gilf! is the type of person to engage you with her art, both visually and verbally. Though the messages are implicit in her imagery, she is quick to drop her paint can to discuss her pieces with anyone who catches her in progress. When entering into a curated mural project, I wondered how an area that was not known as a street art haven would greet these confrontational, but satirical, stencils. These issues as well as several others were discussed in an interview with gilf! for Vandalog as she prepares for her work with the New York Comedy Festival. – Rhiannon Platt
R: Could you talk a little about the overall message of your work?
G: It’s mostly social commentary about current issues and things that are affecting us a society, both globally and nationally. I feel like a lot of people don’t pay attention to shit. So, if I can put it on the street and get them to consider a different perspective about things concerning their everyday life that’s kind of why I do what I do.
R: And you don’t restrict it to just politics?
G: It’s not always political. It can be environmental, social, government changes are I guess not what I would consider political always. I always focus on things that I’m passionate about and that I find to be unjust or problematic.
R: With working for the New York Comedy Festival, how do you think parody will play into this usual message of political or other contexts that you usually try to convey?
G: You can have something with a message that can also be entertaining. If you look at the Colonel Sanders piece I did it talks about things that are really nasty, like genetically modified situation going on in our fast food lifestyle, but it’s also kinda funny because the thing has six wings. Visually it’s not something you would expect. I think using parody in art can allow people to be more focused on the work because they are laughing at it, but then it maybe the message clicks a little afterwards. You’ve got to lure them a little bit, there’s got to be something appealing.
R: Will you be working with all new imagery for this event?
G: All but one I believe. For the most part it’s going to be all new and things based around the election and some political things that I find to be kind of entertaining and weird.
R: What does it mean for you to be working in a space like NoLita?
G: Well it’s funny because it’s not a neighborhood where I would usually put work up. Thinking about the type of people who walk through Little Italy. You get some native New Yorkers, but mainly my work will be interacting with tourists. It’s going to be the people from the middle of the country, or France, or wherever that go to Little Italy to see the character and novelty of it. That’s going to be cool because it’s not people that I usually talk to. The work is usually in Brooklyn or downtown. It’s usually in neighborhoods where I hang out versus neighborhoods where you get a lot of people who would never see street art. If you’re from Oklahoma or Virginia, there’s not a lot of wheatpaste or stencils or whatever going up. So it will be interesting to see how those people interact with what I’m doing.
R: It’s probably an older demographic than your usual neighborhoods too.
G: Totally. It’s gonna be a lot of families I imagine. Kids and their parents and middle aged family of four kind of people. I was also excited to talk about the election because it will go up right before the vote, not that it’s going to influence anything because New York is going to go to Obama because it’s a Democratic state. Still, just commenting on it’s a weird façade and why our voter system is totally flawed will be interesting to see how people who are of the voting age would think about that.
Faile recently returned from a trip to Mongolia sponsored by Tiger Translate, where they unveiled their latest sculptural creation and some street work. Over the past few months, Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller (aka Faile) have been working closely with Mongolian sculptor Bat Munkh to bring this colossal piece to life in its permanent home. Faile was kind enough to invite me to their studio and talk about their experiences unveiling the sculpture in Mongolia and their thoughts on creating their first permanent piece. – Caroline Caldwell
Patrick Miller: We made this sculpture, which is of an image we did in 2009 called “Eat With the Wolf” and it’s sort of this businessman tearing away a suit, wearing a wolf pelt. He’s placed in their national park, Ulan Bator. Behind the sculpture is this mountain preserve and then he’s looking on to all this new development. So this will all be a grassline, 1600 acre park. It’s wild to have a permanent sculpture in this city.
It’s pretty amazing. It really couldn’t have been a better sort of symbolic thing of what’s happening in Mongolia right now. Basically, they’ve come across all these minerals in mining, copper and gold, and the Russians and the Chinese are descending upon Mongolia to really try and mine the shit out of it. It’s sort like, what’s gonna happen to the city and how will the people actually benefit this? Or will the country just be mined for its resources and kind of left as a shell? So there are a lot of these issues going on there right now, which made this sculpture feel pretty timely.
This image came out of a series we did called “Lost in Glimmering Shadows” and it was sort of imagining if Native Americans had come back to the city today and retaken the land. This image was really about this crisis within of battling between greed and a connection to nature. So we’d been working on this sculpture for awhile on its own with Charlie Becker, who’s a sculptor we work with a lot, and Tiger Translate and the Mongolian Arts Council approached us and asked if we’d be interested in doing a sculpture out there which essentially led to doing that.
