Jimmy is waiting at the corner when I arrive. Like me, he’s dressed in black and wearing a baseball cap; you might expect us to be wearing balaclavas or gas masks or something, but nothing screams criminal like a balaclava.
“Alright, Siobhan?” he says.
“Alright, Jimmy. Did you not bring the ladder?”
“Course I did, it’s down the laneway there. I’m hardly going to stand out in the street at four in the morning with a ladder. C’mon, it’s freezing out here, let’s get this show on the road.”
It’s not that cold and there’s no wind or rain, perfect autumn conditions as far as I’m concerned, but Jimmy’s hunching his shoulders and shifting from one foot to the other. He has kept sketch for me plenty of times before. I don’t know why he’s so edgy this time.
We head for the laneway. The clubbers and late-night drinkers have gone home and the commuters have not yet begun to flow into the city centre. The odd yellow light goes past from a taxi driver still trawling for work, and some of the binmen have started their shift, but mostly the streets are empty.
I first noticed the spot a few weeks ago near the old Boland’s Mill site, soon to be developed into luxury apartments for American tech company execs. Since then I’ve been studying the layout and lighting, checking for CCTV, figuring out the safest way to climb up - risk assessment you could call it.
To reach it, we have to use the ladder to scale the side of a pub. Then we pull the ladder up after us and shimmy along a narrow ledge to a point where we can hoist ourselves on to a flat roof. Jimmy gives me a leg-up, taking the opportunity to have a good feel of my arse as he does. From there we use the ladder again to get up to another flat half-roof above. I go first –it’s tricky enough in the dark but we keep our head torches switched off all the same. Jimmy follows me, the metal rungs creaking under his weight, then pulls the ladder behind him.
“We’ll have great craic trying to get back down,” he says.
“Don’t be such a girl,” I say.
The wall is perfect: smooth in texture and shade, no obvious damp spots. I open my backpack, take out the sketch and unfold it before lining up the cannons and turning on my torch. Jimmy finds himself a lookout spot and lights a cigarette. I get to work.
I’m lost in the ttsssscchhh of the aerosol and the sweet fumes of the paint until there’s a flash. I’ve asked Jimmy to take some ‘work in progress’ photos for my blog. I slow down to let him take the pictures, and when he stops he shows them to me. “So far, so good,” he says. “You need a bit more shade up there and to soften it there.” It’s easier to see this on his phone screen than on the wall in front of us. He lights up a cigarette and passes it to me, lights another for himself. The orange tips glow bright in the dark.
“How’s life in the world of insurance anyway?” he asks.
“Had a good one yesterday actually. This man and woman were in a crash, she went into the back of him, he made a claim against her. They acted like they’d never laid eyes on each other but then there’s photos of the pair of them together all over Facebook, at parties, on holidays, all that. We sent someone out to the address your one had given and your man answers the door.”
“Another one for the World’s Dumbest Criminals list.”
We stand looking at the wall, then turn our attention to the street. The silence is broken only by a newspaper van stopping and starting as its driver deposits bundles outside a shop.
“You could be in New York up here,” Jimmy says. He’s always on about New York and likes to think of himself as Dublin’s foremost expert on east coast hip-hop. I first met him at a Tupac tribute night in the basement of a pub on Parnell Street. My friend Linda had dragged me along. Jimmy wore a Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt that night which is a bit like asking to get your head kicked in, but it turned out Dublin’s hip-hop community don’t care enough about east coast-west coast rivalry to be starting fights. I’ve always suspected Jimmy was a bit disappointed about that.
“There’s literally one skyscraper,” I say. “If you could even call it that. Brooklyn at a push. Or the Bronx maybe.”
“You need to use your imagination more, that’s all.” This coming from a man who still paints in bubble letters as if he’s part of a 1980s New York tagging crew.
I’m trying to think of a smart comeback when he suddenly crouches down. “There’s a paddy wagon,” he whispers, although no one’s going to hear us from this height.
I turn off my torch and crouch, leaning my hands on my knees and leaving two yellow imprints on my jeans. The paint fumes linger in the air as the cop car crawls along the street and stops below us. But it’s a homeless man asleep in a doorway that has caught their attention. They move him on, move on themselves, and we both exhale.
“Hurry up and let’s get out of here,” Jimmy says.
