Barry McGee interviewed Craig Costello for #24 of the Palais de Tokyo Magazine, which includes a bilingual version of the interview in both French and English. Purchase a print copy of the magazine here. Full unabridged interview below.
Upon your arrival to SF in the early 90's what were your expectations/assumptions?
None really. I just took the plunge and flew out to California to check it out. I didn’t know very much about California and pictured it as sunny and warm, LOL.
Did California hold an allure to you at all at that time/age?
California was on the radar for me because of music and skating, but overall I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I was just going to see and be in a different place which at the time was really appealing. I think I was 20.
Where any of these expectations met?
California is very different, it was entirely new. The moment I arrived I noticed how different the plants were and how different everything was in general. I didn’t have much of an expectation but was intrigued by what I saw.
I think it’s an important experience to leave where you are from and experience something different.
Are there any particular memories of SF at that period that struck you as completely foreign as someone raised on the eastern seaboard?
The nature, SF is wilder. We used to go to Land’s End by Ocean Beach, smoke weed, and hike around, that was so different and cool for me. I’d see Pelicans cruising low over the ocean and diving for fish, bay seals etc. It was so beautiful and dramatic. The sun setting into the Pacific, so beautiful. NYC is just not like that at all, almost everything is man-made and crowded, concrete jungle. Overall SF is a much smaller city, things were always at a more relaxed pace, more chill, quiet, friendly. The food is good, the vibe is mellow. I was exposed to a lot of new ideas about everything from food, politics, counter-culture, as well as Californian art and design. I consider California to be very influential for me.
San Francisco has a huge transient homeless population that congregates in abandoned and unoccupied areas of the city; a systemic problem which has existed for decades. While the east coast is not devoid of these populations, SF must have been an eye opening experience to some degree?
I grew up in 80’s NY, a lot of homelessness, drugs/crack, prostitution, crime, blown-out areas of the city. SF had a seedy feeling, but nothing I hadn’t seen.
I’d say maybe the difference was that SF seemed weirder, NY more crazy people, if that makes sense. The NY of today and then is so different, it’s a much cleaner city that’s basically been gut-renovated including a lot of the population, a lot of movement and change.
I had first seen your tags in Boston, then New York and then magically they started appearing in SF...like most young writers at that time I was left trying to put together a series of clues and stylistic hints of who, why, how, and when. Your hand was very refreshing for sf/ bay area. Tagging for the most part at that time was an assortment of SF "bus-hopper" styles mixed with Los Angeles and New York influences.
Can we talk about music at this period of time? It seemed like a much more interesting experimental time for all genres of music with many even crossing over with one another without raising an eyebrow. Politics and activism were not shied away from but were upfront and turned into anthems of sorts. We had strong straight edge movements, riot grrl/queercore movements, anti establishment crust punk bands playing in abandoned lots and storefronts. It was an electrifying time, to say the least. Does any of this inform your ethos in this current day & age? What if any of these ideologies do you reach for in a new era in which we live now?
I lived in SF in my early 20’s, a time of learning and experimentation. I was open to all different kinds of music and still am today. SF had a very different flavor of music and the scene in general. I used to go to hardcore matinee’s at CB’s and when I moved out to SF I think that era was ending. SF had a more tolerant feel, more inclusive, less agro. Overall I’d say SF is generally a counter-culture place and that is apparent in so many things coming from there. I’d say my music tastes have changed considerably but I myself can be a bit fringe to some degree and remain that way today.
Bfb, mdc, Ill tet, 5av, spone, teo, ja1, reas, uws, shok, caviar, ryze, 40 thieves
With today's writers it's not unusual for them to document their missions with head mounted cams and videos, capturing the sometimes laborious task of waiting outside train yards, cutting fences, contorting oneself under electronic sight lines that can revel ones presence in a train yard once tripped off. Your images from the 90's almost seem like a "wrinkle in time" so to speak, an era that no longer exist, slightly pre Internet, but shooting film during this time and its impending doom into the digital era. Tell us what you were thinking about at that time…was Jim Goldberg a professor of yours? We're there any photographers that were inspiring you at that point?
I was documenting what I saw around me and what I maybe felt was insider content; reportage, documentation of subculture. I was influenced by photographers like Nan Goldin, Larry Clark’s Tulsa, Bill Burke, Gilles Peres. Jim Goldberg was great and showed me a lot of interesting things, he helped bridge a gap from my interest in photography into other things, objects, materials, layout. I eventually ended up in New Genres @SFAI because it was more open and photography sometimes felt technical and confining. The New Genres department opened my eyes to a different way of thinking and seeing, and also exposure to different styles of art and creativity. I’m not so interested in anything technical, digital vs film, oil vs acrylic etc I think the right person can make use of the materials they see fit to be impactful.