Patrick McNeil: We submitted a couple different ideas and this is the one that the arts council kind of gravitated to because of, I think, the wolf symbolism. We did a couple other things but this one just kind of resonated the best. There were a couple pitches that we did that got lost in translation, or it just didn’t make sense with the Mongolian culture.
It was a really tight timeline too, and we already had this sculpted since we’d been working on a miniature version of this one. So with the timeline and everything, this one seemed to make the most sense to execute in the 3 months that we did it in.
Caroline Caldwell: Do you think the Mongolian people will understand the Native American symbolism or do you think they’ll interpret it within their own culture?
McNeil: You know, if you look at their culture, it’s very similar to a lot of the symbols and things that weave through the Native American culture; with wolf being a power animal and horses, the shamanism, and even just the nomadic lifestyle.
Miller: They actually think that the Native Americans came over from Mongolia and Upper Asia. So yeah, I definitely think they’ll have a strong connection with that idea.
Jeff Soto will be opening his fourth solo show at Jonathan LeVine Gallery on September 8th, alongside the simultaneous solo shows of Audrey Kawasaki and Judith Supine. The show, entitled Decay and Overgrowth, explores life, death and the passage of time. In this interview, Soto tells Vandalog about the emotional journey this past year has taken him on, including the death of two of his grandparents, and how these events provoked his consideration of mortality; which would become a central theme of this show.
V: In your own words, can you tell us about the underlying themes of Decay and Overgrowth? JS: I started researching my ancestry about seven years ago, well, even before that really. As a kid I knew my grandparents fought in WWII and my grandma would list off all the things we had in us- Irish, Italian, Sioux, Dutch, etc.. These stories were interesting to me. So from an early age I was aware that there is some history there, and at some point a teacher I had showed us family trees. When I was a teenager I saw Norman Rockwell’s family tree painting where the kid’s ancestors were pirates and Native Americans and cowboys. It got me interested in who my ancestors were, and how all my living relatives were related.
The last few years I have researched and got deeper into who these people were. Decay and Overgrowth comes out of this research. Finding all these relatives really drove home the point that we are born, we have kids, get married, live our life and die. And then the kids repeat the same pattern. Our offspring who come into the world like new flowers, growing and flourishing, eventually meet the same fate as any other living thing. We start aging, and at some point we all will die. We turn to dust, go back into the Earth to nourish it, and then the cycle repeats. I don’t see it as morbid at all, and I hope the paintings don’t seem too death obsessed! Even though I’ve unofficially titled my show “The Skull Show”.
V: This is a solo show, but you’re showing at the same time as Audrey Kawasaki’s and Judith Supine’s solo shows. How do you feel like this combination of works either compliment or juxtapose one another? JS: I respect both of them. I know Audrey a bit but have never met Judith. I think as a whole our work is very different but individually we’re each very strong in what we do. Should be a fun show with something for everyone. I am predicting a large turnout.
V: Was this exploration of mortality more of a catharsis for you or a way of explaining death to your children? JS: It’s more for me I guess. They’re too young to fully understand death. We do not hide it from them at all, you know, like if one of our fish dies or we find a dead rabbit on a walk, we talk about it. Two of my grandparents passed away in the last year, and they went to the funerals even though they’re young. I never really thought about death because it was not around me. Or maybe it’s an age thing- now that I’m in my mid/late 30’s and I have two kids that depend on me, it’s on my mind. Seeing my little brothers grow up and my parents age has been a trip.
V: What do you think your generation adds to the collective human experience? JS: I think it’s too early to say. There’s good and bad things we’re going to add. I know that my generation seems more open to cultural differences among people. In the United States, overall we’re less racist than 40 years ago, and I think the next generation will be better than us. There’s still a long way to go but the situation is improving from the Baby Boomers and previous generations.
