New York-based Photographer Henry Leutwyler’s new book Document is a 10-year collection of portraits of things, including an original bottle of Krink next to Massimo Vignelli’s pen. Available online at Steidl Books.
“The joke is, the graffiti lifetime achievement award is like a garbage can and a broom when you’re doing community service. Unless if you’re fortunate enough to parlay that into something else, it’s really just for the moment,” explains Craig (KR) Costello, founder of the internationally renowned Krink graffiti markers. Growing up in Queens skating and writing graffiti, KR would steal the majority of his supplies and experiment with different ink mixtures. After a six-year stint in San Francisco — where he painted with friends like Barry McGee — he returned to New York with a whole new viewpoint and set of skills. Through Stephen (ESPO) Powers, KR was introduced to the newly opened Alife shop next to his Lower East Side apartment, and with their help the Krink brand was finally launched. I met the street artist one afternoon at his Sunset Park studio and the following three-hour conversation ensued.
Paige Silveria: Let’s start from the beginning. Where in New York did you grow up?
Craig KR Costello: Forest Hills in Queens. I grew up in a neighborhood with houses and families and a lot of the people that grew up there, stayed there. You knew your neighbors. A lot of times in New York City you step out your door and it’s a lot of strangers. But I’ve always had a community. When I was a teenager we started going to the city. Back in the day, W4th was where you’d take the train to. As a kid we didn’t really have any money so it was skating around, drinking, doing some graffiti. We just hung out in the street. Today you’d be arrested or given tickets. It was a very different city back then.
What were your cultural influences as a kid?
There was hip-hop that was really still new. We’re talking like ’86. I was into punk and new wave and coming out of a base of like classical rock. I was into skating back then but it was mostly based in California. I’d look at Thrasher mag and see these drainage ditches and I didn’t even know what I was looking at — it was just in the desert somewhere. Versus street skating, which is what we had here. We used to go to JFK and skate. That was our spot all of the time.
Whoa, inside the terminal?
Yeah it was crazy. Today they wouldn’t let you do anything the way we used to do it. We used to skate at night — we’d bring beer and weed — we’d skate the international halls. They were smooth and you could do these slides. We’d go to TWA, which is now JetBlue, but they destroyed most of it. It used to have banks that we’d skate. No one ever messed with us. There was a lot of free-for-all. They’d tell us, “Hey kid, get out of here.” But there weren’t any arrests and nothing was locked down. Everything was really open. We also went to The Met as kids and hung out on the steps. You could go inside for a nickel. It was just there for you. MoMA had a great bookstore back then. Amazon just decimated all the bookstores. I grew up when there were a lot of small businesses. The cheese spot, meat spot, Italian deli and the bookstore.
What kind of student were you?
I was kind of a bad student. But I read on my own. Everything from Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Camus, Kafka — those were weird books that I was into. I think they influenced me later.
How’d they influence you?
Hard to say exactly.
Where did you buy your skateboards back then?
Soho Skates was really the only place … there was another shop uptown maybe in the low 80s or high 70s. I bought all my boards at Soho Skates though. My first board had all the plastic shit on it. It was so funny. I had a Vision Street Ghost board. And when I started skating more and breaking shit, I got all hand-me-downs. There was only the occasional new deck. And you’d put it together yourself. Whereas your first deck came fully assembled. You got parts from your friends and tried new wheels. I grew up in this culture of DIY, taking things apart. You make your own ramps and look at your environment for places to go do what it is that you want to do.
What was the graffiti scene like?
I grew up riding bombed trains when New York City was the epicenter of graffiti. Not that I knew that at the time, but it was everywhere.
Did you have any friends who were tagging?
Everybody had a name, whether they took it seriously or not. And a lot of people wrote.
Where did you go to college?
