Not too long ago a friend and I were bumbling around town looking for something to do. We decide to eat at a tourist trap of a joint and consume some rather savory, yet totally unhealthy food. As per my usual, I decide to load the touchtones jukebox with some of the worst songs known to man. There’s just something about watching the other patron’s faces go sour in mid bite when 4 Non Blondes starts blaring loudly overhead that makes my burger taste that much better.
Upon leaving ye old sud shack a young artist has set up camp and is doing elaborate paintings with spray cans. He has his own sound system and light show, complete with semi cute girls acting as assistants and auctioneers. My friend, who is a brilliant artist in his own right was fascinated with what was going on and so we took a minute to watch. I explain to my friend that the artist sprays on layers of aerosol paint and then with utensils peels away layers or carves into the paint to give it the desired effect. It’s a rather simple technique once you have the formula laid out. I’ve seen these tricks before.
When I used to work in Chinatown I used to see a guy do similar work. All of these quick paintings with similar stylings cranked out one after the other and put up for sale for tourists and locals alike. I would stand and take a few minutes each day to watch and figure out his technique. Taking time to see if I could find the magician’s string and tear apart the magic of what he was doing was rather simple. In turn, the artist was clocking me. He’d notice me and watch me watching him. We’d both exchange a civil nod of acknowledgement. Eventually it would be time for me to scamper off to my next job like a dutiful little drone and the cycle would begin anew each weekday, 7:15 PM EST.
What bothered me the most is that this street artist was mainly doing portraits of the World Trade Center and this was in the very wake of 911. I found that to be semi tasteless, also considering that this gentleman was British. It just didn’t sit right with me. I never thought that my disapproval showed, but he seemed to notice. One day he takes a moment and looks up at me and says ” I bet you listen to a lot of punk and oi!”, which I nodded and said yes. He asks if I have a compilation called “Strength Thru Oi!”, to which I again said yes. He grins and says he’s in one of the photos standing next to members of a particular band on there. The next morning before I begin my commute to work I rifle through my records and sure enough, there he is. Albeit much younger.
There we are again after my shift finishes, our silent exchange begins as per the usual. He looks up and asks if I had found him. “Yup, right where you said you’d be”, I say. He then asks if I like any 2 Tone era ska. “Some, not too much”, was my answer. “I bet you’ve probably got a copy of Madness’s ‘One Step Beyond in your collection?”, he grins. “Yup. Let me guess, you’re in that album too?”, I volley back. He laughs and says “Yeah, two or three pics over from Belinda Carlise’s tits on the insert!” He then looks up at me and says the following:
“Look, I know what you’re thinking. Here is some limey cashing in on a tragedy. I get it. But really, all I am selling is memories. And that’s not a bad thing now is it? People come and go wanting to remember what was there and not think about what has happened. I can’t blame them either. Sure, I’m hustling for money, and I am sure you’ve figured out how to do what I do and in time, you could probably do a million of these yourself. But it’s honest work and I’m no vulture. Honestly. And you and I probably have more in common than you’d think.”
And that was the magic trick right there. This whole time I am paying attention to the paintings he is making. Trying to figure out how it is done like some cocky asshole trying to find the ball in a game of cups and I over look the real magic. He had read me. He had clocked me and figured me out faster than I him with a minimal exchange of words. It’s a simple ordinary magic practiced by street hustlers on a daily basis. So base and primal that it is easily over looked. Even now, some 14 years later I have to tip my hat and applaud him.
And for the record, he can be found on the insert a few pictures over from Belinda Carlisle’s tits.