And of course the internet has made huge changes. For the first time in human history information is easily accessible to most people. It is empowering. Maybe it’s homogenizing us as well. It’s that whole globalization thing, we all buy the same products, listen to the same music and watch the same movies- are cultural differences starting to die out? Technology is good and bad I think. I’m 37, so I grew up with Atari which was fun, but only for about 30 minutes then we’d go outside and build a fort, climb a tree, make up a game… we used our imagination! I think that’s lacking in many kids and I wonder how it will change things. Maybe it already has. I graduated high school right as the internet was going mainstream- 1993. Our school had one computer that was online and the only thing we could access was college libraries in town. We had to search and hunt for our info, we had to go downtown and pour through a ton of books and along the way we would find other interesting books and much more thoroughly researched information. Now all the info is easily and quickly accessed in a nice little five paragraph web page. I do love Wikipedia, but 20 years ago you’d read a 300 page book on say, Cortés, now a kid in high school will read a concise web page on the iPad. Maybe that’s not so bad, I guess the Wiki entry would have much more up to date info… see, technology that this generation is bringing is both good and bad.
You know him. Rudy Giuliani knows him. At one point, half of the city thought Madonna knew him biblically (for more on that subject, hold your breath for Part two). COST has been ubiquitous in New York City since the late 80’s. He and his counterpart REVS are two of the most widely recognized characters in graffiti and have produced some of the longest running pieces in New York. Nothing captured COST and REVS’ domination of New York in the 90’s better than this Videograff video which asks “Is this art or dangerous propaganda?”
After working under the radar for a number of years after his 1994 arrest, COST has participated in a select few projects with brands such as Brooklynite, Showpaper and Supreme since the fall of 2010. Within the last few months, you may have seen the name COST appearing around New York City again. Despite this, he’s let the work speak for itself and shied away from the spotlight. Vandalog is pleased to publish the first major interview with this reclusive graffiti legend since his 1994 interview with Art Forum. In part one of this interview, COST discusses getting arrested, his hiatus that followed, doing graffiti against the grain and his resurgence among the latest generation of street artists.
V: Why haven’t you tried to make yourself a presence on the internet?
COST: I stay off the internet. The internet is like poison. It really is. I don’t want my face on the internet. There’s a lot of misinterpretation. Anyone can be anyone, say anything. On Facebook there are two people who are posing as me. Things like that make me, I guess, bitter toward the internet.
It’s a good way to connect, that’s true. But I think true graffiti artists have a disconnect with a lot of things in this world. At least I do. I stay disconnected- try to stay disconnected from a lot of stuff and that’s part of why I try to stay off the internet as much as I can. I mean, I’m on a little bit, but there are people out there creating a whole graffiti world on the internet; websites and storylines, bios, all that. They’re selling themselves on the internet and I don’t want to do that.
V: During your wheatpasting campaign the posters that had a phone number received a lot of attention. To be general, why did you do this? And do you think that was the 1993 version of putting, say, “www.COST.com” up like graffiti artists are frequently doing today?
COST: During that time period nobody was doing it. That was a way for the public to contact us. You know, get a little feedback on the shenanigans we pulled around the city. We were having fun, trying to keep it pure and doing what we wanted to do if it felt right at the time and hopefully – maybe not now, but then it was a different thing than what everybody was doing. We were speaking out to the public. So the phone number was kind of like an opportunity for the public to respond or reach back to us and say things. And they had a lot to say.
V: I mean, it is kind of intimidating to see a phone number on a wheatpaste. You don’t know why or why not to call it, or what to be ready for. I dialed it but got nothing. COST: Well it’s nothing now, but we used to change it up about once a week. Rudy Giuliani was the mayor and he was trying to clean up New York, and obviously if you look around New York now it’s a different town. He cleaned it up. But on the voicemail we went on political rants, spoke about art, philosophy, whatever was on our minds. We spit it out onto the voicemail and it was freedom of speech. That was the beauty of it. We were saying what we wanted, when we wanted and anyone could dial in – for what? ten cents? – Whatever a payphone cost at the time. You never knew what you were gonna hear on it. If I had a bitter day and I was a bitter guy that day and I had something to say about it, I would say it. We didn’t hold back. We said what we felt and what was true to us, REVS and myself. Initially a few people called and before you knew it, thousands of people were calling a day. It kind of got a little out of hand. Checking in on the voicemail, we got everything from death threats to marriage proposals to people telling us to just get a life.
V: What did you think of that?
COST: Some of it was inspiring. Some of it was… some of it would make us go out and do more, you know? It added fuel to the fire. We were young, in our mid twenties – a very rebellious age. I’m 43 now, you get older and mellow out a little bit. We were young and rebellious so we wanted to vent and to tell the city that we didn’t like how it was being run and wanted to switch it up a little bit. We wanted to mix things up, add a little flavor, switch things around. I’m glad people recognize that now.
