They started out on a Monday morning at three a.m. on the lakefront in Chicago. Five of them — all dressed in hooded black sweatshirts over gray painter’s coveralls — piled into their car, a 1974 Renault 16. The Renault had left the factory an eggshell white but after more than three decades of weathering, it was an uncertain shade that defied description. All of the manufacturer’s badges had been removed from the bodywork and it was unlikely that one person in a thousand who saw it pass by could name the year, make, or model of the car. Further obscuring the identity of their ride, the Punx had smeared both license plates with mud.
But in the early hours of that cool morning in the middle of June there was no one about to pay them any attention. The street lights still cast their sodium glow and the traffic signals still clicked through their green-yellow-red cycles but the city’s millions were either abed or occupied elsewhere. Many were still recovering from celebrating the Chicago Bulls’ seventh NBA championship, won less than forty-eight hours earlier.
The Punx traveled west on North Avenue, making all the lights, quickly leaving behind the glitter of the Gold Coast. Soon, they sped past the gentrification line for that part of the city and several blocks later they turned south into the lands where the wild things lived.
The first, and only, person they spotted on the street was a gray-haired black man standing at a bus stop. He held a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag as if it was a microphone, gestured with his free hand, and in a ravaged voice sang “My Way.” His way had apparently led him to an empty street corner in the middle of the night. The Punx all looked at him and then at each other. The singer might well have been seeing an audience in front of him, but he gave no sign that it included them. No need to worry about him being a witness.
When the Punx reached their destination, a vacant apartment building with bricked-in windows and steel doors on the corner of a side street, the driver slowed the Renault to a crawl. Five pairs of keyed-up young eyes danced about, searching high and low for cops or anyone else who might be lurking in the dregs of the night. They saw no one. At the curb in front of the building, resting on its axles, sat a stripped Ford Escort. A decal on the rear window said Truman College. The Punx eyed the car as they pulled alongside. The derelict vehicle was unoccupied; the interior looked like a toxic waste dump. The car hadn’t been there a week ago.
“Let’s do it,” said the youngest of the Punx from the back seat, his voice trembling with excitement.
“Once around the block first,” the driver decided.
But the rear passenger-side door of the Renault popped open.
“You go around the block. I’m the lookout, so I’ll be looking out.”
“You little jerk,” the driver called out, “get back in the car.”
“Hey, stop arguing,” hissed the kid riding shotgun. “Somebody’s gonna hear.”
From inside the Renault, the rear door was pulled shut.
“Shit,” the driver muttered. He took one last look over his shoulder. The little prick was back there grinning at him. Gritting his teeth, the driver pulled away.
He circled the block faster than he’d intended. If anything happened to … well, it’d be his ass. Still, he and the others had time to see that the whole area was quiet. No cars on the street, no pedestrians on the sidewalks. Not so much as a light in a window or a stray cat prowling an alley. The only sign of life was the wail of a siren in the distance but that was receding not drawing closer.
The driver pulled into the alley behind the building they were going to hit and snugged the Renault in behind a Dumpster overflowing with refuse. The four Punx got out of the car. The driver held a folded bundle of paper; two of the others brought two-rung stepladders; and the fourth carried a hundred-foot tape measure. They crept out to the street. The lookout was crouched at the rear of the Escort, holding a digital camera tight against his body. He looked around when he sensed the presence of the others and flashed them an “okay” sign.
The driver nodded and the four Punx set to work. They moved along the side of the building like a precision drill team. There were good reasons for speed and efficiency. Thirty-nine of the four hundred and forty-three murders reported in the city the previous year year had occurred in that neighborhood. The lookout had found that out for them. So if someone should happen along the street and see them, the chances were pretty good he wouldn’t be a Jehovah’s Witness.
The driver indicated a point twelve inches off the sidewalk on the brick wall at the side of the building and said, “Start here.”
He and the other three Punx took out cans of Krylon Indian Red spray paint. They had replaced the standard spray caps with custom-made nozzles for a more precise application of paint. They had several more cans in varying colors in the capacious pockets of their coveralls.
Using the spray cans, the tape measure, the stepladders, and the talented hands and eyes of seasoned artists, they quickly painted a rectangle eight feet high by twenty-four feet wide. The corners were sharp ninety-degree turns, the vertical and horizontal lines were of a seamless, uniform width, and the paint didn’t drip. Their frame was ready.
The driver had just pulled a roll of double-sided tape from a pocket and was about to unfold the first sheet of paper from the bundle he carried when the lookout gave a soft two-note whistle. Cops.
The lookout dropped to the pavement behind the Escort, lying prone and cradling his camera. The other Punx scurried into the alley and hid in the Renault. A moment later a CPD beat car appeared, its headlights reaching out like the eyes of a predator.
It stopped opposite the Escort.
The cop behind the wheel had his window down and the lookout, doing his best to become invisible, heard him say, “Make a note to have Streets and Sanitation haul this piece of shit away. It sits here any longer, we’re going to catch hell.”
The cop in the passenger seat said, “Yeah, I hear Better Homes and Gardens is going to do a cover piece on our beat: The Barrio by Moonlight.”