“Alright, alright, don’t get your knickers in a twist, I’m nearly there,” I say, wrapping my scarf across my mouth and nose and shaking a can of Icarus blue. Jimmy starts directing me again, more than he’d usually bother. Heavier on the blue over there. Fade out the green a bit there. He seems mad keen to get finished up.
The dawn is sneaking up on us, turning the sky from black to dark purple to grey. Lights start to come on in the glass tower of an office building opposite—the cleaners arriving. Voices travel up from the street, a group of men arguing as they leave the pub lock-in. I stand back and look at the piece. It started out as a drawing from a photo I found online. I don’t know how many times I must have sketched it trying to get it right. Now here it is, part of the landscape, for all of Dublin to see. No amount of drugs could give you a buzz like this. Jimmy turns around.
“Not bad,” he says, “not bad at all.” That counts as high praise from him. “Are you going to sign it this time?”
“Nah, I’m not in it for the fame and fortune, Jimmy.”
“Fair play to you. Most lads get into this just so they can put their name on things.”
“Well, that’s lads for you, isn’t it?”
“Being anonymous is good though,” he says, stamping out his cigarette. “Keeps it pure, art for art’s sake, your ego can’t get in the way. Have an identity but keep your anonymity, that’s the best way.”
“Well I won’t be announcing myself to the world anytime soon.”
He helps me pack up my bag, and puts on his best Robert Duvall voice to say “I love the smell of spray-paint in the morning.”
We used to share a studio, me and Jimmy and Linda, before the building got bought up by a vulture fund. Jimmy was a great man for rolling cigarettes and making tea and giving unsolicited feedback on whatever we were working on but I rarely saw him do any work himself. He mostly seemed to hang around there trying to get Linda’s attention. He was full of notions about art too though, could waffle on about it for hours. Once, he suggested that we collaborate on a piece but I told him our styles were too different when what I meant was I have a style and you don’t. He was a bit sulky for a while, said something about that kind of attitude going against the ethos of street art.
We pack up the cannons and get moving. Getting down is more difficult than climbing up – it always is. When we make it back to the ground, we both start to run even though there’s nobody around, the thuds of our feet on the footpath breaking the dawn.
I get home and scrub the paint off my hands, it’s a curse to get rid of, gets in under the fingernails. A multi-coloured film coats my face and there are specks in my hair too. I wash off what I can and chuck my hoodie and jeans in the laundry although they’re really only fit for the bin. I go to bed with the smell of paint in my hair and the adrenaline in my veins and I’m still wide awake when the alarm goes off.
Shower, shirt, skirt, tights: the uniform of an office drudge. Waiting for the kettle to boil, my shirt collar feels like it might choke me, my tights feel too tight. I can’t face it. I call in sick and go back upstairs, take off the shirt, skirt and tights and put on jeans, two jumpers, a hat and a scarf to keep me warm in the studio.
I take the long way round on the bike so I can stop and look at the piece. There’s a good view from the far side of the canal basin and even though it’s my own work, it still takes me a little by surprise in daylight. The colours look even stronger, it works. I take out my camera – you never know what kind of run time these things will get. Two men in suits stop and look up. One says to the other, “Have you seen that? It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, he’s a talented fucker, whoever he is.”
I’m surprised to see Linda at the studio, I haven’t seen much of her since she started dating a rapper called Byrnes Unit who’s straight outta Kimmage. She’s not too surprised to see me though.
“Couldn’t face the office after the thrills of last night?” she says, looking up from her laptop.
“It was the thought of having to look at Patsy’s make-up under the strip lighting, you know she wore an orange blouse yesterday and it was exactly the same shade as her face.”
“I went past Boland’s Mill on the way in, it’s your best yet. You should go public with this one.”
“What and announce to the world that I’m a criminal?”
“You know what I mean, there’s ways to go about it. Besides, the guards have more important things to be worrying about.”
“That’s what my mam used to say when she meant no.”
I turn on my computer and check out a few street art forums but no one has posted anything yet. I text Jimmy and ask him to send on last night’s photos so I can put together a blog post. The blog is made up only of photos - sketches, work-in-progress shots and the finished piece. There’s nothing on there to identify me, not even a tag name, no tedious explanations about process or inspiration. I realise I left the sketch in my bag from last night so that part will have to wait too.