You have successfully navigated several decades of graffiti/vandalism. From the tail end of Nyc clean trains to the full blown street bombing, taking over an entire cities, to nationwide takeovers, to what we are currently seeing worldwide interest in graffiti and youth emboldened by taking this movement in new directions at such a rapid pace. What are you seeing that inspires you and motivates you?
I love all the young people who are constantly pushing the edge, wanting to go in the opposite direction of everyone else. It could be a guy like Ellis (Ericson), he’s enthusiastic about the past and the future, he’s interested in people and ideas beyond his culture of surfing, which I think is really important; to look to other points for inspiration and creativity, it could be cooking, music, literature.
Anyone taking risks and putting themselves out there is really inspiring.
I’m also always inspired by artists who have forged the way, Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, to name a few.
These days something new for me is surfing. I really enjoy being new to something, a toy so to speak. I start at the bottom and learn. It’s very humbling and rewarding. It brings me closer to nature and away from a working environment. There’s also a subculture that in ways is very similar to graffiti, which is kind of funny and interesting.
Can we discuss the acceptance/non acceptance of urban arts in museums and art centers in this day and age?
Overall I think acceptance is a good thing. It creates opportunities on both sides. I feel it’s the museums job to be open to all forms of creativity and not just the academic. Inclusion adds diversity. Of course you can’t please everyone and feathers are sure to get ruffled, but that’s normal. Also, there are people out there from all different walks of life that are doing new things and don’t want to be in a museum or be accepted by the academic or mass culture and I think that’s great too.
Can you talk about how you and Ellis met? He is indeed a very special individual with enormous talents.
Ellis (Ericson) and I met in Bali. I was in Australia for a project working with Ed Woodley from China Heights. Knowing I was going to Bali, Ed mentioned I should definitely link with Ellis. Pure coincidence, I ended up in Canngu where Ellis was living at the time and he got me properly sorted with a board and a Bintang. His mom was there too, saw her catch a sick wave at Echo, we thought she was going to get crushed and she dropped in smooth as can be, pretty cool. We stayed in touch and Ellis comes to NYC once a year. He’s a great kid who is interested in creativity from all different walks, which is rare and cool. I think it’s really important to look at other things.
Was Chris Mosier in the mix?
Again, small world, Ellis had met Chris previously and also knows you and a few other people. It’s crazy, we are all connected across the globe with one or two steps removed.
Craig can you walk us through a normal day for you?
Quite routine, I’m a square guy these days. Wake up around 6 and hang with my son Ever, read books, play, eat. Then off to work, emails, ongoing strategies and ideas for the day, week, year, whatever needs to be done. I often say, I’m constantly stomping out little fires and too often there’s a paper bag filled with shit on fire and I plant my foot firmly in it.
There’s the daily grind of keeping the ship afloat and moving forward and then there are times of working on different creative projects that are new and fun. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunities presented to me and so much positive feedback. Back home at 7 to chill with Ever until his bedtime. Right now I have no social life and all my free time is spent hanging with young Ever. If there’s a wave I try my hardest to make time and go surf.
You pioneered a very important company filling a void for many people working on the street: the need for a specialized marker. A shoe polish container that could be filled with an ink you created could write very easily over rough, even dusty surfaces with no clogging of the tip and ultimately a tag with complete flow and even drips, something of a fetish in the marker tagging/writing community since its beginning. A flooded marker exhibiting a drippy tag shows a writers possession of an excess of permanent ink and therefore a symphony of praise from fellow writers on the street...a longing of sorts to strive to have tags dripping with excess ink. You filled this void in a very interesting way, first by your own very successful tagging campaign on the west coast then bringing it back to Nyc and supplying the top writers of that period with this coveted ink, to further bring the desire of young writers to secure this ink in anyway possible. At the same time ( correct me if I'm wrong) bringing even more mystery. The work you were doing with cascading silver ink drips pouring down mailboxes, doorways, and with that, the still traditional tags. A movement that you created singlehandedly and pioneered by some degree by "sponsoring" the most up kids at that period.
Irak crew, sace, earsnot, fanta, rehab, cinik...the list goes on
Can you elaborate on this period?
