Thriving on the thrill

Bardia Bryan Zargham climbed lofty heights for his art, but in the end his fearlessness was no match for a freight train

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The bomb dropped for me Wednesday night: Bardia Bryan Zargham, a well-known Toronto graffiti artist, was dead. It was unbelievable.

Bryan, 18, had just finished a bright blue and white piece on a freight car when he was struck and killed by an oncoming train near Dupont and Christie at approximately 9:45 pm. No one’s sure how it happened.

The police think he may have been trying to retrieve a bag with some paint in it. A friend who was there thinks he may have tried to hide but slipped on a paint can.

“I heard the train coming and yelled to Bryan, ‘Train up,'” says the artist, who wishes to remain anonymous. “When it got closer we hid, expecting him to hide, too. When the train passed, my friend pointed to the ground far away from where we’d been painting. When I got closer I saw it was Bryan.”

I had always seen Bryan as tough as nails. I’d seen him do things that others wouldn’t dare, and heard endlessly retold stories about him, so I thought he was invincible, that not even a train could stop him. Bryan was driven by his ambition to make a name for himself. He chose “Alpha” as his name and fanatically made certain it was plastered across rooftops, trucks, bus stops and, of course, trains.

There’s too much Alpha out there for people not to take notice. But it’s Bryan’s heart and loyalty, a side of him that existed before Alpha, that have had the most profound effect on all those who knew him. These qualities deserve a part equal to his beautiful art in his legacy.

I remember exactly what he was wearing the first time I met him – grey hoodie and layer upon layer of dark clothes – because, like his graff, the style was unmistakable.

Every time he got off a bus, streetcar or subway, he did his best to leave something behind. It didn’t matter what time it was or whether he was on his way to school or a party, Bryan always managed to use a pen, aerosol can or even a skate sharpener to mark his passing.

Many people might think what he was doing was senseless, even criminal. Why risk getting arrested, hurt or killed to scribble on a boxcar?

Anyone acquainted with Byan knew he was completely devoted to what he did, fearlessly pursuing that passion since he’d begun painting five years ago. As a young boy, he’d seen graffiti in the Keele station while riding the subway with his father and announced, “This is what I’m going to do!”

He was one of the breed of graffiti artists who thrive on the thrill of getting caught, the risk involved in painting a train, the respect garnered in aerosol culture, not from artistic genius but from the fearless pursuit of the art itself.

For bombers like Bryan, graffiti is about taking their art to the streets, working in the middle of the night, writing where others won’t.

“There was a month last summer when he was sleeping all day and painting all night,” says a graffiti artist and friend who goes by the tag Jony.

To bombers, painting a commissioned wall is boring and staid. They want the satisfaction of surprising morning commuters with an Alpha looking down from every rooftop on Spadina where yesterday there was only decaying brick.

Order, another Toronto graffiti artist and friend of Bryan’s, recounts one particularly dangerous spot they painted, the top of abandoned silos downtown.

“There was no easy way up to the top of them,” he says. “We eventually had to make a jump for a drain pipe and shinny up 15 feet so we could get to a ladder. We climbed the ladder for, like, 10 stories. When we got to the top we painted our names in huge letters, took in the view of the city and climbed back down.”

But bombing quickly separates those who are serious, like Bryan, from those who are doing it for a lark. For many, the first time they’re caught spells the end of their graffiti careers. An arrest means a record, a fine, community service. If you’re caught a couple of times, the penalty could include jail. If they catch you red-handed, they may even try to fine you for previous work. To gain respect, you’ve got to go where others won’t. Public places, police station walls, rooftops – and trains. Paint enough trains and the whole country knows your name.

Bombers must scour the city for the perfect cap (the nozzle that comes with a spray can) to ensure the fattest letters and the cleanest lines. These are exceedingly difficult to come by, because the only people who use them are on the wrong side of the law.

Graffiti is a perplexing art form. It’s marginal, impermanent. Some say it lacks merit. Bryan saw it as something that made him come alive, gave him purpose.

Everyone who knew Bryan liked him. He was misunderstood by those who weren’t close to him. It’s sad that so many only knew him as Alpha, the graff artist, the dark-skinned hooded guy who walked around with a swagger, the same guy I was first scared of.

But to those close to him, he was so much more than an artist. He was a young man who loved his family and friends above all, and who wasn’t afraid to be different. His parents need never have doubted that those cuts and bruises he’d sometimes come home with were the result of Bryan’s heart and his loyalty to those in trouble.

Bryan is going to be missed by everyone who knew him – the graffiti community, his family and his friends – not just for his art but for the passionate and fearless person he was.

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