Atlanta nightlife through the eyes of a graffiti artist
Tailing NEVER as he leaves his mark on the Westside
NEVER can't find the right can of spray paint. Gallon-size buckets, foam rollers, air filter masks, and dozens upon dozens of drip-splattered, half-empty cans of Krylon and Rust-Oleum crowd the trunk of his car. "Where the fuck is the fucking brown paint?" he says under his breath. His neighbors are asleep, so he's trying not to make too much noise clattering the cans around in the driveway at 2 a.m.
One block over on Moreland Avenue, a cop has a car pulled over. In the red and blue flashing glow, the driver is trying to walk a straight line and failing. When he lifts one foot, the other leg wobbles and bends as if the ground underneath is moving. The cop stands with his arms at his sides, shaking his head.
NEVER finally rescues the brown can from the chaos of his trunk and adds it to the black backpack he's been organizing. "Khaki, white, flat black, gloss black, sky blue, and brown," he says, checking over the colors with a tired sigh. It's time to go.
Pulling out of the driveway and onto the street, NEVER explains that his painting hours weren't always so deliberate. "It wasn't a planning thing when I was young," he says. "It was me and my friends going out with walkie-talkies, leaving a house party or something and walking around tagging stuff like dumb, drunk 16 year olds." NEVER started doing graffiti about 10 years ago, after hurting his knee skateboarding. "I couldn't skateboard because of the injury, so I just put that same intense energy into graffiti," he says. "A lot of skateboarders, they get stoked on a handrail just thinking about everything they can do with it. The same thing happens to me when I find a blank wall behind a Dumpster."
But tonight, NEVER has little in common with the drunk 16 year old of his youth. He's spent the entire day glued to a computer screen, laboring over a website for design school. His eyes are a bit weary, saddled with the weight of age. "These days," he says, "I paint to keep myself sane. At some point, I just have to get out of the house." He still paints late at night, when his other work's finished and the cops are too busy looking for drunk drivers.
NEVER's stress level is apparent on the drive out to an abandoned building on the Westside. He nervously checks his cell phone and talks about his workload for the next week. He parks in a secluded spot a few blocks away from the building and starts rummaging through a wad of folded papers. He can't find what he's looking for amid the clumps of balled up Home Depot receipts, art shows fliers, scribbled notes and sketches. Just as the frustration reaches a visible height – he's throwing papers around and digging through his car – he lets out a long, slow sigh and hands over a picture.
The folded-up, creased color photo shows a dead pigeon lying on a granite step, its wings splayed in a dramatic shape. One foot sticks straight out in rigor mortis. "I've been carrying this picture around for two weeks, and I haven't had a chance to paint it yet." Writing his name doesn't interest him at the moment, he explains. Most of his paintings are based on his own photographs of animals, portraits of the homeless – the sort of work he says graffiti writers call "art fag shit." "That bothered me at first, but it doesn't anymore. If that's what it is, that's what I do. I'm content with being an 'art fag,'" he says.
As he walks toward the abandoned building's aged, weathered concrete wall, NEVER explains how to scope out a spot. "You want to see it from all angles, so you can know how someone might see you. You want to think about which direction you could run from them." He casually strolls around the building, looking for parked cars or illuminated lights in nearby buildings, and then sets his bag on the ground. He pulls out a can of black and gives it a shake. Here, in the early morning hours, after the bar traffic has dwindled to the occasional woosh of a passing car, it's easy to see what NEVER means about staying sane.
For the first time tonight he looks relaxed. His arm arcs in swift, clean lines, sketching the black outline of the pigeon. He switches between colors decisively, layering flat swaths of color under quick bursts of detail. Time, it seems, has gone away. An hour passes like 15 minutes as the dead pigeon emerges, bright and vivid, from the wall. NEVER's lost himself completely in the painting, silent except for the low hiss and occasional clatter of his cans.
He steps back to look at his painting for just a second. "It's done," he says. "No point in waiting around." He doesn't turn around as he walks away. The night's over.