This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Adam COST. You can read Part One here.
COST could sit next to you on a train, or brush by you on the street and you’d likely think nothing of it. I walked by him three times before I finally asked, “Are you Adam?” He is a regular guy. He just happens to have been one of New York City’s most wanted. In Part Two of our interview, COST discusses a number of things including graffiti as a form of rebellion, his relationship with REVS, and, to put it simply, Madonna.
V: How do you see the face of the graffiti writer changing?
COST: Hipsters, like they’re hip! They call them hipsters around here. My friends and I aren’t hip. We’re just like dudes. The older graffiti writers don’t look like the newer graffiti guys. Like REVS looks very working class; he’s very filthy. He’s a welder so he always looks filthy, like he climbed out of a manhole. Me, I try to keep myself clean. I like to present myself that way for aesthetic reasons, like what I do with my life, where I live and how people perceive me. Some of my friends look like nerds, and some of the newer guys we hang out with are real cool, hip-looking guys and fit right in in this area. The newer guys are all like that.
V: But weren’t you guys part of the fashion of the time in the 80’s? Wasn’t graffiti was a cool scene?
COST: I don’t know if we were so fashionable. Our attitude was more like “Fuck you and fuck the system.” We were angry, rebellious guys. There was a definite punk attitude to what we were doing. It was a “Fuck the whole system. Fuck the government. Fuck socialization.” We just revolted against the whole system. Fuck politics and all the politicians. Rudy Giuliani. Stuff like that. We were anti. The best way to describe what we did was like “We’re anti. We’re not artists, we’re anti-artists”. I consider myself an anti-artist if I’m an artist at all. That would be the best way to describe my art. It’s against the system. That’s why I want to show you the Bushwick Five Points wall I just did. At the bottom of the wall, the title, it’s says “You can’t turn rebellion into money.”
I didn’t go to the yard at 13 and say, “You know what? I’m gonna go write on these trains because I want to make money.” You know what I mean? So that’s what inspired the title of the wall. I went to the yard because I was rebelling, and my family situation was not a good one. Looking back, my family was splitting up, like my parents. The whole family was a mess and I was at that age where you get rebellious and I went into graffiti. Guys nowadays are doing graffiti and street art to make money. I don’t do art to make money.
V: Speaking of the fucking of systems, fucking of establishments, and fucking the man….. Did you fuck Madonna?
COST: [Pause] I’m a little younger than Madonna, but I’ll tell ya, she used to hang out at a club called Danceteria. I knew her boyfriend, RP3, who’s dead now. If you look at her old videos, she used to wear a belt buckle tag around her waist that said “BOY TOY.” Boy Toy was that guy RP3. He used to write Boy Toy and RP3, and that was her boyfriend at that time. He ODed and he’s been dead for a long time, but Boy Toy was her tag that he gave her and that’s why she used to wear that in those early videos. I’m not exactly sure when he died. It’s been awhile since the posters, but I think yeah, he probably did see the posters. That poster was like the pop-poster of our campaign. It’s not like I planned it out that way though.
V: Okay, but you have avoided my question.
COST: Have I really? I tried to be as-
V: It’s a yes or no.
COST: Oh, Madonna? You don’t kiss and tell, right? Let’s just leave it at that.
V: Did Madonna ever say anything about it?
COST: I’m sure she knows it exists because she has a publicist. So everything like that is getting plopped on their table and I don’t think she has a problem with it because she was into graffiti and stuff back then.
V: Why did you do it?
COST: I don’t know if there was an exact reason. At the time it was just one of our obscure posters. We were producing a lot of just random stuff, and that one seemed hit the nail on the head for your ham-and-eggers, your average Joe’s. Everyone loved that one. We did many versions of posters and people always say that poster is probably the most recognized of the batches and batches we put out. That was the most accepted. And again, she’s an icon. Madonna is an international icon. She’s like a Michael Jackson or something. So I was using an icon as a prop, I guess.
V: That poster was extremely popular. Supreme turned it into a shirt in 2010.
COST: Yeah, certain posters like “COST Fucked Madonna” were very accepted by society. There’s a lot of knock-offs. There are stickers and posters out there like “ELVIS FUCKED MARILYN.” I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t think it was going to bring such an acceptance with the public, but the public really absorbed that poster.
V: After years of turning down other offers, why did you choose to collaborate with Supreme?
COST: They put Johnny Rotten from The Sex Pistols on the cover of the magazine and that kind of appealed to me, as opposed to Lady Gaga on the cover. It was a little more my speed. More raw, less pop. They understood the direction that I wanted to go and what I wanted my work to represent, in a sense. They were good to catering to me as an artist, in the sense that they just let me be who I wanted to be within their repertoire and it worked, I guess. It was okay.
