I spent the majority of my evening last Monday surveying the crowd at Lincoln Center’s preview of Les Ballets de FAILE for anyone who looked like a possible graffiti artist.
What was I looking for exactly? Paint stained boots, inked hands, tattered outer garments or any other sign of urban wear and tear. To my dismay all I saw were suits and gowns.
Occasionally, a bearded Converse type would cross my path and spark my interest but no one truly emitted the graffiti artist vibe I was in search of. After all, I was in the David Koch Theater, at the New York City Ballet of all places, not your go-to local spot for the illegal street artist set. But for this moment in time, it participated in an historic moment for the graffiti street art community and I was certain some of my compatriots would be in attendance.
Graffiti and street art are mediums for the people and by the people. The FAILE Tower (open to the public through February 17, 2013) is rooted in a message of positivity and concern for the people. I got the chance to interview half of FAILE, when I was introduced to Patrick Miller (pictured, left) and we got to talking about his experience working in the street.
“We started with street art to get the work out there – we didn’t have to ask permission from anyone,” he told me. “We didn’t need a gallery or anyone to say you can do this – illegality aside. It gave the work a discourse in the street in public and a lot of people connected with that on the way home from work.”
“FAILE Supports Single Moms” and “1-888-Loves-You” are just a few of the phrases that have graced their street art and now here on the tower in Lincoln Center. It is odd to see a pledge of faith and support for single mothers in one of the epicenters of New York’s notoriously selfish social set. This is where FAILE won, by bringing their messages of hope from the streets, where it is much needed, to the elite, who need to be awakened.
The tower bridges the gap between the working class and the high class and in so doing inspired my first ever trip to the New York City Ballet, somewhere I honestly never thought I would be despite going to high school a block and a half away. As a street artist myself, I was proud of the FAILE monument. My tag may not have been on it, but my spirit and the spirit of every other graffiti artist inhabits the monument and that is its most resounding quality.
The end of the night approached at 8:30pm; the bar was about to close and still no luck. I made my way towards the bar for one final glass of beer and out of the corner of my eye I saw a gentleman pull out the quintessential piece of graffiti paraphernalia, the black book.
For those not in the know, the black book is the preferred sketchbook in the graffiti world. I darted towards this black book, blowing past gowns, suits and young ladies staring blankly into their cell phones. I made my introductions to a trio of plainly dressed and low key folks, the keepers of this particular black book.
I asked if I could catch a tag in the book and was handed a chisel tip Sharpie marker, my favorite black book tool. After going to town on the two pages I was allotted, a hooded man tapped me on the shoulder and asked to have a look at the book. I passed it off and got straight to finding out with whom I was speaking.
“So you write?” I asked a very lovely and unassuming person, well dressed but definitely not part of the suit and gown set. I gave this person a quick bio and received a look of approval.
“I am ENX,” I was told, to my astonishment.
This whole time I had been looking for someone who might fit the description of an ex-con. I did not think the first graffiti artist I would meet at this soiree would be so nice. So goes the graffiti world and that is why I love it.
ENX has been wheat pasting and sticker bombing the city as of late and I was very familiar with the work. ENX introduced me to another member of the trio who goes by the writer-alias Set. A legendary writer in his own right, Set has worked with some of the most esteemed bombers of all time. I looked down at his pants and sure enough, white paint everywhere.
Set was a big inspiration to me as a young graffiti artist growing up in New York City and I had finally found what I was looking for at this party – real life graffiti artists. Recently, ENX has been putting in work on the streets with one of the graffiti world’s most legendary and enigmatic writers, Cost, of Cost and Revs fame.
While talking to Set I remember this fact and blurted out, “Wait, you guys bomb with Cost don’t you?”
Smiles popped up left and right and ENX called out, “Adam, come over here.”
I see the hooded gentleman who had politely asked to tag in the black book after me approach us and I realized, this was none other than Cost. I was embarrassingly excited, falling over myself with delight.
Cost and Revs invented and championed many of the techniques that are commonplace in street art today. The wheat paste, large-scale roller pieces and sticker bombing specifically. Not only did I find a graffiti artist, but also I found a legend that invented the very techniques that FAILE appropriated for their tower.
He stood before me in scuffed boots, baggy jeans and a tattered Carhart jacket. Here before me was the anti-artist for whom I had searched. I spent the majority of our conversation praising him and his work with Revs. His humility was instantly apparent.
Graffiti artists tend to be anti-social, but after a few minutes he opened up and seemed excited to be talking shop. Graffiti is in its essence one of the most antisocial activities humans engage in. After all, we spend our nights writing our names on your things.
“That means a lot to me man. You don’t get a lot of compliments in this world,” he beamed as I mentioned a specific piece of his: a tribute bill he posted in the early 90s for the classic Hip Hop album “Word…Life” by the rapper OC.
“I was actually friendly with MC Search at the time,” he continued, about OC’s then-manager, “and he put me on.”
He seemed thrilled I knew such a random piece, but little did he know that very image has adorned my desktop for years.
Cost was less interested in commenting on the FAILE tower and its implications in the art world, and more interested in asking me about my graffiti career and discussing the current crop of up and coming writers on the street.
Just on the heels of interviewing Jilly Ballistic, one of NYC’s rising illegal graffiti artists, I told Cost of her current wheat pasting campaign on the subway system that appropriates MTA advisory poster graphics to deliver her own messages.
I spoke of her work and a few other artists I have met recently and Cost was all ears, almost as if he was sizing me up. Here was a legend in the street art world, the very man who invented the techniques used by FAILE and Jilly Ballistic, and here I was being quizzed by him. He is a dedicated soldier in our graffiti community and his sincere love for the art was made apparent in that very moment.
The event was now well over, the catering staff was closing up shop while the four of us stood underneath a staircase looking as sketchy as could be. The suits and gowns were gone, FAILE was long gone but the man who invented modern wheat pasting as we know it was not budging.
We gave each other our daps and out of his pocket came two of the iconic Cost and Revs middle finger stickers.
“Take these man, I really appreciate everything you said,“ he told me.
I smiled harder than I have in years, walked out of the New York City Ballet and put a Cost and Revs sticker on the nearest mailbox I could find.
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All praise due to COST and REVS (and the rest of KRT) for the the hardcore work they put it but how could you not credit their predecessors TESS and DJ NO X-MEN, who had the city on total lock with big-ass stickers over a decade before COST and REVS time? Also, both COST and REVS (aka REVLON) had lengthy careers before their ’90s comeback, on trains and with some serious burners from REVLON. Again, not mentioned.