There are empty spray cans and scraps of paper and cardboard scattered on the floor on my side of the studio, rough sketches and colour swatches. I throw them all in a black bag and put them outside in the bins.
Linda is standing in front of her laptop doing some weird sidestepping thing, there’s an American voice in the background, then she disappears behind her workbench.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m learning breakdancing.”
Of course she is. “No text back from Jimmy,” I say.
“Probably still in bed knowing him,” she says, reappearing as I listen to his phone ring out.
Linda turns off the YouTube video and starts scrolling on her laptop.
“Hey, check this out,” she says turning her screen towards me. She shows me some tweets with pictures of my piece attached: “Great new street art to brighten up my walk to work” “Stunning new #graffiti at Boland’s Mills” “Art > apartments”. Photos have been retweeted by @streetartmagic and @globalstreetart and some of the other big international accounts, it’s even got its own hashtag #muralatthemill.
“Look here,” Linda says. “The Journal says you’re an online sensation. Next thing you know you’ll be showing in galleries. Abstract expressionism they’re calling it.”
“Galleries are for posh wankers.”
“Posh wankers who pay money for art. Or is insurance your true calling?” I read through the tweets and can’t help feeling a bit pleased with myself, but I tell Linda that they’ll have forgotten about it by tomorrow. That’s how it works: you throw something up, get a day or two of buzz and then everyone moves on to the next thing. I know the drill. But Linda won’t let it go.
“All these fellas who aren’t half as good as you are putting their names on pieces all over town and acting as if they’re the greatest thing since Basquiat. They’re competing with each other.”
“Maybe I don’t want to get involved in their pissing contest.”
“See, this is exactly why men rule the world.”
Jimmy’s putting the key in the front door when I arrive outside his gaff, an old redbrick in Irishtown that has seen better days. He looks surprisingly fresh considering this is usually breakfast time for him, his Public Enemy T-shirt even looks like it’s been ironed.
“You’re out and about early,” I say.
He takes the key out of the door again rather than open it. “Yeah, was out for a swim, smashing day for it.” Jimmy is one of those people who swims at the Forty Foot all year round and he likes to make sure the world and its mother know about it. “What can I do you for anyway?”
“I couldn’t get you on the phone. I need you to send me on those photos. I want to get a blog post up while it’s hot.”
“Shivers, you’re going to kill me… I dropped the phone down the jacks last night, it’s banjaxed. I tried putting it in a bowl of rice in the hot press and everything.”
“But it rang out earlier.”
“I found a crappy old Nokia, still can’t work the bleeding thing, it’s from the Dark Ages.”
“So the photos are gone?”
“I’m sorry. It was in my back pocket, amateur hour I know.”
“For fuck’s sake Jimmy.”
Last night starts to catch up on me and I spend the afternoon on the couch, dozing between watching YouTube videos of graffiti writers bombing trains. I’m woken by my phone beeping with a message from Linda. There are a bunch of missed calls that I’ve slept through. I sit up straight when I see what she’s sent me, a link to a story on The Journal.
There’s a photo of my piece and a photo of Jimmy, in his crisp Public Enemy shirt, with the heading ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born: Ireland’s Newest Street Art Sensation Revealed’. My stomach starts turning. I scroll down and there’s Jimmy again, holding my sketch, he must have swiped it when we were packing up last night. They’ve posted a few ‘work in progress’ shots too. The article begins: “Meet Ireland’s answer to Banksy” - lazy journalism if you ask me - “James Maguire has become an instant online sensation thanks to his dazzlingly original street art. Maguire’s latest painting is a timely and pertinent response to the commercialisation of graffiti culture and of our urban spaces.” I’m too stunned to take in the words fully. There’s something about the ‘inspiration’ for his work. His work!
I’m up off the couch and pacing up and down the room, kicking chairs and cursing. I look at the article I don’t know how many more times, as if I’m expecting it all to be a mistake, that I’ve dreamt or imagined it. What’s Jimmy at? I think about his spiel about anonymity and wonder did he really believe it or was it all made up? So much for his ethos of street art.
I grab my bike from the hall, slam the door shut behind me and head for his place. I’m so distracted that I nearly get run over by a lorry when I break a red light. The tatty curtains are closed and there’s no answer at the door. I wish I had the balls to throw something through the window but it’s too risky when there’s a cop shop just around the corner.
