Two years ago, taggers hit the side of my garage that faces one of Las Vegas’ alleys, hit it with white aerosol spray in the shape of a Halloween ghost surrounded by bulging initials. It wasn’t the first time; black paint covered most of the space in a feeble attempt to cover a prior message. I gave up the ghost, left the imprint to bake in the sun.
The word “graffiti” comes from the Greek term “graphein,” to write. Art in the form of graffiti is said to have originated in the late 1960s by political activists hoping to galvanize the public as well as street gangs looking to mark their hard-won territory, but public, unsolicited markings have been around since the humans first took writing utensil to cave wall in our mutual deep need to communicate pain and idea.
Every once in a while, I walked the alley, wondered what it would be like to cover the graffiti with a mural, with a message of hope, with something thought-provoking, sacred, unusual. I wondered what it would be like if the alleys of Las Vegas became portals into beauty, became walkable gauntlets of artistic expression, open spaces where residents could share private visions.
Some local alleys offer small shrines to the Virgin Mary. Others hold descansos, memorials decorated with stuffed animals and prayer beads meant to honor the deceased. My alley holds none of these. It simply connects point A to point B in a straight line of out-of-control dandelion green and broken Corona bottle, random hiccups of weathered graffiti marking cement brick, rotting wood fence.
Last week two teenagers rang my doorbell. They stood on my stoop, skateboards under arm. My dogs lurched to sniff hello, to make sure the visitors were safe, were kind.
“Is that your wall? With the graffiti?” The boy on the right spoke first. He nodded his head west, toward my garage ghost. “We want to paint it. Would that be okay?”
I smiled. I wasn’t sure what they meant, whether they wanted to coat the graffiti with a solid color, whether they wanted to add more noise to the alley entrance in the form of tagger’s initials. The second boy bent to scratch my dog’s ears with a bracelet-encircled wrist. The spokesboy shifted his weight from one foot to another. He spoke clearly, with a respectful smile, though his eyes betrayed his nervousness. I decided to trust the ghost of the alley, to trust the two skateboard messengers.
“Yes,” I said. “That would be great.”
When the teenagers returned, they didn’t look like skateboard punks, like troublemakers ditching school. They looked like serious artists, carrying their own materials. They walked with purpose, with careful intention, first double-checking to make sure they could still paint the wall, then eying a line sketch of two designs made on legal-sized white paper, comparing it to their new working space.
They worked efficiently, wearing masks for lung protection, sometimes placing the specialized nozzles of their spray cans against the wall to produce a fine line, sometimes moving their bodies, their arms in large arcs to add to the overall shape of the slowly forming mural. They spritzed small bursts of paint, filling in areas with solid color or to add gradient shading to a piece of the design. They worked with precision, never having to do anything over, getting it right the first time.
“You can call us hieroglyphics and binary star,” one of the artists told me after the work was completed. “Even though what we’re doing is legal because you gave us permission, it is still graffiti and anyone could easily use our names against us.”
Their fears weren’t groundless; during their work, a concerned neighbor called to report their activities. Cars traveling down the street slowed, watching the boys with suspicion.
“Art has always been a part of our life,” the artists said. “We were lucky to grow up on a street with a lot of talent and culture. One thing led to another and we were introduced to the hip-hop culture. Hip-hop played a fatherly role for us. It was something to do to keep us away from drugs and violence.”
The garage wall changed from a ragged black slate carrying a faded ghost to an other-wordly blue-green and purple ocean. An explosion of arrows and dots on the left side of the painting expands from a peace sign, from the ground up, asking the viewer to consider their own diverging path at this moment in time, asking the viewer to choose the sea of peace.
A collection of curving loops in the same color scheme quietly undulates on the right, as if the artist painted the flow of blood through his own veins, painted the movement of emotion and thought through his mind. A Pink Floyd quote accents the space between the two artists’ designs. The mural is youthfully organic, alley-wild, enthusiastic, deeply original, honorable.
“With all the corporations and advertisements brainwashing the youth, we felt we had to express ourselves. We can truly say the youth have no voice,” hieroglyphics and binary star relayed to me in an email. “Graffiti art is our voice. It’s becoming more mainstream and accepted in bigger cities. We are just trying to get Las Vegas more open to the idea. We want to see other kids doing their artwork to full potential legally, instead of seeing pointless illegal scribbles everywhere.”
When the mural was done, the boys took their own photographs, packed their tools and supplies into backpacks, and disappeared down their new dirt-floored gallery, huge expressions of joy and accomplishment on their faces.
“It’s not about seeing it ourselves - it’s mostly about how others respond to this work,” the artists said. “It’s questioning the system we live in today. It’s amazing to us to see something that is usually illegal be painted legally. Thank you for the wall. Through it we learned a lot about ourselves and our culture.”