Cody Simons and Ben Solomon from Sneakers N Stuff stopped by the Krink WHQ for a studio visit and interview with Craig “KR” Costello. Read the full interview here: SNS meets Craig “KR” Costello. Photos by Ben Solomon.
SNS : Where did you grow up?
Craig “KR” Costello : I’m from Forest Hills, Queens.
SNS : When and why was the first bottle of Krink made?
Costello : Krink started in San Francisco. I went out to SF when I was maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. SF was a whole different place, the world wasn’t as small as it is today with the internet and all that. SF was really easy to rack in. I’m the experimenting type of person. I think that’s one aspect of graffiti not all writers have, but is within the culture of graffiti. So I experimented; I wanted to make my own markers, mess around. After many attempts with different concoctions and devices and trying to get it to work, I came up with Krink. It happened from a lot of experimentation, practicing, and goofing around. There was no real plan at first.
Costello : Vans is an old-school brand. They are not underground, but they are part of a broader culture of the underground and have always been present in the things I’ve been into since I was pretty young. I used to skate and I now surf. It was kind of a no-brainer and a great opportunity. They were very open as far as what I had in mind and wanted to do together. It was just an easy choice.
SNS : Talk us through the design process in making the collaboration.
Costello : Silver is the flagship color of Krink and something I always try to include. It’s clean, simple, and on-brand. I also wanted the shoes to be a little more playful, a little louder, a little more youthful. So one has a sticker going over the outsole, over the seams, and over different panels. I like going outside of the lines, over things, and to not be constrained. I like to expand the printable area, if you will, so it looks like the sticker was slapped on there. We make a sticker that’s similar to the one we put on the shoe.
We did a jacket and a t-shirt. With the jacket, I used to sew my own pockets into jackets for racking and writing. That was part of my process. It could hold two or three cans of paint and that’s how I would roll. I would have paint in a bag, but the cans of paint I was using lived in the inside pocket. I didn’t know how to sew and the sewing job was always terrible. We reference that by showing the stitching coming through on the outside of the jacket in a different color. I took a photo of the original jacket, just to document it, and that photo is now on the t-shirt.
SNS : One of the most interesting things about you as an artist and Krink as a brand, an ink, and a product, is that there’s a clear through-line. Especially between these people who are in all these different schools of things like graffiti, fine art, product, art supply and all of it is scattered but can be tied together through a speech. But yours has a straight line. You were writing, you were looking for the best silver ink, you made the best silver ink, and stuck to that. With something like the Vans collab, where it’s a sneaker and outerwear, it’s to a customer who maybe doesn’t know. Can you talk a little bit about that clarity in your work?
Costello : A lot of what I do, going back to graffiti, ink and markers, and the tools I use, is about simplicity and how to make things easy. I stick to aesthetics I know and like, as opposed to following and chasing trends. I have the kind of personality that makes me want to do the opposite of something trending. Tying it all together is a challenge. Over the years, I’ve employed certain aesthetics and devices applicable to a wide range of things, like silver. That stays in our lane and is true to the brand, and can be traced to the ink, graffiti, and history. We have other graphic applications, we may do some drip stuff, or more graffiti stuff -- it depends on how playful I want to be. I try to stay consistent, so there is a story. It’s traceable and has some relevance, as opposed to the on-trend thing that is “now”, and then you’re chasing whatever’s happening next. Does that answer your question?
SNS : I think so. It’s consistent. It’s what you do.
Costello : It’s part of the process for sure. When we’re doing something where we have color choices, we only use the Krink colors, it just makes the choice simple and relevant to the brand. Otherwise, I get bedazzled by the Pantone fan. There’s too many choices, so it’s like, “No. This is our red. I’ll just use this red and it’s done”. If someone asks, “Why did you use this red?”, it’s because that’s our red. It’s easy.
SNS : For sure. You started making Krink out of your apartment in the early 2000’s?
Costello : It was the early 90’s.
SNS : What made you want to start making large batches and selling it?
Costello : I used to make Krink and it was for graffiti in very small quantities, let’s say a quart at a time. I used it, shared it with friends, and it was that for a very long time. It was only used for graffiti, there was no business concept or the idea anyone would even want to buy it, because I come from the mindset you rack everything, you don’t buy anything.
When I moved back to New York, I moved to the Lower East Side. I met Alife. They had just opened a store, I lived down the street, and we became friends. They were trying to build with other creative people and were very supportive and very welcoming. They were the ones who suggested, “You should sell this, we can sell it here, we’ll help you promote and market it.” To be honest, in the beginning, I was thinking, “Who’s going to buy this?” They thought it would do really well, so I said okay and thought of it as more of a creative project. It sold out immediately and I was really surprised. So I made more and it sold out immediately again. It grew from there.
New York is the crossroads of the world. There are a lot of people who come here for inspiration, they could be commercial people or designers. They’d go to places like Alife, see Krink, buy it, and contact me because they want to sell it. Colette in Paris was one of my earliest accounts and first international account. People were dying to get in this store, and they called me saying, “We’d love to carry this, this is great.” Then people would ask, “I saw this in Colette, how can we work together?”
