toward it, flailing his hands. “No! We need to destroy it. Don’t let it get away!”

But nobody moved. Not even Ax, who still held a can of paint in his hand. The campers watched the train gain momentum and the mural roll south to points unknown. I shook the can of purple paint still clutched in my hand and imagined the mural I could paint on Log. How I could make him look like the coward he was, a man who hid behind a big scary organization and deception. I wondered if I could get some of the campers to hold him down for five minutes.

When the train car was out of site, the campers turned toward Log and Ax, whose eyes widened with fear. I smiled and set the paint can down. I wouldn’t need it.

As I walked away, I chuckled at the irony of events. I’d joined the camp in rebellion of the skirt and blazer life my parents wanted for me. Yet instead of learning how to improve my art, I learned the most effective way to beat people like Log and Ax is through the legal system. Looks like I’ll by donning that blazer after all and some day prosecuting members of groups like The Missing Rib.

Those boys had better watch their backs. After all, graffiti is a crime.

 About the author:

When her children were young and the electricity winked out, Kai Strand gathered her family around the fireplace and they told stories, one sentence at a time. Her boys were rather fond of the ending, “And then everybody died. The end.” Now an award winning children’s author, Kai crafts fiction for kids and teens to provide an escape hatch from their reality. With a selection of novels for young adult and middle grade readers and short stories for the younger ones, Kai entertains children of all ages, and their adults. Learn more about Kai and her books on her website,

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