I take a cycle around town, a tour of all the main spots, the best walls, looking at murals and pieces. If they’re not old-school lettering made up of the artist’s name, they’ve got a signature somewhere. The only ones that don’t are by artists who are well enough known they don’t need to bother anymore. I start to wonder if Linda has a point, if I haven’t even given myself a name because I’ve been taught not to show off, not to be too confident, to be quiet, to be a girl. Well fuck that for a game of soldiers.
I get Linda to meet me at the paint shop, then we head back to the studio to sketch and plan until it gets dark.
That night we get up there and cover every inch of the piece in black paint. Sounds easy but it’s not – it takes a lot of work to get the black even, to make sure there’s no colour peeping through. But there’s something satisfying about it too. Once the wall is black, I take out the cannons and spray my message over it before Linda leaves me there, wrapped up against the cold. The tricky part for her now is to get Jimmy to climb up without seeing it from the ground. They’ll have to approach it from the east and not the west. Luckily Jimmy will do pretty much anything Linda asks.
As I wait for them, huddled in against the wall to shelter from the breeze, I feel strangely calm. Looking out over the city, I notice things I hadn’t before: the white light at the tip of the spire all the way over on O’Connell Street, the seagull nest on the pub’s chimney-top. Time feels different up here.
I’m half-numb from the cold when I hear the clang of the ladder against the wall. Jimmy’s head appears first. Linda will have asked for his phone to take photos of him climbing up – he thinks they’re going to ‘evolve’ the piece and make a statement about impermanence.
He is already on his feet when he sees the wall, and watching his face as he tries to register what’s in front of him is comical. It takes him a few more seconds to notice me lurking in the shadows and that makes him jump a little. He turns back to look for Linda who is at the top of the ladder grinning. He’s a mixture of hurt, confusion and fear. It’s the kind of expression I’d love to be able to paint.
I step out and say “Well if it isn’t Ireland’s newest street art sensation.” “I can’t believe you’re after painting over it,” he says.
“I can’t believe you have the nerve to act like you’re the one who should be pissed off.”
“Shivers, look, I mean Siobhan, I had as much part as you did in that piece. I directed it.”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Yeah, I told you what colours to put where, when to shade and when to lighten.” “Jimmy, you were lookout man. If you couldn’t help yourself from butting in while I was working that’s your problem.” I walk closer to square up to him.
“You’re full of shit,” he says, “you say you don’t want to collaborate but then you’re happy to take all my advice and call it your own. Besides, you weren’t going to take credit for it, somebody had to.”
“What happened to purity and artistic freedom?”
“Sure you can’t stay anonymous for ever, what’d be the point of that?”
“See the thing about anonymity, Jimmy, is it’s not just about purity, is it? The other thing is you can’t get done for a crime if no-one knows who you are.”
He moves in a few inches from the edge. I point my torch directly at him and his face seems to turn yellow, his features sharpened by the torchlight. He moves further in again. I notice we’re both shaking a bit.
“C’mon Siobhan, let’s get out of here,” Linda says, still standing on the ladder, looking less giddy than she did a few minutes ago.
“Yeah,” Jimmy says, “let’s get down from here and we can all calm down and have a proper chat about it, work something out. It’s freezing out here.”
“Poor Jimmy, you’re always freezing, you’d think you’d be a bit hardier from all your sea swimming.”
I move towards the ladder, my torch still trained on Jimmy like a sniper’s crosshair. Linda has already started to climb back down and I follow her as quickly as I can. Jimmy is about to swing his foot on to the top rung when I shout up, “Wait until I’m down, this ladder can’t take two people at once.” He steps back and as soon as I have one foot landed I pull the ladder away from the wall. Jimmy’s peering over the edge, and when he realises what’s going on, the language out of him turns the air blue.
“I thought you were going to throw him over the edge there for a minute,” Linda says when we’re down.
“So did he. He’s probably shat his pants up there.”
“How long do you think we should leave him?”
“Let’s give it a couple of hours and see if anyone notices, till rush hour anyway.”
It’s quite the sight, to look up and see the black wall, the word ‘fraud’ stamped across it in red, and Jimmy standing in front of a caricature of himself.