Same with the business side, Krink grew in NYC. The IRAK crew were young up-and-comers and really active in the streets, writing graffiti, and running around. Krink was completely new to New York at the time, I used to give them ink and markers and they were killing downtown. People were asking, “What is happening? What is all this silver stuff?” Which created a lot of buzz, and they started getting press and doing stuff. Krink became this downtown thing, and it grew and grew from there.
SNS : What were some of the biggest challenges growing the business in the early days of Krink?
Costello : Small business has constant challenges and they scale as you grow. Early on, I used to manufacture everything myself. I touched every single bottle and label. I packed every box and shipped everything. That got really out of control. I made every invoice and I’m not a business dude. I used to do my invoices in Illustrator and they didn’t always add up. People would be like, “Yo dude, this doesn’t add up.” The list of things I didn’t know how to do was really, really long and I had to learn how to manage it. I didn’t pay my taxes for a while and had to dig myself out of that hole. It’s really endless. At the end of the day, the phone never stopped ringing. I could never keep up with demand. Over time, I recognized my strengths and where I needed to hire people. Committing myself to the demand and making a legitimate business was a big step.
SNS : How did you learn how to make ink? It seems like an intensive process.
Costello : Learning to make ink? Experimentation. Graffiti itself, at least in the time frame that I’m from, which I think absolutely still exists today, is a lot of DIY, experimentation, and figuring stuff out because you don’t have any money. Or because you have access to something, like “Yo, my boy's dad is a super and there’s mad paint in the basement,” and now you’re using this paint because you have access to it.
It’s not like I have a chemistry background or am some kind of scientist. It was experimenting and making some happy accidents, if you will. Also, I was doing this for myself. I wasn’t doing it for a commercial brand with regulations. If it worked? It worked. If it didn’t? It didn’t. You could just chuck it in the trash, there was no cost to me. I enjoyed the process of trying, and then I hit on something. It’s like the stories you hear about Nike and the waffle. There were runners who needed a shoe because they wanted to run better. Patagonia, I think these dudes got their start with making some sort of climbing tool.
SNS : I think it was hiking gear or cables.
Costello : Right, some sort of metal tool they needed to improve because of something they did. It’s the same thing, if only I were that big. They’re tinkerers and inventors in their fields.
SNS : What influences you outside of graffiti? An artist in any field doesn’t want to admit their inspiration or spark to other artists. It’s about what exists in the world. What drives your thought process, inspiration, and vision without talking about other artists?
Costello : It depends on what it is. For example, Krink as a brand early on, I knew I didn’t want it to be all hip-hop graffiti. Because I thought it was corny -- I like hip-hop, I like graffiti -- but I didn’t want to have this wild style graffiti brand. So, I kept it really neutral. I wanted it to be something ambiguous and kind of industrial, but look nice. Looking at fine art is a big influence, more than fashion and design because that isn’t my background. Of course, there’s some commercial design stuff in there too. My background in graffiti and the methods it taught me over the years is a huge inspiration. Graffiti is quite broad. There are a lot of products we’ve come out with, like sprayers, that are a direct influence of repurposing a tool to be creative. It makes something different and a new mark. I’m not a photorealistic artist, I want to make something that has a different gesture or different mark, which can be equally as relevant as someone who can draw really well.
SNS : How’d you master or discover your signature style of dripping?
Costello : The mastery! With drippy tags, it could be I just caught a tag, but it potentially looks like a big ol’ mess. But in the graffiti world, when I was very active, you would know that was me and you would know that’s no mistake. It's very purposeful, so I like that as part of my style. There are a lot of people in graffiti that focus on some arrow or whoop-dee-doo thing. That’s fine, that’s the base of graffiti. But there are other elements of the ink and sloppiness my style had that were important to me. So, that became synonymous in the graffiti world -- the graphosphere. As I was getting a little older, my best friends were all graffiti writers, but at times I was kind of over it and interested in doing something else. I was omitting my name. It was the same material, Krink, and the same space, mailboxes, doorways, public space, the city, and I just did drips. The people who knew what I was doing, knew it was me immediately. It also opened up a greater audience, which was really interesting to me. With the graffiti aesthetic, some people say, “I hate graffiti, they should all be locked up,” and then for other people it’s, “I love graffiti, I love all the colors.” Both might not understand graffiti, but when I omitted my name, it became something else people responded to. I went down that path, a little more painterly and a little less pigeon-holed. With graffiti, you get pigeon-holed.
SNS : How do you take your approach to art and apply it to your approach to product design outside of the Krink products that you make? When you approach a collab, like when you’re doing a Vans Old School, it’s not that you’re re-designing a shoe. You’re taking your visual language, the Krink visual language that you have built from the ground up, and applying it to something that leaves the world of someone who might recognize Krink. Does that inform the process or do you just do what you do? Or whatever the application, is it still the same approach, including the silver, the drip, the sticker...
Costello : I think it’s generally the same approach. Sometimes I might go out on a limb, but that might not make any sense. I like for things to make sense, be relevant, and have a line back to the brand, versus, “I just saw something and I kind of want to do that.” That’s when it gets muddled. Over time there are changes that can be subtle or big, which get incorporated in a more natural way. It’s not like, “This year we’re going to start doing this, this is my inspiration for this year: Afghanistan, carpets, and whatever else” and then the next year it’s out and on to the next. That’s in fashion, that’s not how I operate. I like it to stay within the sphere of Krink.
Photographs by Ben Solomon
Interview by Cody Simons