“I still have a VCR in my house. I have a computer that crawls. I’ve never owned a CD player,” graffiti titan Adam “COST” confesses to ANIMAL. “I’m not really of this time, but I like that. It’s representative of my work, as street art has gotten so colorful and perfected.” We interviewed COST for Monday’s Metro cover story in several late-night marathons.
We talked about his life, decades of activity, choices of medium, about REVS and ENX… but we had a word-count limit of 500. A small part made the cut: COST is ruling the streets again, and streets were always his.
“I am very proud that REVS and I hold this position which no one else holds,” COST told us. “Nobody. Not the Keith Harings, the Andy Warhols, the Shepard Faireys or the Banksys. We’re the essence of NYC graffiti writers. Because we were true. True graffiti artists. Not, like, dabbled in it. And we are true street artists. We are the guys that have 50% of each to make a whole. I don’t care if I ever have Banksy or Kaws or Shepard Fairey money — it would be nice, no one complains with full pockets — but I’m very proud that we have etched ourself in the history of graffiti. We bridged the gap between street art and graffiti.”
Because COST and REVS established themselves as graffiti writers first, because the clarity and ubiquitousness of their street art campaign was unprecedented and is unrivaled — they are kings. And now, COST is a 45-year-old “working studio artist” preparing for his solo exhibit in 2014: “I’ve been in talks with various galleries locally, nationally and internationally about future projects.”
There is much more to the story. Here’s what we can put on record.
(Photo: Blaise Cepis/ANIMAL New York)
“Can we do this a bit later?” COST texts. Then, much later: “You awake? Should I come through and do the interview?”
He shows up at half past midnight with his creased baseball cap down low and his winter jacket splashed in wheatpaste. “You should’ve seen it before I cleaned it,” he quips.
A compendium of graffiti knowledge, he sees everything going up in the street. As we walk through Downtown Brooklyn, he talks fast. He talks a lot, confident in epic declarations, his idioms just off the literal axis.
“I represent that disappearing alternative lifestyle of ‘old New York’ society and culture in its truest and purest form,” COST says. “So who better than me to get out there and put the axe to the grind as big business, money, and gentrification continue to take a strong hold of our city?”
In the early ‘90s, as the subway graffiti era ended and street bombing proliferated, it was nearly impossible to walk around the city and not see the very public (and very illegal) art of COST and REVS. Their arsenal was wheatpaste, stencils, stickers, huge rollers, street paintings in doorways, door-sized posters COST calls “door-smashers” and canvases hanging in parking lots and central locations. From the southern tip of Manhattan to the center of Harlem, the unstoppable duo hit the back of every pedestrian signal box. “Ah, they’re no good anymore,” COST muses. “Posters don’t stick as well to plastic. The metal boxes were better.”
COST and REVS bombarded the streets like a relentless brand, advertising nothing but themselves. Their black and white posters carried lively slogans like “Lousy Kid REVS,” “Orphan COST,” “REVS Suicide,” “REVS Ramone,” “COST Fucked Madonna,” “COST Is Religion,” “Specimen REVS,” “And Then There Was COST” and countless others.
(Photo: Bucky Turco/ANIMAL New York)
There were others wheatpasting before them, namely DJ NO and TESS. “They wheatpasted a little,” COST says. But COST and REVS dominated.
Eventually, when they got enough attention, COST and REVS threw the public a line, literally. They added a phone number to their signature 8 ½-by-11-inch Xeroxed posters. If you called the number back then, you could leave a message — after a recording of a cryptic old lady aka “The Grandma of Graff” rasped: “My intuition tells me that you’re asking yourself who are REVS and COST and what are they doing? What is it? What does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean?”
Sounds familiar? Banksy – or “Bansky” as REVS liked to call him, COST tells us – might have paid homage to COST and REVS during his Better Out Than In New York “residency” in October, when he added a hotline number to some of his daily pieces. “Before you, you will see a spray art by an artist Ban-sky,” Banksy’s first recorded message narrated. “Or maybe not.”
Once a week, COST and REVS would change up the recording. Voicemails were coming in en masse, up to 80-a-day – compliments, crazed rants, marriage proposals, threats from writers they went over. It lasted two years until the NYPD shut it down. “They cut the phone line,” COST explains, so they rented another line. Six months later, the NYPD shut it down too. He can still rattle off both numbers from memory, but he tells us that the Grandma of Graff is dead. RIP.
In 1994, COST was arrested. Then he disappeared.
