June 3rd, 2011 Posted by: Paper Monster

By Ian Bourland


COST was there.  It’s difficult to imagine New York City (to say nothing

of its global imitators) without street art bedecking every nook and

cranny.  The streets of Williamsburg and SoHo are wheatpasted, stenciled,

and stickered, old-school throwies and bubble letters cheek-by-jowl with

corporate-sponsored attempts to capitalize on the popularity of artists like

Banksy and Shepard Fairey.  But a mere twenty years ago, what is now

commonplace was virtually unheard of.  During the early years of the

Giuliani administration and the twilight of old school train car graffiti,

COST and his partner in crime REVS revitalized aerosol art’s core mission

even as they opened the door for a generation of street artists to follow.


During the late seventies and early eighties, New York experienced an

efflorescence of street art: on the one hand, crews of aerosol writers

bombed the city and its subways with increasingly elaborate style and

intricacy; on the other, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring served as

crucial links between the downtown gallery scene and the streets, writing on

walls and subway platforms in bold, easily-recognizable text and linework.


COST was of a generation younger than the likes of Basquiat, Lee, and

Seen, but growing up on the streets of the East Village he absorbed their

influence, as well as the DIY ethos and graphic influence of the punk rock

subculture centered around CBGB.  The hand-painted works he would later

wheatpaste around the city featured figures reminiscent of Haring’s “radiant

children,” and his own arrow-laden tags.  In COST’s terms, he took all the

came before, all the was forged in the welter of downtown, and “mixed them

in his paintbucket.”



The results were iconic, and give us a window into an often-overlooked

history of street art.  In the face of an increasingly ornate and unwieldy

style of graffiti and a hostile mayoral regime, COST and REVS aimed to strip

graffiti back to its roots: getting over and reclaiming urban space.  He

recalls that, “in the early nineties I was frustrated and upset with the

direction that graffiti was going once it officially moved above ground

after the train era died out...We began to incorporate and emphasize the

philosophies of non-perfection to an art form that had steadily moved

towards a state of perfection.  The focus became more on involving ourselves

within the everyday landscape—we were doing outlaw art, and it was for

everyone to see, from a child to your grandmother.”


This outlaw art required a new set of rules, and a new approach to

medium.  Spray cans and caps took a less central role, and COST and REVS

pioneered now familiar tools such as heavy rollers, stickers, stencils, and

wheatpasting prefabricated work to any urban surface that would bear

it.  During the first half of the nineties COST and REVS took the drive to

“get up” to a new extreme, diffusing their work across the CIty in ways

earlier generations could only imagine.


Walking around downtown Manhattan in those days, you could spot a

wheatpasted painting in a brick inset on the backstreets of SoHo, rolled

tags on fourth floor walkups off Lafayette street, murals around Tompkins

Square Park, and their ubiquitous, sans-serif stickers.  Some of these were

simple and declarative: “COST Fucked Madonna;” other recalled the

interactive and politicized spirit of both Fluxus and the hardcore

scene—dial the number on a COST sticker, get the rant of the week about Rudy

Giuliani.  In this way, COST served as a crucial bridge figure, a link to

graffiti’s golden age and street art’s future.  The mural “Mt. Krushmore,”

depicting Andy Warhol and Keith Haring in blown-up photorealism, synthesized

the grand scale and aerosol style of the eighties with the graphic

sensibilities of the present.  That piece, towering over the East Village,

was up for several years.  Nowadays, more familiar names might occupy the

walls downtown, but make no mistake: COST was here.




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