V: Now that you’re starting to go heavy with wheatpasting again, what’s different this time around?
COST: I’m definitely using new fonts and new slogans. At this point it’s like I’m kind of in phase 1 of probably a 15 or 20 phase period, and phase 1 is really just getting my name back out on the streets and letting people know that I’m here, I’m there, I’m everywhere. It’s just phase 1 of a slow steady process of probably a 20 phase period I call “moving forward towards death.”
V: How do you feel about the scene now?
COST: When I look at the street art now, it’s almost like when I used to look at graffiti back in the day, and when graffiti was getting to a very perfected state, it annoyed me. So I look at the street art scene now and it’s starting to get to a very perfected state as well, where everybody is just like doing the same thing in the same way and it almost has to be a certain way a lot of the time. So I’m really at that point where it’s just like break it down to square one again and build from scratch. That’s kind of my approach. You gotta start straight from the gutter and move on up. I don’t dislike what the new guys are doing, there are a lot of talented people out there, don’t get me wrong. But I just want to bring it back down to square one with street art and then rebuild.
V: What’s that on your arm? You have tattoos?
COST: It’s not. I draw on myself. See the way it’s faded? Every week I put new words- sometimes I put words all the way… sentences and things. It’s better than a tattoo because a tattoo is permanent. Have you ever seen an old person with a tattoo? It gets greenish or bluish green. This will fade away and I’ll have a new feeling in a few days and I’ll put something new. That’s my idea of a tattoo. It’s not even semi-permanent. It’s my statement of the week, my thought of the week. This week it was just an “X”. X marks the spot, you know?
V: What inspired the ‘X’?
COST: Um… I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that. I just wanted to draw an X. Sometimes when you get fucked over, let’s say (and this world can do that to you), I’ll say to REVS “Just draw an X on your back, buddy,” like a target. You know what I mean? So I just put an X there. I was probably feeling like I just needed an X *laughs*.
Have you ever seen bad tattoos? Beautiful body art, I like that. I sometimes see that and I’ll compliment somebody. But bad body art is like, no. You gotta be careful who you have put a tattoo on you. I have a few people wearing my “CO” tag. A way I write my name, it’s like my logo of my handstyle- a few people have that tattooed on their bodies.
V: Are the people with tattoos of your tag people you knew?
COST: Oh yeah, of course they were people I knew. That’s like the ultimate compliment. I girl I know went to Pittsburgh and when she came back she had put a “CO” on her back like, you know when they call it the tramp stamp? She put a “CO” there and I was complimented. I mean, hey, I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting that.
But yeah, I have no tattoos and I don’t really recommend that you get tattoos.
V: What have you been working on lately?
COST: I’m in a transitional stage with my life where I’m taking the summer to kind of screw my head on straight, kick back, just analyze everything that’s going on around me in the street art scene, and then in September, I’m going to get back into the street art scene and I’m gonna play around on the gallery circuit as well, which is something I’ve never done.
Any time someone tells me to do something, I’m like “Mr. No” and I refer to REVS as “Mr. Double No.” Anytime someone offers something to us, like “Do you want to do this?”, I always say “No.” He always says “No. No. Hell no.” So it’s like most artists are dying to get their work exposed and recognized and sold. We took the opposite approach: It’s all about the art, it’s all about the soul, and it’s all about the feeling that people interpret from what you put out there. So I’m kind of figuring it all out this summer and when the fall kicks in I’m gonna start painting heavily again. I’m getting studio space ready and discussing things with galleries.
V: Are you going to go about this in a legal way?
COST: Um… I’m gonna try. I don’t know if I get that much inspiration- I know I won’t get the inspiration. Legal work doesn’t give me inspiration because that’s not where graffiti and street art stem from, but it’s transitioned into that and I guess I might have to play a little bit more by the rules. I’m willing to play a little bit more by the rules than I was when I was younger. When I was younger it was “Fuck everything. Fuck it, we’re doing whatever we want.” You know, like a dog off a leash. You let a wild dog off the leash you know what it will do? We thought we owned this town. It was almost like we were addicts. We were out there every night. It ran – it runs through my blood.
V: What inspired this comeback?
COST: Just dissatisfaction with my stature in the rankings, because I see what these other guys are doing with things that REVS and I have done, and they’re moving up and I’m sitting in limbo. So I decided to hell with it, I’ll get back into it. And you know, life changes. Life goes in waves and I went through a wave where I was in a long relationship, and she didn’t push me away from graffiti, but she wasn’t a driving force behind me with graffiti or street art. She became a businesswoman, a 9-5 suit in an office building. And that’s exactly the wrong direction for someone who wants to move forward with art. That’s a whole other lifestyle.