REVS continued to proliferate. He took his entire body of work underground, painting deep in the train tunnels, in places accessible only to the most diehard of urban explorers and the fleeting glimpses of subway commuters. He kept his ol’ bombing partner’s legacy alive by association — an ebb and flow rhythm that defines their partnership to this day.
REVS was ratted out by an informant and busted in 2000. For both artists, the threat of having their identities exposed far outweighed the expected punishment they would get.
Now COST is back and REVS is mostly laying low.
“REVS is in the bunker and I don’t think he’s coming out,” COST says, but he acknowledges the tags he’s has been taking recently. “I’ve seen and heard. It’s proof that he’s still alive and kicking.” They still talk, about graffiti. “We can sometimes really get lost in deep long conversations about graffiti, politics, our history, future moves, projects, missions. Our minds jive in a crazy way if we’re on the same page. It can be quite dangerous… All of a sudden, it’ll be 6am.”
They go way back — COST of Queens, REVS of Brooklyn, two childhood friends who drifted apart. “I probably noticed graffiti at about the age of eight or nine and I went through an abundance of tags in the late ‘70s. I had all kinds of crazy tags,” COST laughs. “I used to have a crew called ‘PLO.’ I used to write ‘HOYSTER,’ ‘HOUSE’ and ‘HOMEBOY.’ My first tag ever was ‘SPACE WAR 2.’ I really started writing graffiti 1982, ‘cause that’s when I wrote on my first subway cars. That’s when I joined the actual movement.”
Years later, they independently started hitting the streets with posters. REVS called COST and they linked up.
“It was inevitable that we drifted back together to form one fierce unit,” COST reminisces about their street campaign in the ‘90s. “Now looking back, we were two suffering individuals fighting our own personal demons, but evidently, that scenario, our partnership and the timing of everything worked out for us to make love to the city streets in an era that seemingly was not quite ready for us. The beauty in it was the innocence. We just were doing what felt right. It had an ultra pure format.”
COST says he and REVS would call their body of work “a movement” because “street art” as such didn’t exist in the early to mid 90s. “It seems the term is quite overused and trending right now. Oversaturation might be causing a negative reaction. Truth be told, most people who are busy ‘being artists’ are completely fooling themselves and have missed the boat entirely. Art is life. Life is not about art.”
Around 2005, COST reemerged and went all city, tagging the fuck out of his name.
When COST returned again in 2010, he stayed. “Friends, colleagues, and enemies alike preached to me in my absence and said you must continue on and fill that void,” he says.
“As I began to move forward, it became clear to me that this has always been my life’s work. Actually, I have no say in the matter. It’s in God’s hands. I am merely a servant to the mission and it’s a mission from God.” COST’s comeback snowballed, earning him a Village Voice cover story earlier this year.
In April, a COST and REVS-covered Showpaper Box sold at Doyle’s record-breaking street art auction for $11,875.
At a Bonhams auction in 2012, a COST and REVS combination piece from the ’90s sold for $31,250. “I never saw a penny of it. As usual, COST and REVS never see a penny from their work,” COST jokes about the auction sale. “We gave it to some lady for a hundreds bucks after Art Around the Park. We didn’t know what to do with it afterwards. Some lady said, ‘Can I have it?’ We said, fuck it – let’s get some food.”
Nowadays, COST’s wheatpaste is being sponged and putty knifed straight off the walls by representatives of the looter street art economy. When COST put up a poster on the door of a metal garbage container in the Lower East Side, they stole the door.
Assuming you’re not just out to resell peeled off work, COST is now selling his prints, priced between $300 and $800. They are limited edition, signed and stamped.
“I’ve grown to the point where I am part of functioning society now and realize that a website is not such a bad thing for people to be able to interact, reach me and view my work.” He’s launching the website soon, but until then, you can hit him up for prints on his Instagram — @costkrt. It’s 43,000 followers-strong.
But you’ll never see him on Twitter and all COST Facebook accounts are fake. COST keeps his focus on the streets and his new partner ENX is keeping up. Since COST teamed up with ENX in 2011, she has had some big shoes to fill.
What makes two partners a team? “Trust,” COST says. “Trust within the person, faith in their capabilities, and balance along with accountability. Knowing that as a team you have to score all 9’s and 10’s and won’t accept anything less. If you’re off your game and pulling a 5 one night, your partner has to step up their game and make sure they add in their 5 that night, thus equaling a 10. Great teams only rock 9’s and 10’s. When two people are perfect partners you created the ultimate weapon — ‘the street beast.’ COST x ENX = Beast Mode!”