The funny thing is that now that there’s an international street art boom, it’s like people are remembering it a little more, but at the time it was almost looked down upon. During that time period a lot of people didn’t like what we were doing. They didn’t consider it art because it was very um… neanderthal.
Graffiti at one point got so perfect where everybody was doing perfect lines and the art was so over-perfected. If somebody did a perfect line, we painted a drippy line that dripped everywhere.
COST: Yeah. We were doing everything against the grain. We just went against the grain of every graffiti and street art standard of the time. A lot of people were very angry that we were prolific. We were out there every night almost. I would say we were putting pressure on the graffiti scene and the street art scene to question what we were doing. And some of them were upset, you know? Because we were changing the rulebook. I don’t know if we were trying to, we were just doing what felt right. Now there’s a whole new rulebook and now people look back say (I’m not here to toot my own horn) but they say “Oh, you guys did good things and helped influence all the street artists now.” And I’ll take it as a compliment.
V: What kept bringing you back? Every night you kept doing this. What was attractive to you about it?
COST: I can speak for REVS on this as well: Neither of us did graffiti for the love of graffiti. It was more like we actually didn’t like it. We probably hated it. It was just self-expression and it was pure. We were just pouring our heart and soul into the streets, and people can take it or leave it. A lot of people didn’t appreciate it then. But now a lot of people look back and -you’re interviewing me so at least Vandalog, or somebody, recognizes that what we meant was true. I hope you can print that. What we did was true, was being true to ourselves. I’m not sure all the street artists are being true to themselves. They see one mural and someone does a mural just like it. I don’t mean to be critical, there are a lot of talented artists out there. Much more talented than me. But do they have something to say? And that’s really what I question. When I look at art, it has to speak to me. If it doesn’t speak to me than what is it? A beautiful portrait? If you said, “Paint me a portrait,” our waitress will paint a better portrait of you than I can. You know what I mean? It’s about the art. The art needs to speak to you, it needs to move you.
V: How did the release of your identity after you were arrested affect your personal life as well as your graffiti life, which had before been separate?
COST: It made me go deeper undercover I guess. I crawled into a shell and laid lower than the outlaw Jessie James. All of a sudden people who didn’t know that that was me put two and two together. You don’t want people knowing who you are. The idea was to do graffiti, and the idea behind graffiti was to get your name out there but for others to wonder who the heck was doing it. I never did it for a social purpose. Or a financial purpose. I did graffiti for myself and my cohorts and my crew and that was about it. And once my name got out there, it was exploitation in a sense. That’s how I looked at it. It was pretty harmful. But now that the street art/graffiti culture is so accepted, there’s been less hate and more embrace. So I’m not complaining.
V: There were plenty of ways to keep getting your work up legally. Why did you turn down so many of those opportunities?
COST: After I got caught it just derailed me, like a train. I just went right off track and I got into other things in my life. I was getting a little older, I was in my late twenties. I got into different ventures. I found some success in other areas of my life. I’m trying to figure out how to explain this properly.
It was like I was pushed out of graffiti and street art out by Giuliani and the city with this punishment. They put the cuffs on me and when I was free to roam, I still felt like I had the cuffs on me all the time. I had to make a living so I started a business and I guess I got somewhat successful and I realized that there’s no money in art anyway. There are a few people who make a lot of money off art and then there are the rest; it’s like a pool, a starving pool chasing that dollar. That’s what it seemed like to me. So I got successful in other areas of my life with business and the more successful I got, the more street art and graffiti got away from me. I have my regrets about that because everything I did was very unfulfilling, but I was earning a good living. It left a very empty feeling within because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do.
V: Had you done any painting at all during that time?
COST: For the first 5 years after being arrested, I was on hiatus. After that, I painted off and on but it subsided. It felt like I lost my way, like they pushed me out. It’s almost like you choose paths in this life and I wound up going down a different path, and now I really regret it. I feel like I only have about 20 or 25 years to live, I figure 65 years old, anything past that is a blessing. People live longer, but you know what I mean. So I figure with 25 years left to live, anything that I’ve done up to this point since my heavy street art days have been so unfulfilling that I’m going back to street art. I’m willing to sacrifice everything in my life otherwise, at this point. That’s why I’m going back to painting and producing work, because all the money in the world doesn’t give you uh…. what’s the word.. I forgot the word. Shit. You gotta do what feels right in this world and I gotta get back to my painting.