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The radio woke Max up and pulled him out of sleep. He rubbed his eyes and lifted himself out of bed. His t-shirt clung to his chest like a plastic bag to a wet bottle. He tugged on it and stood up. He took a quick look outside and saw darkness. The sun still hadn’t risen above the horizon but the sky was slowly fading from black to a deep purple.
After a trip to the toilet to empty his bladder and brushing his teeth, Max made his way down the hall to the sitting room to watch TV as he got dressed. His hands and feet worked in automated synchronization whilst his eyes remained focused on the screen. Dusty images of skateboard tricks flashed repeatedly as the VCR played a pirated copy of 411 Video Magazine. Max had lost count of how many times he’d watched this tape. It was a therapeutic ritual of sorts. A compilation of the best tricks done at demos and contests set to the score of Souls of Mischief’s 93 til Infinity. He watched as Kareem Campbell launched himself up and over the guardrail of a ramp like an eagle soaring and swooping down on its prey. As the skater disappeared out of sight the euphoric reaction of the crowd signaled that the trick was a make and the party could start. He switched off the TV, grabbed his Eastpak and headed swiftly out the front door without making a noise.
The cool air of a spring morning wrapped his face and made him smile. The sun was closer to the horizon now and the deep purple skyline was rapidly changing into crimson and pink. Max felt around inside the pocket of his Barbour hunting jacket and found the familiar smooth surfaces of his marker pens: A thick chisel-tipped Artline with jet black indelible ink and a couple of smaller Posca paint pens. One of the paint pens was white whilst the other contained a custom blend of ink dye and shoe polish. That one leaked a bit so he made sure he didn’t flood the tip too much when he used it.
The Barbour jacket was a Christmas present from his parents a couple of years ago. The choice of jacket was a typical gesture by his mother to try and get him to dress respectably. For a kid living in the city, Max was never going to experience a real hunt, so he sought out other thrills with his jacket. It was slightly too big which was cool because everything Max wore was baggy. His trousers were a couple of waist sizes too big and his t-shirts all had X’s before the L’s on the labels. When his mother made attempts to get him to wear something fitted, Max took it as an insult. The jacket was a dark green with a large hood which helped him blend into his surroundings. The heavy fabric and double lining added some bulk to his skinny frame, so Max figured people didn’t mess with him because the overall look was pretty menacing. There were plenty of pockets on the jacket which came in handy to stash pens, drugs, cans of beer and the occasional three-finger discount. Apart from the speckles of silver spray paint on the right cuff, Max felt pretty inconspicuous in his jacket. It was a far cry from the primary-coloured Helle Hansen sailing jackets most of the other Hip Hop heads were wearing around town. If the police saw him they’d probably think he belonged to a certain social class and grant him safe passage rather than stop and search. The jacket was also incredibly resistant to the elements, blocking strong winds and deflecting heavy rain easily. Max saw this second attribute was also the jacket’s only flaw. The waxed material combined with the Earth’s gravitational pull sent any moisture straight down South. Max got soaked from the waist down the first time he wore it in the rain. Not a good look or feeling, he thought to himself.
School didn’t start till 8.30 or 10 o’clock depending on whether or not Max felt like skipping the first couple of hours, joining his class mates after the morning break. He was actually a very punctual kid. His formative years in a strict English prep school had taught him the importance of punctuality. He‘d also learnt how to knot a tie, use a fountain pen and hate the class system that rewarded the most financially and physically able youth whilst disregarding the rest. So, he’d get himself to school on time, but Max chose to leave extra early in order to walk all the way and arrive with a clear head. He also knew that early hours of the morning were best to go tagging because less people were on the streets. If he did cross anyone’s path they were usually in too much of a rush or half asleep to react. Cities are big bustling entities where a person can easily get caught up and lost in the rat race. The sight of empty boulevards in a golden hazy light has a very liberating effect on a person’s emotional state. No wonder film directors and advertisers tried to use dusk and dawn to make their actors look good and sell their bull shit on the big screen.