I’m still so caught in the 90’s as a street artist. It’s gone from here to where it is now and I hang out with current street artists because it’s a learning process of updating myself to where the movement has gone without me. I’m kind of old school. I’m trying to update my process a little bit to figure out what I want to do with my art, and these guys are totally in the moment. They’re in 2012. I’m still in the mid-90’s figuring out how to get to 2012. So when they say, “Oh, what are you gonna do with your art?” I’m kinda like “I’m working on it.” I’m letting the wheels turn and figure it out. But I’m not gonna sit back for the next 20-25 years. I’m gonna paint ’til I die. That’s how I look at it.
V: Were you happy with what you were doing when you weren’t going heavy with graffiti?
COST: Well, I’ve done okay for myself. I’m not complaining. I’m grateful because I never worked for the man. I used to drive a yellow taxi. I did it for six years. So I liked it enough to stick with it. I worked at nightclubs. I used to work at Limelight and Palladium, which are both like old-school institution in this town. They’re very famous nightclubs from back in the 80s and 90s. I’ve worked strange jobs.
V: As a cab driver, you’re driving around and you see all of this graffiti-
COST: I didn’t write graffiti as a cab driver. I didn’t pull over and do any tags. I wasn’t a part of it. When I drove the cab, I drove just to make a living. The cab driving job is really a hustle.
V: What’s the most personally significant piece that you’ve done?
COST: REVS and I did a mural called Mount Krushmore. Well, we did it with wheatpasting. We blew up the heads of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, REVS and myself and made them giant size – from the floor to the ceiling. And now everybody is doing that. Everybody incorporates wheatpasting into their murals, so I think that mural is under-appreciated as a starting point for a lot of the murals now. But then again, we did it, so who am I to judge, you know?
V: What is your relationship with REVS like now and how has it evolved over the years?
COST: For a while we did so much graffiti together that we kind of parted ways a little bit. But we’re in touch. He’s busy sculpting and doing his thing, and I’m busy doing my thing. We’re not a team anymore, just look at the streets. We have a few things around, but compared to the abundance of stuff we had… we used to go over ourselves. We would be like, “Oh, that poster is peeling up a little bit. Let’s just put a new one on top of it.” It didn’t matter. Now it’s a much cleaner New York. But that’s life. Times change.
V: You two didn’t stay close after your arrest, right?
COST: After I got caught, he veered off in a whole different direction as well, with his art. You know, we spent so much time together; doing art for so long, that we were just like so sick of each other. When you see someone like every day, it’s like – We talk all the time now and stuff. He’s a reclusive type of person and so am I in a lot of ways, but I’m trying to change that. We talk and he’s doing his projects and he’s gotten in this groove where he’s a welder now. I’m not a welder. He’s a welder.
V: What do you think of REVS career as a solo artist?
COST: Oh, he’s great! He’s great. REVS is a great artist. I’ve always said that. The thing is I got caught right before he went down and painted those diary entries in the train tunnels in New York City. That was something we were supposed to do together. I have diaries in my house and all this crazy shit that was supposed to go on the walls in there. But it never went on the walls. He went underground, painted, laid low, did the tunnels, and then he went into welding. And me? Like I said, I was in my relationship with my ex, heavily and I was happy and in love. And it put me in a place where I couldn’t paint. My apartment was a studio and she convinced me to convert it into a home, like a living room, a bedroom. So there went my studio. So she actually was detrimental to my artwork, when I look back. At the time I was happy with her and I was like, “Okay, let’s make a house into a home,” type of thing. But now, I want my studio back. So you know, sometimes things that seem really good in your life at one point, you look back a little later on, 5, 10, 20 years later and you might say, “Wow, that was good then, but was that really good for the grand scheme of my entire existence?”
V: Would you change anything if you could?
COST: Now looking back I’m like “What the fuck? What was I doing? I should have been painting and producing,” and I was hanging out and traveling around going upstate to New England area, down south to Florida, like up and down the east coast a lot. Just chilling out, running my business, and now I look back and there’s this big gap where I didn’t do work. So I need to make up for that now, before I’m dead. But you know, I don’t really have regrets. It’s part of my life. It puts me exactly where I should be right now. Everything leads up to a point. It puts me right where I am, right here, right now, sitting here with you doing an interview.
V: How does REVS feel about your coming back to the scene in such a major way? Have you talked to him at all, and is this something he wants to get involved in?
COST: I can’t speak for him. With what we did, it seems that we are somewhat attached at the hip. Our past history will keep us attached at the hip as long as the graffiti and street art scene seems to flourish. It doesn’t matter that he’s gone off on a path of sculpture and I’m at a fork in the road where I’m choosing my own path right now. If our paths meet again, so be it. God’s will.