Talleen Hacikyan

talleen hacikyan
Artwork Talleen Hacikyan

When Cory worked, his can of spray paint hissed like a viper. He said the sound calmed his nerves.

He never left the house without at least one can of spray paint. He took graffiti seriously. He worked every night. He said the government paid him to spread his vision across the city. The fact that his salary came in the form of a welfare check was beside the point.

Cory and his cat Mali lived on Rose-de-Lima, just west of Atwater market, in a semi-basement studio. He had painted the walls and ceilings with blackboard paint. The walls were always covered with chalk drawings, which he changed daily. He never erased the constellation map on the ceiling though. Andromeda always watched Cory sleep on the futon below.

His idea of a fun date was to take Tina along on one of his graffiti escapades. If she wanted to be with the guy, that’s usually what she ended up doing.

For their first date, he took her to a meatpacking factory, gutted out and ready for renovation. It was along the river, East of Old Montreal. Tina was in charge of beaming a flashlight wherever Cory sprayed. That and keeping an eye out for anyone who might see them.

Inside, he painted on the few remaining brick walls: a man sitting on a toilet, holding a bouquet of flowers; a girl dancing on top of a TV with a monkey playing accordion on the screen; two cats drinking milk from the same bowl, their vertical tails forming the trunks of leafy trees.

That was Cory at twenty-two. His mom loved to talk about Cory, the child. Cory saw submarines in spilled milk, houses in ice cubes, volcanoes in overflowing pots of boiling macaroni. On the school bus, on his way to kindergarden, he used to engrave on frosted windows with popsicle sticks. Sometimes through a defrosted handprint, he saw parents wave their children off.

When he was nine he collected fruit stickers. One day, when his mom sat down to watch her favorite soap on TV, she saw a screen full of banana stickers forming a robot.

When Cory finished high school, he started painting the town with what he called canned pictures. They usually got promptly eliminated by companies such as Graffiti Doctor, open for business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This made him more prolific.

One day, Cory and Tina cycled on the bike path along the Lachine canal. He searched for the perfect surface on the concrete wall rising above the waterline. Cracks and patches were OK. No pigeon shit though. He chose a spot across from the old textile factory, now converted to artists’ studios. He liked the idea of a built-in audience of artists. He also chose it for the ladder that led from the bike path to the water.

At 11:00 o’clock that night, Cory and Tina climbed down that ladder into a rubber dingy that he had lowered into the canal. Cory moored the boat to a metal ring in the concrete wall. Tina lit the wall with a flashlight. Cory got to work. She passed him aerosol cans from the backpack, on request--Eternal Blue, Mars Red, Pharaoh Gold. He was beautiful to watch. His arm danced to the sound of his image, which developed spray by spray, like a heartbeat pumping blood into the body of work--that beast of a graffiti mural.

When Cory finished he paddled to the middle of the canal. Tina beamed light onto the painted wall. There were five people, three of whom were obviously swimming, and the other two could have been either goofing off or drowning. Tina couldn’t tell what their waving arms meant. The sprayed people were captured in time, static, while black water rippled just beneath their armpits. She imagined the rest of their bodies moving underwater. Cory called the mural “Ode to H20.”

At times like that, Tina felt connected to Cory--at those times when he was satisfied with his work, and she happened to be there with him. Otherwise, he felt far away. He often talked about traveling or moving.

Tina had a dream one night while sleeping with Cory under chalk stars. She was a genie in his spray can. When he pressed the nozzle she’d appear, first as pink mist, then as the Almighty Tina. She guided him to cement walls with interesting cracks, to brick walls with chipped remains of painted billboard, fun to use as background. She made him fly to the Jacques Cartier Bridge. Suspended in midair, he painted the pillars of the bridge while roller coasters zoomed 360 degrees on the manmade island below.

Cory came and went like a bird. He didn’t have a phone. If he wanted to talk to Tina, he’d ring her door. She never got the feeling he was attached to her. She was the girl who planted sunflowers on the roof of his triplex. She was girl who told him not to wash his purple tie-dyed T-shirt in the machine with his whites, not that he’d mind purple-tinged socks and underwear. She was the girl who decided when he needed a haircut, and she was the one to put scissors to hair. But often she felt like a take-it-or-leave-it companion.

For her twenty-first birthday he took her to the local hockey rink. It was twenty below zero. It was almost midnight. He told her to skate along the boards only. He skated around the rink a few times. He took out a can and sprayed blue squiggles onto the ice as he continued circling, faster each time. A river meandered next to his left skate. He stopped and sprayed into the air above him. A veil appeared and disappeared. He continued his ice graffiti. At one point he coasted full speed while squatting, applying masses of red paint with the can held between his knees.

When he finished, Tina saw the red silhouettes of a man and a woman. They were swimming in a ribbon of blue, which no longer looked like a river. It looked like an umbilical cord, the ends of which were connected to the hearts of each figure. Cory glided toward Tina. He took her hand. They skated over the figures, scarring their frozen red bodies and exhaling fake smoke.

One day, while Cory was taking a shower, Tina found a registered letter in the phone directory. It was an eviction notice. The rent hadn’t been paid in three months. Something toxic was in the air and it wasn’t only Cory’s paint vapors.

On April first it was Cory’s twenty-third birthday. The night before, Tina baked him a cake in the shape of a fish. Next morning, with the frosted fish on her lap, she rode the bus to his place. She let herself in with her key. Mali rubbed against her legs, meowing. Cory was gone. Tina scanned the room. No clothes, no books, no CD player, no more music--just a bare mattress, a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, and a chalk message on the wall: “Tina, I’m leaving Montreal. My head needs space. Take Mali. I’ll call you.”

He never called her. Months later she bumped into his cousin, Mike. Apparently Cory had moved to Vancouver. He’d saved the unpaid rent for airfare. He was off welfare and off graffiti. He was working in a lumber shipping company. On weekends he made totem poles in the lumberyard. He carved and spray painted them. Cory’s poles were to be erected in front of the head office.

Four years have gone by. Sometimes when Mali lies on Tina’s lap, she thinks of Cory. She sees him spraying walls, mailboxes, train wagons, marking his territory like a stray dog. She hears his can hissing. Hissing scared. Hissing strong.