At The Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. I think Nan Goldin went there and that was cool. But I really didn’t like Boston. I grew up where you could go to the store and buy beer and hang with your friends. It was freer. When I was 17 I was into the hardcore scene. We’d go to shows and things. But Boston was so locked down. You couldn’t buy beer. If you asked someone to go and buy you beer, they’d go into the store and tell the clerk on you. That blew our minds. We were denied things that we took for granted. I was also an alternative kid. And Boston was douchey. I didn’t grow up with the football team and what you see in the movies. And there there would be like these big jock dudes trying to pick fights with me. It was just a weird scene and I wasn’t into it. It wasn’t very diverse. So I dropped out of school and left.
Where’d you go?
I moved back to New York but I’d had this taste of freedom so it was hard to be back home. I had this opportunity to go to SF so I did. I worked at a one-hour photo store. You see a lot of things working at those spots. A lot of the photos were cyclical. You see that people take the same high school and birthday photos. And everyone is a bad photographer. It was just a bullshit job. After that I knew I didn’t want to deal in retail. That’s why we only sell our Krink products wholesale.
Where in San Francisco did you live?
In the Sunset. It was really close to the beach. We redid the whole house. It was crazy. We had Chinese landlords. The place was just poorly painted and they had linoleum tile on the walls. Being from here, moving out there was a really great experience. I had a garden. I watched broccoli grow.
What was the graffiti scene like there at the time?
It was all pre-Internet, so ideas didn’t travel as fast. The world’s gotten a lot smaller. Like now you can go to Berlin and the kids will be dressed exactly like kids in Bushwick. But back then it wasn’t like that yet. People didn’t travel as much. So I was coming from New York, a completely different gene pool and arriving with different ideas about how and where you did things. My writing methods and things were different. The term racking means stealing your supplies, and they were all way more accessible in Cali. In New York, it was more locked down. SF was really small so the scene was really small. There were really only pockets of graffiti, like in parking lots. They didn’t have as much as we did in New York. Of the graffiti writers there were only a few that stood out. Barry McGee was one of them. He seemed down to do shit. We met through a mutual friend. (For me, graffiti is partner driven; a two-man team is the best because you have an extra set of eyes. Three people can be too much and four is way too much.) And then I met other people and I got more involved in graffiti out there. And I stood out. What I was doing was completely different than anyone else.
The Rose Béton catalog is a 256-page limited edition book published September 2017. Craig Costello was invited to participate in Epoxy, a five-artist group exhibition at the Musée des Abattoirs, as a part of the Rose Béton Festival in 2016. Visit craigcostello.nyc to see more work from the exhibition.
Eliza Jordan interviewed Krink founder Craig Costello, also known as KR, for Whitewall Magazine. Find the original interview here.
WHITEWALL: What was your first art piece? Tell us about that.
CRAIG COSTELLO: That’s a tricky one. Consciously attempting to make “art” would be in photography. But really, this is student work—being heavily influenced by the new things I was exposed to in museums, galleries, books, and culture. I photographed a lot of things around me, like graffiti, and I think this had a documentary or journalistic feel. Photos of friends, painting at night shots with a flash in black and white—those are from around 1988-89.
How has your practice evolved or stayed the same?
The creation of unique tools has been consistent. Evolution is from street, to branding, to art. Many pieces coming together; the information coming from the same place, but applied across a variety of uses.
How do you feel about being an artist today?
It’s so challenging to navigate the world of promotion. Creating is just one aspect, and of course should be the main focus, but there is another side that people aren’t always aware of and that is the social, promotional, and commercial side of things. All very important.
What has been your favorite city to create a piece for thus far?
I enjoy traveling and experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, etc. Those experiences play a big part in the overall project. I can’t choose just one! São Paulo, Brazil—the space was amazing, the city is so raw, and the graffiti is incredible in scale. It’s a crazy experience, and not for everyone, but I’m happy to have visited. Rome was amazing to see. So many beautiful and historical works—sculpture, painting, and architecture. All incredible. Plus the food and the people! It’s an amazing city. Two very different experiences and places.
When Craig Costello began tagging the streets of San Francisco with his name, he soon replaced it with abstract drips of paint, sprayed onto doors or mailboxes. Over time, the New-York based street artist has both scaled up and scaled down his spray-paint focused output. Take the towering Untitled, a series of dripped white works presented against mysterious black walls at the Ex Caserma via Guido Reni in Rome, and shown last November as part of the month long Outdoor Festival exhibition. Or Costello’s dripped paint interpretation of Nike’s Air Force One trainer, and Coach’s leather totes and luggage tags.