The first cop barked a laugh. Then he asked, “You gettin’ that old feeling, Tommy?”
“Yeah, Ed, now that you mention it. Let’s take a look around the corner.”
Moving as silently as a shadow, the lookout inched backward along the pavement. He couldn’t stay where he was; he’d be exposed when the cop car turned the corner. Just before the cops made their turn, he gained the shelter of the Escort’s front end.
The beat car stopped dead after turning the corner.
The two cops looked around. They didn’t see a damned thing to be concerned about, but both were savvy enough to feel that something was going on. The only unusual thing they spotted was the big red box somebody had painted on the wall of the building to their left.
“That’s new,” Ed commented.
“Yeah,” his partner agreed. Then he added, “Put the light on it a minute, willya?”
The driver played the beam of the beat car’s spotlight against the wall. Tommy Begala was five years younger than his partner Ed Dvorak and had better eyes. He said, “That box is real new. Paint’s still shiny. Like it was just sprayed on.”
“Maybe we should investigate, Tommy. See if the artiste is maybe taking a whiz in the alley before he returns to his work.”
The lookout felt his bladder threaten to void.
“Sounds good to me, Ed. I always enjoy a cultural experience.”
The lookout heard the doors of the beat car open. He decided to get up and run, make a big noisy show of it to alert the others. He was pretty sure the cops would catch him, but that was all right. He was the only one not carrying any spray paint — spray paint being a verboten product that was not sold in Chicago, the possession of which by juveniles less than eighteen years old and not under the immediate supervision of a parent or guardian was forbidden by the Chicago Municipal Code. The lookout had checked into that, too.
He was about to bolt when a call came over the beat car radio. He heard a seat creak as someone sat down and then the cop called Ed answered the call.
“Jesus Christ, Tommy, it’s a domestic disturbance.”
“Shit, I hate domestics. How ’bout we just give it ten minutes and let the ME bag the bodies?”
“Can’t. I already answered the call. Somebody dies, it’s our jobs that go in the body bags.”
Ed radioed in: They were responding. But before they departed the two cops left a message.
“We’ll be back,” Ed announced, “shouldn’t be more than fifteen – twenty minutes.”
Tommy added with a laugh, “Yeah, show us what you can do in that time.”
The lookout counted to ten after he heard the cops drive off. Then he hurried to the Renault. He told the others what the cops had said in case they hadn’t been able to hear.
The driver looked at the others as if to ask, “Well?” While they were thinking about it, he decided that if they were going to carry out their plan at all, they couldn’t back down the first time out. He told the others, “We can do it. But we better hurry.”
They poured out of the car, bringing their materials with them and hit the wall. The driver unfolded his sheets of paper — they were precisely designed and cut stencils — and taped them to the wall. Following behind him, the others worked with their spray cans. The lookout kept his eyes peeled for any further interruptions.
They applied red, black, and gray paint using the stencils and standard spray cans. Next, they added orange, silver, and white details with customized portable airbrushes. They covered one hundred and ninety-two square feet of wall space in eleven minutes.
The painting showed a stylized rendition of the city’s skyline. Four ominously shadowed, seven-feet-tall figures emerged from the depths of the composition. The right foot of the leading figure broke the bottom line of the frame: Giants were about to be born from bricks and mortar.
For those who knew their art, the influences of the work were there to be seen. Hints of contemporary pop artists like Alex Ross and Frank Miller were recognizable, but so were bows to Michelangelo and Leonardo, and carefully lodged at the edge of a shadow was a Waldo, a tiny likeness of a figure from a famous painting that had no business in the mural.
At the bottom of the mural in bold red letters edged and highlighted in white, the artists wrote their name.
Blood Street Punx.
As soon as the painting stopped, the lookout left his post and snapped several shots of the mural with his digital camera. Then all of them stepped across the street, looked at what they’d done, and grinned in approval.
Finally, the driver said, “Okay, that’s enough, let’s get out of here.”
They ran back to the Renault and were gone five minutes before the cops came back.
The beat car stopped exactly where it had before and the two cops got out and stood on the sidewalk. They stared at the mural. Their mouths hung open in wonder.
“How long were we gone, Tommy? Didn’t seem like ten minutes before we had those two shit-birds kissing and making up.”
Tommy checked his watch. “More like seventeen, Ed.”
“Seventeen, then.” He walked from one end of the mural to the other, studying it. “Somebody did all this in seventeen minutes? This is…this is…”
“Goddamn art is what it is,” Tommy supplied.
Ed looked back at his partner, “Yeah, but you know what I’m wondering?”
“Sure, same as me.”
“Who the fuck are the Blood Street Punx?” the two cops asked as one.
The Punx were headed back to their own neighborhood just then. They were feeling good. High on life and maybe just a touch of paint fumes.
They had no idea that in the coming days they would piss off just about all of the metropolitan area’s one hundred and twenty-five real street gangs and that a large percentage of the city’s one hundred thousand actual gang-bangers would soon be gunning for them.
The lookout hadn’t gotten around to unearthing these facts. Not yet anyway.