It’s getting bright, the city is starting to wake up. Across the road, a man opens the shutters on a cafe and turns on the lights, drawing us towards the orangey warmth. We follow him in. It’s the kind of old-school place you don’t see much around here anymore in the land of decaff half-fat lattes-to-go. We order some toast and tea and warm our hands on the mugs. The black paint under my fingernails makes me look like I’ve been working down the mines. We sit in silence for a couple of minutes. It feels like coming down.
Then Linda says, “So did he really help you with the piece or was he just bullshitting?”
“He gave me a few pointers here and there, sure you know him, he can’t help himself. But it’s my work.” A passing siren interrupts us and creates a blue halo around her head for a minute. “It’s my work,” I say again once the noise has subsided.
“Do you think maybe he really believes he has a right to it?”
“No…I don’t know…maybe. But he also believes Tupac is alive and living in Cuba and masterminded Biggie’s death, for fuck’s sake.”
She studies the bottom of her teacup. A phone buzzes and it takes a minute for Linda to realise the sound is coming from her jacket pocket. She pulls out Jimmy’s phone and shows it to me. It reads ‘Katie Journal’. We both stare at the phone until it stops, then Linda says “I wonder why she’s ringing him so early. Maybe we should bring him back down.”
“Let’s hold on a little while more.”
“But you’ve made your point.”
“Just give it half an hour,” I say, and get up to order another round of tea.
I drag the tea out for as long as I can before we pay up and step out onto the street where the traffic is building and suits are scurrying past carrying paper cups of coffee. We weave through the cars and return to our viewing point. We look up for what seems like ages before turning to each other. Linda is the first to say it. “Where is he?”
A group of people is gathering at the railings on the other side of the canal basin, near where we left the ladder lying on its side. Men in high-vis jackets are getting out the back doors of a white van and lifting out equipment. “Is that an ambulance?” Linda says.
“I can’t see,” I say, but can’t think what else it would be.
Jimmy’s phone starts to ring again. “Shit,” Linda says.
“Get rid of it,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“Chuck it in the water or something. The photos are on it.”
“What, you think it’ll look like we did something to him? That’s mad.”
“Give it to me then.” I wrest the phone from her and throw it into the water. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Do you not want to go and see what’s going on?”
“No, we’ll check on him later.”
“But what if he’s hurt?”
“It’s not our fault if he’s after going doing something stupid.”
“He might have fallen.”
“He’ll be grand.”
I start to walk as fast as I can away from the whole thing. Linda hesitates but follows me.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“Home. You should go home too. I’ll call you later,” I say, failing to look her in the eye.
I run the rest of the way, go through the usual post-painting wash-up, call in sick to work again and head for the studio. I tear up last night’s sketches and throw them out in the bins with the empty spraycans, then alternate between pacing and checking my laptop for news. I’m dreading a headline that says something like ‘Man critical after plunging 40ft into canal basin.’ I’m terrified I’ll see even worse. But there’s nothing; for ages there’s nothing at all.
The headline that does eventually appear is not what I was expecting. ‘Is this Ireland’s most extreme piece of performance art?’ There’s a video of him diving from the ledge, a beautiful Olympics-style dive, 10 points, 9.8 anyway. Apparently Jimmy has made a statement about the superficiality of the art world. They name him and identify him as a respected artist, that’s a first, they even wheel out the old ‘Ireland’s Banksy’ line. There are more videos, an interview where he’s shivering, hair dripping, but delighted with himself, he says something about pushing boundaries and taking risks. In the space of 24 hours he’s gone from Banksy to Marina Abramovic.
I see red.
with this. to deal one way There’s only
Everything looks different being up here in brightness, the black paint on the wall glistens, the blue-grey of the sky is reflected on the office windows across the way, the inky water below seems further down. The whole topography of the city appears new and it sounds different too, the squawks of seagulls drown out the white noise of the traffic below. I stand close to the edge and look down, trying to imagine what it would feel like to jump. Would you just step out or take a run at it? Already lightheaded after two nights without sleep, I step back.
There’s work to do and no time to waste. I take off my backpack and line up my cannons. I fire my opening shot in krypton green. Tssschhhhhh. It’s a new piece, completely original this time, not derived from any photos or anything else. I’ll put my name to it: Shivers. And it has to be good, really good, better than the last piece, better than anything I’ve done before. Otherwise what’s the point in getting caught?