Now Costello has experimented further with scale, collaborating with the French performance wear behemoth Moncler on 350 customised 19 inch ‘Mr Moncler’ figurines. Yesterday, these statuettes were presented, amongst 10,000 others, in regimental rows around the streets of Hong Kong, as part of a live performance piece staged by the label.
‘Art has always been a key communication asset for Moncler,’ says Remo Ruffini, chairman and CEO of the brand. Last year, the label’s Freeze for Frieze project featured a Tim Blanks-curated exhibition of 400 donated artworks in postcard format, sold at its Old Bond Street flagship in London, to raise funds for the Royal College of Art. ‘Our partnership with Costello has allowed us to blend Moncler’s DNA with his trademark paint-drip aesthetic. It has resulted in a unique globally recognisable language project.’
‘They’ll all be hand-painted,’ expained Costello of his Mr Moncler figurine – his bearded and sunglasses-clad visage protected by an eye-catching metallic puffer jacket, and differentiated by paint-dripped jogging bottoms and boots. The brand’s miniature army of Mr Moncler’s were positioned at four locations in the city, including Central Pier 4 and Harbour City Pier 3, their metallic puffer jackets complementing Hong Kong’s skyscraper heavy skyline.
The project also celebrates the reopening of Moncler’s flagship store at Harbour City in Canton Road. In democratic style, the city’s guests were encouraged to register for the chance to take their own Mr Moncler home. This universal approach is one that resonates with Costello’s public-focused street art background: ‘It’s great when the work can be made available to a wide variety of people,’ he says.
By Laura Hawkins. View full article on wallpaper.com
Ruba Abu-Nimah interviewed Krink founder Craig Costello, also known as KR, for Saturdays Magazine. Find the original interview here.
Ruba Abu-Nimah: You grew up in Queens. Where did you study photography?
KR: First, in high school. I was a bad student. I went to a few different schools. I started getting really into it when I was 17 or 18.
You clearly love it and have a very sophisticated knowledge of the medium.
I think that was my first sense of being creative within something that was considered art. When I was a kid, we’d go to the MOMA and see these pieces of really high art. I had friends who could draw really well. Photography let me exercise my creativity. When I was in college there was this group of kids who all went to some art high school. They just knew about stuff—it was crazy. I think that exposure is really important.
Did you have any idea what you wanted to do?
I didn’t, and I was never pushed one way or another towards a career.
How did you go from being interested in photography and the arts to writing on walls?
There was no pivotal moment. I grew up in New York and wrote graffiti. When I was younger, when I was a teenager, everyone had a name or knew someone who wrote. Graffiti was very much a part of our youth. Some people took it really seriously. Others just dabbled. I wasn’t a real graffiti writer. I was a skater, but then I broke my knee and got more into graffiti at 17.
What about the risk?
Nobody cared about the risk at our age. I skated in the ’80s, so it was like acid drops and bonelesses and stuff like that. We would jump off ten-foot or twelve-foot drops on a skateboard and land them—now that’s a risk. It was intimidating at first but we didn’t really think about the risk.
You were just like: “I’m going to keep doing this. It’s fun.”
Yep. We were having fun. There’s also an obsessive quality to it. When I was a kid, I think I didn’t have that drive to go to college. I was a little misguided.
Tell me about California. When did you go to San Francisco?
