The Artful Bomber

Graffiti artist Greg Contestabile grows up and grows respectable, but finds that the glam of the gallery can't top the lure of the street

Standard packing list for a midnight run on a deserted train yard:
Water bottle
Flashlight
Sandwich bag full of custom paint-can nozzles
Cigarettes
Rolled spliff
Flash camera, for documentation
Sixteen cans of Krylon paint

On a moonless Thursday night, somewhere just north of Dallas, two young men jump out of a black truck, their backpacks filled with supplies, and scurry over a stretch of rocky terrain toward a string of dark rail cars. They glance over their shoulders, scanning the dim horizon beyond the train yard. All clear. The steel-sided freight cars, waiting silently for an engine to roll them out the next morning, seem huge at close range. The two quiet invaders climb through the rusty iron connectors to the side of the cars away from the road, then step backward across the empty tracks to survey the potential canvas in front of them.

"Do you see a flat?" one whispers.
"Yeah. Over here. It's perfect."
They drop their packs on the gravel and get to work, one on one end of the tall, gray Champion Industries car, one on the other. Over the next hour or so, they work quietly, the only sound the sharp hiss of emptying aerosol cans. Occasionally, a question: "Man, where did you get these caps? This one's amazing," or, "Oh, shit. Did you remember the camera?"

The younger man is scrawling in giant, hyper-stylized block letters "VERT." It's his graffiti name, his tag, and even in the darkness, the complex shading and subtle color gradations make an impressive, bulbous, three-dimensional image. The word looks like it's moving, tugged along the tracks, shattering under imaginary weight. He pauses every 15 minutes to duck the fumes, check for intruders, and stand away from his creation for a better view.

The other man never pauses; he works off a drawing he grips in his free hand. The graceful, curving letters unfolding across his stretch of car read "TOY." The "O" forms the grimacing cartoon face of a space alien. The artist forgoes bright color for exacting black-and-white detail: the antenna of the alien, the swoosh of the letter tails, the undulating atmosphere surrounding the image. Sometime later, both men's paintings are finished "pieces," short for masterpieces. Vert adds a quick "IC-A2M" and some other tags to his side of the boxcar; the Toy man sprays the word "UNIT" to the right of his mural, then adds "Dallas, Tejas."

Up the track, other Champion cars (their even surfaces and pale colors make them ideal) have been hit--bombed, as they say--by graffiti artists who punctuate each piece with their origins: Portland, San Francisco, Houston. The tags--Zane, Jedi--are familiar to Vert and Toy: "Houston has great train yards," Vert says matter-of-factly, before shuffling up the tracks to look at the West Coast offerings. Under the Portland banner painted last winter is a postscript: It's freakin' cold!

The two men, satisfied with their own work, comment on the letter styles of the foreign pieces, take nearly a roll of photographs of their own and others' paintings, and pack up.

The kids know, via the Internet, where these trains go. That's often how they pick them, for the highest visibility: The more people--especially other cities' graffiti artists--who see their pieces, the better. It's a highly developed, highly cryptic type of network communication (even the artists sometimes have trouble reading other artists' letters) and it's the current favorite form of "writing," or graffiti art. How else could a writer get his personal letter style all the way out to the West Coast? Certainly, that's worth losing a night's sleep, worth risking a night in the slammer.

On the way back to their truck, Vert and Toy spy two men in the parking lot nearby, smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. The older artist nods toward them. "How's it goin'?" he calls politely. The two strangers squint and nod back. Our artists climb into the truck and make a break for it. All in a night's work.

A standard art opening in Dallas: The older train bomber stands in a polished, curated art space on McKinney Avenue. He seems at home: black sweater, yellow Adidas slip-ons, and blond hair hanging in his eyes. He sips mineral water. Before him, well-dressed, wine-swilling art fans mingle with the handful of showcased artists. Mounted on the wall behind him is a painting that looks remarkably like the aerosol creations he scrawls across rail cars. Not the same image, yet it shares the graffiti's sweeping strokes, heavy shadows, and reduced shapes and angles. He answers questions about it, his voice barely above a murmur, but the accompanying price sheet spells it out:

Title: Ill Elements; oil on wood. $4,000
Artist: Greg Contestabile.
On the street, and in the train yard, he's called Ozone, a.k.a. G, a.k.a. Toy Unit, a.k.a. founding member of the Infinity Crew.

Ah, the complexities of a dual life.

Same guy's artwork, splayed across two very different surfaces in two vastly different settings. On the train-yard side, Contestabile works in less than prime conditions--bad weather, no light, not to mention the train may roll away in the middle of a bombing--and ducks the authorities. On the art-scene front, he's schmoozed, celebrated, and paid handsomely for his effort. Not surprisingly, he favors the latter, but he can't quite shake the addictive joyride of the former.

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