At 15 Sebastian didn’t see himself as a vandal, as the law did. He saw himself as a writer. The secret language of tags and symbols, the liminal space of tunnels and railways, the argot of street writers, the underground camaraderie of the graffiti gang – all these things gave him something to commit to. So, it was only a matter of time before the cops caught up with him.
When Susan arrived at the station, the police officer on the desk was clearly annoyed that it had taken her so long, as though she had been using the lock-up as a free babysitting service. He ushered her into a small room and turned on a recording device. Susan had the “right”, she was informed, to observe Sebastian being questioned, although she wasn’t allowed to speak. So, Susan observed in silence as the policeman attempted to interrogate her son.
“I have the right to remain silent,” Sebastian repeated in response to each question. At the time, Susan felt he was deliberately putting himself through a rite of passage, undergoing a constructed and contrived suffering that required witnesses and a permanent public record, confident that once he had survived, once he was on the other side of the door of the interrogation room, he would have earned his manhood. In previous generations young men did this by going to war. Sebastian was creating his own war.
“As this is his first time,” the officer said, “we will let him off with a warning.”
The warning had no impact. Sebastian continued to graffiti every available surface, including school desks and classroom walls. Eventually, after repeated detentions, he was expelled.
Susan began to wonder if she had inadvertently encouraged her son’s graffiti habit. When Sebastian was 14, he had accompanied her on a work trip to Melbourne, attracted by the city’s graffiti culture. He wanted to see the special laneway in the city legally devoted to street art that for years had been painted and repainted, sometimes on a daily basis, and was so famous that even Banksy had made his mark there. (Although Sebastian assured his mother that this wasn’t what appealed to him; Banksy, in his view, was a sellout.)
On their first day in Melbourne they travelled into the city by train while Sebastian sat entranced by the passing variety of graffiti walls and tunnels, explaining why some letters were more fun than others to paint. “S” in particular could lead to innovative patterns.
“Look at that one, Mum! What do you think of that one?”
Susan told him that she could understand the attraction but, in her view, it wasn’t art. They argued as the train rattled on and then stopped suddenly, between stations, as trains do. Perhaps because of this space, this enforced being together somewhere that was also nowhere, Sebastian told his mother about his own graffiti tag. It sounded clichéd to her, something foisted upon him by rapper culture rather than something imagined. And there was no letter “S”. So, she started suggesting alternatives.
The book in Susan’s lap at the time was How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson. It had reminded her of the word skiving, the Irish expression for being idle. In Ireland, she remembered, people would accuse others of “skiving off” or being “a complete skiver”. She supposed it was the equivalent of the Australian “bludger” but the difference between bludger and skiver was huge. In Ireland skivers were talked of fondly and indulgently and there was an unspoken understanding that skiving off was what we’d all like to do if we had the chance. In Australia, on the other hand, bludgers were always referred to with moral repugnance and no one would ever admit to being one or having pretensions of becoming one.
“How about Skiver?” Susan said to Sebastian. “That has an ‘S’.” His face lit up, although he tried hard not to show it. He hated the idea of being inspired by a suggestion from his mother and hesitated, needing to change it to make it his own.
“Skiva,” he said. “Skiva with an ‘a’.”
Sebastian regularly got 100 per cent in spelling tests but being an anti-conventional speller is also part of being a “writer” of the graffiti culture.
Then Susan watched as her son got out the permanent marker that he carried with him everywhere and looked around the train, itching to try out his new name. She didn’t realise what she’d done until that moment. How was she supposed to know that he would choose that instance to listen to his mother? He’d never taken her advice seriously before.
A year later, during the months that Sebastian disappeared, Susan found herself passing by walls and fences and canals and seeing SKIVA painted in huge letters. By that time he had moved out of his father’s house, skiving off, but nobody knew where. And yet Susan saw traces of him every evening when she took her after-dinner walk around the neighbourhood. Sometimes his tag was neatly painted in silver on a Colorbond fence, at other times scrawled in black on a concrete wall or a gutter. Perhaps she had passed that spot only hours after he had been there with his spray can. By what degree, she wondered, had they missed each other? To her these scrawled letters were not graffiti; they were coded messages from her son. If she’d only known how to read them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Skiva".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Letters & Editorial