From ’92 until ’98. When I graduated from High School, there was this expectation that I should go to college. I went to Boston to the Museum School of Fine Arts. I hated Boston. It was a total nightmare. The people and the attitudes were so conservative. I went there when I was 18. I used to go to Hardcore Matinees and things like that. In Boston, the shows were 21 or over; we couldn’t even go. We couldn’t even buy beer. We used to go to clubs at 16! I guess I was so naïve but I finally went to this place where they didn’t allow any of that, it was just kind of mind-blowing. I didn’t grow up like that. For us, it was a non-issue. We’d be cool with the local Hindu dude who sold us beer at the store on the corner. Boston was just fucked up like that. On top of that there were all of these like jock dudes who would pick fights with me. I don’t know if I just looked too alternative or something. So I dropped out freshman year and went home. I would go out until four in the morning. My mom would ask me, “Where the fuck have you been?” I grew up in a pretty strict household, but I had already had my taste of independence. So I saved some money and moved to San Francisco. I didn’t go for school. I just went. I got a job at a one-hour photo spot and did that for a year. It was really nice in a way because I was doing my own thing but eventually I began to ask myself what the hell I was doing. That’s when I decided to go back to school.
San Francisco Art Institute is where I studied photography. My program was very open-ended, though. You could really bring anything in. The school wasn’t a technical school; it was a fine arts school. The department where I was, it was the most open. It was more about ideas. I learned a lot there, though if you looked at my grade point average you wouldn’t think I learned anything. Art school was weird. I was always in the library, and I went out and looked at art in San Francisco. I found that sometimes in a class of twenty people, I’d be the only one who looked at the shows. I don’t know what that means about everyone else.
You’re still very active. You go to all of the shows and galleries. You know what’s going on.
I go and I look. I’m not so much interested in the scene, but contemporary art is definitely a major influence. I think it was always shocking how my classmates didn’t look at the art. I like art school, and I like all the art students. I live near Pratt. I see the freshman. They’re awesome. They make their own clothes. New York City is different. If you’re from some small town, you must feel like an alien and a weirdo when you get here. Kids from New York, especially Manhattan—they’re super sophisticated. Even in Queens, it’s just very different from the rest of the country. They’re multicultural.
Yes, I think they’re very much the culmination of their environment. And you’ve also spoken about the kids Downtown. It’s very strange because it’s a whole group of people who are all doing similar things who are all drawn to each other.
It also changes so much. Downtown, there’s a great creative community constantly being pushed around because of rent. I used to live in the Lower East Side and I can barely stand to be in that neighborhood. It’s a very different place today—it’s crazy. The kids are all down in Chinatown now.
Why do you think people like Krink it? I mean, you can get ink anywhere.
Sort of. But there was a point when you couldn’t get ink anywhere. Back in the day it was very, very limited as to what you could get. You’ve got to understand, if you want to take it all the way back, there were just stationary stores and art stores. No Staples. No Office Depot. The inks you could get were mostly pilot ink, which is used in markers. It was a super limited supply. You couldn’t just buy it the way you can today.
How did you make it?
I basically stole all the raw materials. I made my own. From there, I harnessed my aesthetic and style in the street, which you might just call marketing. I was marketing my personal style. And what I was doing within this culture. Eventually, that style was bottled and sold to the public. Before that you just could not find ink like that. It just didn’t exist.
So was it a conscious decision then?
It became a conscious decision because with other projects, things fell through. I would ride these highs and lows. It was difficult for me. It’s still difficult for me, to be honest. With Krink, it was one step removed. It was a brand. It was a product. I could focus on dishing that out in order to pay my bills. I was getting older. I needed to make a living. I had to make a major sacrifice mentally to pursue this business and leave fine art. And then it took off.
Do you think you settled?
I don’t know. What’s happening today is that I still have this weird scratch. Krink has been amazing. I love everything that we’ve done as a team. It’s been super exciting but I’m also interested in doing more big projects. When I made the decision to focus on Krink, it grew exponentially. I was able to channel my energy. The brand fills a side of me. I went to school and studied genres and stuff like that. Krink and the branding—it satisfies that part of my interests. I have a friend who I went to school with. He’s very successful. For him, it’s the same. We can apply our art school and contemporary art interests into these grand applications.
Graphic design is an art. I think it’s an undervalued art. Graphic design and branding go hand in hand.
I think branding and graphic design are different things. I didn’t study brand or graphic design. There was not one computer. I learned how to do things on the computer from friends, looking over their shoulders or on the phone. I asked questions. I’m still no expert.