Max discovered graffiti and tagging at the skate park where every surface had something written on it. The art varied from words painted as large fresques to crude images of cocks and the like. Even if the graffiti pieces were impressive with their size and use of colour, the things that really caught Max’s attention were the hundreds and possibly thousands of tags scrawled everywhere. Whereas a piece was a one-off work of art, the tags were repetitive and laborious. The dedication with which a single person wrote and re-wrote their name anywhere and everywhere gave them a sort of legitimate infamy. No-one knew who this person was, but they were out there, constantly moving and constantly searching for another blank surface to blemish. Writers as they were known, were masters of calligraphy. No two tags could look the same. The moniker they used might be funny, offensive or entirely made up, but it was nothing if the person didn’t have a unique style.
It had taken Max a couple of years putting pens to paper before he mustered up the courage to start spreading his name too – LEON. The meaning behind the tag he chose was that it spelt Noel backwards. Noel was his older brother who’d passed away six months earlier after catching AIDS. Every time Max placed those four letters somewhere he remembered his brother and kept his memory alive. It was a personal tribute of sorts.
– Rest in peace Noel, he thought to himself.
LEON was also a play on words that copied the namesake of the city he lived in: Lyon, France. Sometimes Max would also add the prefix -A to his tag making ALEON, a play on the word ‘Alien’ describing his social status in a foreign land like what Sting sang about; and if he really wanted to stay true to graffiti monikers, Max could add an E to the end and get that numerological ender taggers liked to use: ALE – ONE. For the general public he was an anonymous eyesore, but for the underground community of writers Max was somebody. The early morning walk to school was his way of making sure he remained relevant and defended his reputation with every permanent mark he made. The adrenalin rush was also pretty addictive.
Max paused for a minute to admire his handiwork atop the support column of a railway bridge. He had spotted the location a while back but due to its high visibility and limited access, he had to wait a while before he could get a chance to climb up there and get busy. The railway bridge crossed over the main road that ran along the river bank connecting one side of the city to the other. The tracks fed people into one the city’s main stations so commuter trains crossed the bridge at regular intervals morning and night. The bridge was flanked by a military school on one side and a petrol station on the other. Neither of these locations made the task any easier. The petrol station was a 24-hour service where bored drivers could stand and take in their surroundings for a few minutes while they filled up their tanks. The army barracks often had cadets running drills on the grounds and soldiers circling the perimeter. The move had to be made under cover of darkness and preferably during the cold winter months to ensure that no-one wasted any time wandering around outside for long. Max remembered how cold it was that morning as he marched off into the darkness to do the deed. Hands stuffed deep inside his pockets and a scarf wrapped tightly around his face to conceal his identity and protect him from the bitter cold wind that blew along the riverbank. Climbing up the head-height wall at the base of the bridge and scampering up the dirt slope that led to the column was easier than he thought. Normally he would have worried about slipping on the damp earth, but the winter had been cold and dry so the soil was pretty solid under his feet. He’d been careful to place a small magnet on the base of the can to prevent the ball bearing inside from bouncing around and making any noise. He also made sure he used a good fat cap – the spray can nozzle equivalent of pressing Ctrl + B on your keyboard for bold font – to ensure good thick letters. The emphasis made the tag clearer to see from down below. After all, this spot was located on the main bus route to and from school so he was certain that his peers would see LEON twice a day guaranteed. Things almost went pear-shaped when he shook the can to mix the paint inside and almost let it slip from his gloved hand. Luckily his fingers kept a firm grip of the metal cylinder and he quickly got to work. The job was complete in a little under a minute and he was soon down on the pavement again slipping away into the dark winter morning. The adrenalin rush melted away the bitter cold wind and brought a massive grin to his concealed face. Reminiscing about that particular mission made Max smile again as he admired his tag sitting all alone on top of the railway bridge column. A train carrying commuters to work rolled past in a blur and reminded him that the day was about to begin. Max turned away and headed onward to school.