The team shares a connection beyond trust and synchronicity. “I have to say ENX has had quite a profound influence on me,” COST says. He’s always been in tune with animal rights issues, but ENX took his awareness to the next level and on an activist bent.
“I fully support ENX’s mission for the animals,” COST says. “We’re on a subversive crusade to enhance positivity through madness within a world of cruelty and pain. We support the animals more than the humans. I speak for the movement. She speaks for the animals. Together we are one well-oiled machine.”
Who is ENX? “ENX is a cashier you might nonchalantly pass by when you exit through the gift shop of a local museum,” COST winks. “ENX actually happens to be an amazing artist, in the truest sense of the word.”
ENX says she’s not trying to be the new REVS, but she can’t escape the scrutiny as REVS’ alleged replacement.
“I told her, first there’s resistance. Then there’s acceptance. And then there’s embracement,” COST explains. “When I started working with her, she was getting total resistance. I think she’s advanced to the stage where the graffiti and street art world have accepted her. I think she’s even a little past that. They’re almost embracing her.”
That’s ENX’s catch-22. The more successful she gets with COST, the more she’ll be measured up to REVS as his successor. It’s challenge and she’s up for it.
“It was meant to be,” ENX tells ANIMAL about her partnership with COST. “We were pushed into working together by invisible forces. As far as the REVSTER, it will be silly for anyone to compare me to him. I do not write graff nor paint rollers. I adore REVS and never would think or even try to take his place. Do people want REVS and diss me? Absolutely, and I get it. COST and REVS were the greatest and always will be the true roller kings. My concerns lie with the animals, with ending animal entertainment, the killing of wolves and the ivory trade. These are the things that truly matter. This is what interests me, not mindless rumblings from humans.” Humans can be so petty, right?
“Yeah, ‘COST Fucked Madonna’ is the holy grail of posters,” COST laughs. “When Rev and I were doing posters, I did that one on a whim as a joke and never really thought, like ‘bingo!’”
Did COST fuck Madonna?
“Out of respect to everyone, I don’t kiss and tell.”
That’s fair. After all, it’s not like “COST Fucked Madonna” is the best thing he’s ever done.
“What you do as an artist that you realize is very important, your greatest works… It means nothing to the public,” COST says. “They always take some work that you really don’t covet and pump it up to be your greatest work, just like the High Line roller.”
When the High Line roller was buffed in 2010, local media threw itself into an anguished huff, as if graffiti never gets buffed. Ironically, REVS and COST didn’t even care.
“In all honesty, and I can speak for REVS here, neither of us liked that mural. It was a rough night. That’s far from our best roller. It’s not even in our top 10.”
COST is most proud of their 1993 mural on Great Jones Street and Lafayette of Mt. Rushmore-style busts of Andy Warhol, REVS (postered), COST (postered) and Keith Haring.
“Mt. Krushmore was a groundbreaking mural,” COST explains. “It’s gotten to the point where if you blow something up, people go, ‘Ooh, great!’ So everyone is blowing up street art now. We did it first.”
What’s next for COST? He’s is doing his art thing, but in his own way, with whom he chooses.
Days after Banksy ended his New York “residency” and the hype machine started cranking down, Invader landed in town. Famed for his signature mosaic 8-bit tiles and nostalgic video game motifs, the French street artist doesn’t often collaborate with the others. Apart from his bombing partner, neither does COST.
(Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMAL New York)
The massive Invader x COST x ENX tile and the COST x ENX x Invader wheatpaste were simply epic. The artists had literally swapped arsenals. Local and online fans went nuts.
“A lot of street art has the same look to it. People do things very similar,” COST sighs. “I can certainly tell you I’m very that aware every kid and his mother nowadays calls themselves a street artist.”
COST isn’t into live painting either.
“It’s the equivalent of a juggling clown act a kid’s birthday party.”
He didn’t go to Art Basel.
“I’m not a socialite or into circus-like atmospheres. I don’t thrive in those types of conditions. I’m not a let’s-meet-everyone-type personality who embraces a free-for-all. I know when and where I should be mixing in.”
And COST definitely doesn’t care about your hot new street art trend. Not when a scene of vandals with rap sheets is overrun by art students with Tumblr accounts. That’s not his art.
“The more they advance with their street art techniques, I pull back and get more retro. My work is very gutter black and white. I would call it ‘gutter art.’”
(Lead photo: Blaise Cepis/ANIMAL New York)