Wednesday, April 13, 2011
A Q&A with Showpaper Artist and Graffiti Legend COST
In the 90s, Adam Cole, a.k.a. COST, revolutionized street art culture by catapulting the wheatpasting medium to an international phenomenon. An elusive character, COST wore masks in photos, ran from the police, and became mythic after dropping out of the street art world from 1996 to late 2010, when he designed a newsbox for Showpaper in November. So it's no surprise that COST now returns to with an awesome Showpaper cover, drawing off the gritty, boldfaced aesthetic of his newsbox design — check it out, above.
Back in December, COST and I met up at the Mars Bar to chat about the creation, theft, and recovery of his newsbox for the Local East Village. Read on for some outtakes from our conversation, and grab a copy of COST’s Showpaper issue while you still can.
JP: Do you feel, with this Showpaper project, you’ve connected the old school and the new school, in terms of the graffiti world?
COST: I’ve been told in the past that REVS and I bridged the gap from graffiti to street art. It’s spiraled into what it is today. We didn’t initiate everything we’ve done, but we’re the guys who ran with it, and we created a blue print for the whole graffiti and street art world. Now, if you follow that blue print, you can produce work and get recognized. There’s a way to do it, and people are going about it, and this whole scene blossoming. When we were doing it, we weren’t accepted; we were shunned for it. It took time to digest what we were doing. We were changing the approach to graffiti and street art at the time. If I don’t make a dollar in my life off this stuff, that’s fine, as long as people know I was there when it started to take off. You can have a guy like Derek Jeter who makes 20 million dollars a year and what not, but Willie Mays will always be Willie Mays.
JP: How was your work perceived back then?
COST: When we were doing this, the graffiti guys were angry at us, and unwilling to accept what we were doing. The avant-garde and mainstream artists were furious at us as well because we were not shopping ourselves to the galleries; we created a gallery right outside the actual gallery. We were the anti-artists, and there were politics behind what we were doing. We were youthful, and there was a lot of rebellion involved. Rebellion doesn’t equal money. I’ve never heard of a multimillionaire being a mad rebel. He’s usually sitting by the pool sipping an iced tea.
JP: What have you been up to since the mid-90s?
C: I feel like I’ve been slowly dragged and coerced back into the art world. I’ve been on the fence with whether or not I should get back. I have done graffiti and art on and off since the mid-90s but nothing to the point of extreme where I would be in the pool. After I got arrested in the mid-90s, it pushed me in another direction. I’ve had some success in other areas of my life; I started to push the street art and graffiti world behind me. I’ve done okay for myself. I became a businessman; I started a small business, it’s honest work. I almost didn’t want to look back. I have a Porsche outside. No matter how much success I had making money, and doing other things, I never have been able to fill that void that the art fills for me. It left a very empty feeling. I always found my way back down this path one way or another, and here I am again, back in the mix.
JP: Can you describe the evolution of the graffiti and street art culture in the East Village since the 90s?
COST: Back in the day, it was mostly born and bred New Yorkers. Now, since graffiti has gone international, you have street artists from all over the world flocking here to participate in the movement. It’s gotten very watered down. There was a rule set that doesn’t apply anymore. It was more dangerous, more gang-related. People brought weapons to the train yards. Now you can creep out of your house and do a quick tag or installation, and scoop back upstairs. You used to have to go into territories like train yards, like turf wars. But that’s so 1980s.
JP: What are the benefits and consequences of these changes?
COST: The new wave of street artist, over the last few years…they’re kind of gallivanting around, tip-toein through the tulips. If someone takes their work, people shrug it off. But me and REVS, we’re from the old school. We were doing graffiti in the 80s on the trains, and in the 90s, so this stuff is heart and soul. We look at it differently if someone takes our work. A lot of the new guys are doing wonderful stuff. But if something gets removed off the street, it’s like an “it is what it is” kind of thing. That’s why this thief is thriving and he’s created a small business of selling stolen artwork on eBay. You do that to the older guys, from a different generation, we don’t want to sit back and let it happen.
JP: Over the years, have you been approached by galleries?
COST: I’m approached by galleries all the time. I’ve been out of the game for a bit, and now that I’m back, wetting my feet on the fringes of the art scene, galleries have approached me left and right. But once again, the answer is no. I don’t mind continuing where I left off, but I’m not going to change my tactics or approach. I still have my own way of getting my art and my word out to the streets.
JP: Can you elaborate on that decision to stay out of galleries?
COST: My work is for me and for the public. I’ve always had a love affair with the landscape of New York City, so I like to put my work on the streets, not in a gallery. The thief went against that code. The thief created a value on it. My work is supposed to have no value; I don’t sell it. I never wrote graffiti as a money making process, you know? I can make my living elsewhere. The [current] street art boom is very mixed; there are street artists, and there are big money people, and they’re intertwining to corrupt the whole thing. It’s hard for me to watch, but it’s out of my control.
JP: What is your opinion of curated public murals, like on Bowery and Houston?
COST: I’m not really looking to join the circus. And I feel the street art culture right now has become like one big circus; a bunch of different rings. I’ve got to be careful where I jump in at this point in my life. I’m not knocking any of the people or the legal murals, it’s all good stuff to some people, but it’s not good to all of us.
JP: Do you have plans for future projects?
COST: It’s a snowball effect. You start slow and hopefully get bigger. Let’s see where it goes.
Do you think the East Village was previously more a center for this stuff?
C: It was the mecca! It still kind of is, but it’s gone abroad and become an international phenomenon now. I didn’t realize how much a veteran like myself is recognized until people told me. I thought I was dead and buried, but maybe not so much. Maybe I’m not so off the map; I thought I was off the map. Money has now invaded the East Village, and a lot of purity is lost when money takes over…that’s a shame. You hope to keep a balance of money and purity…but I don’t know if that can be done.
Special thanks to COST for the interview and Andrew H. Shirley for coordinating.