I am at my breakfast early, making a crude sort of magic which, when properly performed, causes a plate full of huevos rancheros to disappear. As I prepare to initiate the penultimate sacrifice, involving a quarter of a tortilla and the heated albumin and yolk sac of an animal that can only fly short distances, three taggers walk into the restaurant.
An acrid aerosol afterglow is trailing right behind them, molecular and ghostly. Their fingertips are stained with dark colors, greens and greys—the colors of forests and buildings. One of them has a faint golden outline painted around his nose and mouth. It is shaped like a flower or a crude drawing of a heart.
Refugio, also known as El Jefe, does most of the talking. Tilting his head in my general direction, they shuffle over to my table. Furtive glances are exchanged. The three sit, smelling of burnt rope, giving me the once over twice.
Procopio, the oldest one, has big bruised hands. They hang by his side wearily. The tagger with the huffed facial halo calls himself Locochon Viente Tres. He takes a black plastic comb from his back pocket and starts running it through his hair. He does this with flair, a fair amount of compulsion and until his friends look at him narrowly in a fashion that suggests wonder and thirst. Locochon puts the comb away. Embarrassed and slightly dazed, he covers his head with an Albuquerque Dukes baseball cap.
El Jefe addresses me in an ornate vernacular filled with slang and profanity—suggesting formality and deference. He is almost whispering, but not quite. He nods warily and with his palms turned out toward the sky and heaven, tells me about last night. After drinking a grip of forties they realized I wasn't la jura after all—porque Five-O don't wear gaffas like I do, except on the teevee shows their abuelitas watched twenty thousand years ago. Procopio thought those Ray-Bans were some old school mierda and besides his mom looked me up on Facebook. It's all good.
El Jefe nods at Locochon Viente Tres who retrieves an iPhone 6s from under his waistband. He laughs waxenly at my surprised expression. I did not see the phone before, I say, before telling how my phone isn't all that. It is like a relic from the astronaut days—something Gene Roddenberry dreamed up one night after a cocktail party at Trader Vic's.
The three taggers look at me as if I am from another world. I am from another world, I begin to think as they start thumbing through images of their work. The waitress comes by to refill my cup of coffee—a dark elixir with stimulating extra-solar properties I briefly imagine while glancing at their bright and brazen oeuvre.
There are pictures of rusted boxcars transformed by raw color and the acute geometry of experience. The railroad company usually paints the stuff over in a few days El Jefe says. In one of the photos Locochon Viente Tres is standing on top of a newly painted locomotive, frajo dangling from his mouth. He is giving everyone the finger and his eyes are glassy but triumphantly aware.
There is a second set of photos, taken throughout the labyrinthine network of concrete-lined flood control channels criss-crossing the city. The paintings left behind in this forbidden zone of abandoned shopping carts, dead dogs and crumbling tumble-weeds are like cartoons. A bravado of optimism pours out of the tangled letters. It's just like Saturday morning in 1972 but without the Tang, I remark, . El Jefe nods blankly. He continues to flip through that collection with trembling hands, big brown eyes darting around and around the room.
I ask have they heard of Banksy. They think I am putting them on. What kind of fucking artist is that, the one with hands like wooden mallets hisses. No one would have a name like that and if they did, they'd better change it, like soon bro. El Jefe tells me he took a couple of drawing classes at West Mesa High School. Locochon Viente Tres looks out the window of the diner while untranslatable combinations of sans-serif letters tumble out of his mouth as tiny flecks of paint.
When I am done with my fifth cup of coffee, having thereby completed the ritual I previously told you about, I tell the three I gotta go but ask can I write about them this week. That is ATM, that is chido, El Jefe gravely intones. Can I come out and watch them work, one day when the autumn sun is fading into winter, when the hot air balloons are at their height of popularity, I wonder aloud.
Locochon Viente Tres smirks. Using a filthy napkin and a Sharpie, he draws a detailed map, complete with snake-like roads, forlorn rose gardens and remodeled freeway overpasses.
We all get up to leave. El Jefe says to make sure and come by during the day; they think I'm cool, but who knows what their homies will think if I show up after the sun's gone down. Those dudes are hardcore chingones, he reminds me as he lays a Washington on the table and slinks toward the door.