Graffiti culture has a long history of “doing it yourself”. Finding your own style, making tools, stealing/foraging for supplies, discovering places to paint, experimentation. This attitude is what fueled experimenting with materials to make my own ink and markers. Since it was easy for me to steal all the materials used to make Krink and mops I basically had an endless supply. It was fun and effective to use and felt completely new. Sharing with you and a few people only, I kept it secret as a sort of signature technology that we employed. It was never about business or money. It was strictly graffiti, innovation, and fun. This is all pre-internet, so you actually had to visit SF to see Krink tags and their presence in the street.
After I moved back to NYC, I actually had been going through a lot of personal changes and was rethinking a lot of things and trying to find my place in NYC. I had been doing work in the streets with rollers and occasional tagging. The roller stuff was gaining attention and people were becoming familiar with my return to NYC. After I got somewhat settled I met the guys who started Alife. They suggested I bottle and sell Krink. I didn’t take them very seriously because I didn’t think anyone would actually want to buy it. I didn’t think anyone would know what to do with it or that there would even be a market. They really pushed me and I treated it as a creative project with them. They helped me package it and then sold it in their shop. It did really well and sold out immediately. I made everything in my apartment as I always had. The original labels were from an ink jet printer and hand cut. Krink went on to be one Alife’s staple products and consistent sellers.
Alife back then was kind of a hub for creatives in the LES. Graffiti writers, designers, photographers, etc. The Irak kids were a staple presence, they were going hard in the street. I would give them Krink and markers and they completely annihilated downtown. It was really fun. They were young and coming up and just killing downtown every night. People were asking, ‘What’s all this silver ink everywhere? What’s going on?”
NYC being a cross roads of the world, the sheer volume of people seeing Krink in the streets increased 100 fold compared with SF. So Krink had a lot of shine in the street, which of course was great advertising for Alife, Krink, Irak, the LES etc. Things felt fresh and fun, very organic.
This continued for awhile with many different people being interested in what we were all doing and Krink grew from this creative culture.
This was still slow internet connection days. No smart phones.
Another big leap was when the internet got a little faster and digital photography got better. I could take my own pictures and write my own descriptions/copy and control all of that for very cheap. It’s like having your own magazine, people would also be able to share content; blogs, that was huge as far as framing content.
Can you talk about some of the artist that managed to rise out of this period and maintain successful art careers.
Honestly it’s amazing. So many creative people, it’s hard to see when you’re right there and everything is happening organically. The people that you know from just being around and going to the same places or being part of the same scene etc. Ryan Mcginley, Ryan McGinness, Kaws, Todd James, Dan Colen, Dash Snow, Jose Parla, Steve Powers, and so many others who’ve done different creative things for brands or on the back end of things or their own creative ventures. A lot of these people are really hard workers and driven. Yes, there’s talent, but a lot of people are talented. I feel drive, focus, vision, and confidence are underrated and extremely important.
How was it for you both juggling the demands of a new "company" of sorts while maintaining your own art career. I think it's often enlightening to share to younger artist how much hustle and bustle there is in the artworld. It's a uncompromising force of nature that demands constant attention and detail. You somehow managed both, something I believe is no easy feat.
Once out of school, you’re lucky if you can stay in a creative environment, forget about being a rich and famous artist, that’s very difficult to achieve. Being able to maintain creativity and make a living is very difficult. It’s different for everyone, but it’s hard work and focus. Longevity is also very difficult. Trends come and go, staying relevant is a grind.
Again I’m happy and feel fortunate for the opportunities and good vibes. It’s really difficult to maintain and stay relevant. Some of my teachers used to say, all you kids just want to be a hot shot artist and that’s not what it’s about. It makes a lot more sense to me today being older. Yes, it’s nice to be rich and famous, money is nothing to turn your nose up at, but it’s also nice to be free and make decisions based on what you feel you want to do. Very difficult to achieve without money! Ugh, it’s impossible. LOL.
I’m not always sure what’s right and wrong. I feel really fortunate that Krink provides me with a lot of opportunities to work on other creative projects without having to compromise too much of what I want to do.
Can you tell me a little about your large artworks made with the fire extinguisher? I really love those works and the places they have been presented. They seem free of the confines of the gallery, but also work very well within those constraints ...I imagine they are very site specific so to speak.