You’ve made and maintained a strict direction for your brand. But it doesn’t seem like it was done consciously, was it?
No, nothing is done consciously. It’s crazy. The only thing we consciously do is pay our bills on time. When it comes to branding, they’re all decisions based on what we think is cool or what we think is right. We get approached by agencies. Sometimes, they talk to us like: “What are you even saying? What the fuck does that mean?” I can’t stand it. They say these things and I just can’t relate to them at all. What we do is small and organic.
It’s very small, but very coveted. For a kid in a skate park, a Krink marker is as coveted as a Chanel bag for a woman living on the Upper East Side. You’ve created something aspirational. Would you ever sell Krink?
I don’t know. First of all, we’re so small. Companies that buy other companies usually buy ones that are much bigger than mine. I think a partnership could be interesting. Some people don’t understand that in the world of business there are more and more of these gigantic conglomerates. They don’t just own all of the products. They own the distribution, the raw materials, the molds. They’ll shut you out if you try to make something. This is happening more and more in the US. It’s the same thing in fashion. You go to Duty-Free and it’s all owned by LVMH.
LVMH and Estee Lauder. They have the power to control the positioning of the brands on the floor in those stores, too.
These companies are able to shut out the small brands. Our company, we pay fair wages. We support the local economy. We’re into all of that. But that all drives the price up. In the grand scheme, at least in the US, it’s all chains and big box.
It’s odd for New Yorkers, because we don’t see as many of those stores here.
I drove cross country and it blew my mind. People who fight over brands and talk shit, they don’t realize that the same company owns everything.
They also don’t realize that across their brands, they use the same formulas.
I’d like to be more accessible, though. I love Chanel, but I don’t want Krink to be like the $3,000 bag. I wish my products could be cheaper and that we can still pay fair wages to everyone.
Does your fine art work inspire you in creating the products?
It’s a mix. Take the fire extinguishers. They’re something I’ve used. I’ve repurposed an existing material and made it available to the public.
Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that a fire extinguisher could become an art piece that people would covet?
The repurposing of these things into creative tools—it’s the same as having a photo of Warhol’s brush. Warhol didn’t make the brush. I make the brush and I’m using it. It’s just part of the process, and the history of my method. The extinguisher is the same as the marker at Krink. It’s that same spirit of looking to your environment and finding your tools. I came from an era where you found your own paint and tools. Maybe you only had a few pairs of gloves, but you coveted them. You took care of them. You brought them home and immediately soaked them in thinner and cleaned them out. You couldn’t buy them. You could only find them in small numbers. If you’re climbing to a rooftop you only use as much as you can carry with as much time as the spot will allow you. It’s more about that attitude, that spirit in how you make things. The tool, the ink—those become part of the whole process.
Why do you think people are so interested in your output?
I’ve been very fortunate that people are interested in the things I’ve done. Some people link Krink to fashion. They link it to desirable items. They can also link it to mass destruction. I thought it was very interesting when a friend came in here and suggested that we make the caps blue and put stickers in particular places. They were both great ideas, but they came specifically from his experience with fashion design. When I say that I just do this intuitively, it’s not like I worked for five years and I understand these intricate things about package design.
So where do the decisions come from?
It’s more that they’re based in practicality, economy, taste and design sensibility. There’s literally no background in design to inform the design that I’ve pushed forward. I feel like I’m part of a creative culture in Downtown New York City. Fashion and design and all the things that come with that, from t-shirts at Supreme to Bobbie Brown makeup. My specific category of products is not in any of those worlds. Not everyone wants a marker, but many people think the brand is great and that generates a creative community around our product.
Do you ever think about changing it up?
At this age, we all make sacrifices, right? I have a lot of friends who struggle as artists and they are full-time. They do not do anything else. I run a business. If I were to step away from this, it would go down before it went up again. I’m getting older. Stability and paying my rent are important. I love New York and I don’t want to bad mouth it, but it can definitely be a trap.
Photos by (in order of appearance): Bjorn Iooss, Henry Leutwyler, KR, and Brandon Shigeta.