Graffiti by Julio Cortázar

Fiction as powder keg, fiction as detonating force.

Graffiti, an explosive six-page short story by the one and only Julio Cortázar.

A tale of two graffiti artists who develop a relationship through their art - they never meet face to face or exchange words; they communicate by way of graffiti and only graffiti.

Our story's narrator is a young woman who always addresses her fellow graffiti artist, a guy, in the second person: "I suppose that it amused you to find the sketch beside yours, you attributed it to chance or a whim and only the second time did you realize that it was intentional."

Again, she never actually speaks to him in the flesh - the entire tale gives a reader the impression she is recounting their relationship and past events in her own mind. I say "gives the impression" since with this Argentine author of the fabulous, many aspects of his fiction, both long and short, remain purposely ambiguous and are left to a reader's imagination.

She tells him she knows he started creating graffiti out of a sense of boredom, not even close to political protest or an act of defiance against the prohibition of writing or drawing on walls. And such art doesn't even have to be political in nature; even a simple drawing of a house or dog could get the graffiti artist beaten up or hauled off to jail.

At this point we can ask: Why do dictators and police states act thusly? After all, the desire to transform one's powerful emotions and life experiences into a work of art in any form is a very human and healthy impulse. Seen in this way, graffiti art is perfectly natural. Of course, I recognize such a question is naïve - the iron fist of totalitarianism always and at all times takes the needed steps, frequently brutal and cruel in the extreme, to obliterate personal artistic expression in any form, no matter how seemingly innocent.

She goes on to tell him he never ran any great risk with police or officials since he chose his time well and always would observe people looking at his graffiti from a distance. Once and only once did he dare actually write words to accompany his drawing: It hurts me too. Predictably, the police themselves made it disappear within two hours.

Then, as she continues, he could see another graffiti artist also decided to have some fun by drawing a figure in warm colors next to his, a graffiti artist he knew to be a woman. Wow! And another such sketch popped up next to another of his drawings. Double decker wow!

But, as she goes on to relate, tragedy strikes - "There was a confused crowding by the wall, you ran, in the face of all good sense, and all that helped you with the good luck to have a car turn the corner and put on its brakes when the driver saw the patrol wagon, its bulk protected you and you saw the struggle, black hair pulled by gloved hands, the kicks and the screams, the cut-off glimpse of blue slacks before they threw her into the wagon and took her away."

From this point, Graffiti takes a more dramatic and heartfelt turn. You will have to read for yourself (link below) to see the way in which Julio concludes his tale.

One final reflection: What dictators and their ilk especially fear and despise is an artist not only creating art that opposes their power but an artist working in collaboration with other artists. Totally unacceptable! Thus the order goes out: find them and destroy them. Julio Cortázar handles this theme with a subtlety that's nothing short of magnificent. A piece of flash fiction not to be missed.

Graffiti can be read as part of We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales or online:

Julio Cortázar dedicated Graffiti to Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies - below photo of the artist with one of his works of art

Julio Cortázar, 1914-1984