Thanks! It’s definitely informed in part by graffiti. Working with architecture. Looking at the space and approaching the entire thing at once. It can be very difficult at times because of time. I’m expected to paint at the Palais de Tokyo for example 5 - 40 x 40’ walls in about a week. So many things can go wrong and if I don’t like something it takes time to paint over it and then go again. The fire extinguisher is an extension of Krink in the sense of finding existing things and repurposing them for my own use as a tool for painting. They often feel spontaneous but are fairly thought out. I’m a bit of a control freak, but I’m employing something that’s very difficult to control to help alleviate fretting about where things fall, I have to accept a certain amount of random happenings.
How important is it for you that much of the work you have created is temporal and fleeting in a moment to some degree?
Like so many things, the work exists as an experience in the moment. I wouldn’t say being temporary is an essential ingredient as much as it’s how things have developed over time. My graffiti background makes it seem normal; that the works are temporary.
Have you ever been commissioned to do a large extinguisher in someone's house?
Inquiries yes, but no permanent work of this style exists.
I was speaking to Steve Powers the other day and he was relaying information to me about a very driven writer from Philly who is quite prolific at leaving his mark nationwide. We both agreed the basic form and method of writing ones name upon different surfaces still holds the most allure to us. Somehow that fine art could never reach quite the same excitement and level and interest. Do you ever have these feelings?
There’s a lot of adrenaline with graffiti, especially because it’s still underground. It’s a completely different atmosphere and mission, stalking a wall or spot and contemplating the timing and approach, which could be as little as 30 min in the middle of the night, there’s a lot of adrenaline there vs being in the studio. The act is done so quickly and the feeling can be euphoric especially if it’s a good spot thats been well planned and executed.
The studio is more mellow and you can move at your own pace, there is no threat from outsiders, there is no having to navigate entry, it’s more focused. Very difficult to compare the two spaces.
Can fine art in a gallery setting ever hold a candle to the somewhat mystifying allure of the illegal painting of a train, truck, wall etc..?
This is a really tough question. The gallery/studio is a calm and safe environment, graffiti is in the street and it’s mostly not safe or calm, there’s a heightened sense of awareness and a lot of risk taking, not just conceptually, but actually risking being arrested or chased etc. It’s difficult to compare the two.
I think in the context of fine art and the gallery, you can see something bold and new and exciting, but it will never carry the same physical excitement and action of graffiti.
What upcoming projects do you have Craig? Any interesting new products that you are interested divulging?
I’m actually writing this on a plane ride home from Rome. I painted a few walls for a project there. Rome is super cool! I normally do not discuss projects until they are finished.
Can you talk a little about your exhibition at Palais de Tokyo? I really liked the pieces you made there in those old nooks and crannies, and how the pipes and ancient architecture diffused the paint as it was hitting it at full force from the extinguisher...it was very powerful.
It was a real honor to be invited. I have to say it can be so difficult to paint such large pieces in such a short amount of time. I’m working with something that is so difficult to control, it can be really frustrating, but also I have to let things go a little and I do enjoy this aspect. Either way, I’m never fully satisfied and am always interested to do something more for the next piece. The project there is really cool and different, technically I’m not painting on Palais property, it’s just property that they have access to, it’s quite subversive and cool. It’s also nice that some of the work can be seen by the public for free, you don’t have to pay admission.
Also, did you venture into the tunnels across the street from the Palais de Tokyo? You enter them through a grate on the sidewalk and slide through some of the most ingenious tunneling I've ever seen. Our guide that evening was Psy, short for psychosis I think. We walk and climbed for what seemed like an hour in darkened tunnels and train lines and then heard a very faint thumping bass getting louder and louder as we moved in closer. I was shocked to find a full blown underground club with a perfectly rendered zig zag man as you entered. Hundreds of people milling about and drinking beers from a fully stocked bar...it really blew my mind. Psy had a little area where he had been sculpting out of the walls these very intricate devilish characters protruding from the walls. I loved that place more than anything.
Sounds awesome! I didn’t have the opportunity. I love this underground culture of finding one’s own space for whatever it is you like to do, have a party, paint, explore, etc.
I find the art scene both on the streets and galleries very powerful in Paris. Going to new places that graffiti has not traversed. Did you have any of these revelations while there Craig?
Graffiti culture as we think of it today started in NYC, but it has since gone around the world and evolved into so much more. People all over are pushing the boundaries of style, space, execution etc, I love it. I also feel the European community is more open to the idea that graffiti is in fact creative and interesting, there is more of an attempt to understand and even nurture it. In the US, private property is greater than any notion of creativity. So in Europe it’s really interesting to see things mature and grow in this environment.