CRAIG COSTELLO

Let’s start from the beginning. You were born and raised in Forest Hills, Queens in New York, influenced by cultures like skating, graffiti, punk, and new wave music. How and why did you start producing your own inks?

 

In the beginning, making my own ink was part of graffiti economics. There is an anti-consumerist attitude in graffiti, you steal all your materials and everything is illegal. I was able to gather materials to make ink for free and in an unlimited supply. By making the ink by myself, I could alter it. It was an opportunity to be efficient and make it to my specifications, whereas it is more difficult to change something that exists. When I was out writing, I would use the ink and then make adjustments until I found something that was right, all for free except for the time it took.

 

You moved to San Francisco to study photography. This also gave you the chance to meet the local graffiti scene?

 

Some of my friends in San Francisco were from art school, but I also had local friends from the graffiti community, born and bred in the area. They were graffiti writers and we were that kind of art-y friend for them. This was different than a lot of kids in school who only had friends in school.

I was documenting a lot of what we were doing on the streets, taking photos of Barry McGee and Ruby Neri, of us painting in the streets. When I was in school, Barry McGee was a little older. He had a graffiti background and was doing mostly characters or tags. He understood and knew graffiti culture, while artists like Ruby Neri, Alicia McCarthy, and some others were interested in painting in the streets. They wanted to explore that, but they didn’t know the techniques used by graffiti writers. They had to learn that. I was a very traditional graffiti writer and they learned some of these things directly from me. Not that they necessarily cared, sometimes they cared and sometimes they didn’t. They went to the streets with brushes, but they also learned about spray paint and inks and markers, what should be used and how to use it. Some very rudimentary and simple things are important if you want to paint successfully in the streets.

 

What did you learn at art school that was different than writing graffiti?

 

After a while, I began exploring beyond photography because it felt a little too technical and formal. I was interested in ideas and conceptual work. I was showing abstract things and collections of objects. For example, I dug out fragments of a wall and shaved them down to expose all the layers of paint, they were sculptural and a history that revealed what was underneath. These were works you could not show in the photography department, which was more formal and traditional. Everything became very different for me, it was not only about photography.

 

In the end, you came back to New York. Why?

 

There were a few reasons. Eventually San Francisco started to feel a little small. Back then, the city was a very transitory place. Now it’s different, but 25 years ago before the Internet, ideas didn’t travel as fast and I just started to feel a little small.

When I returned New York, there was a lot happening, more points of interest that seemed relevant to me, and real opportunities. Moving back and living in Manhattan was also an important experience because I’m originally from Queens, not from Manhattan. The city was really changing. I moved down to the Lower East Side and that was very new for me. I was not part of that local culture, but I met a lot of new people. Everyone in New York is hustling and doing something. You have to be really active and really on point. There are a lot of opportunities, but you are also judged on your value and what you have to offer. If you don’t show up, people quickly forget you. You have to find your way for staying relevant here. There are a lot of distractions while everyone else try to find their own way, but people will help you if you are ready to work and to do things. It’s like that for almost every industry; it’s a very New York thing.

 

How did you come to sell your ink?

 

I was still writing a little bit of graffiti and living in the Lower East Side. Alife’s store just opened around the corner from my apartment. They were my neighbor and it was really them that said I should make Krink into a product. I didn’t really understand why someone wanted to buy my ink. I didn’t have a computer or design background. Alife had a store, they helped with the marketing and all of that, and it did really well. It started super underground and took a long time to develop and to make a name. New York is a tough place. Lots of people help you and there are opportunities, but people won’t help you until you prove yourself.

 

Were you also focusing on your career as an artist at that time?

 

I was also doing things as an artist, but my studio was my living room. I was making paintings and transitioning into a real studio practice, while also learning about commercial work: making layouts, doing design and design-oriented work. At that time, companies became interested in street art, which opened up other opportunities.

In San Francisco, I was purely graffiti in the streets. While at the art school I was doing photography and experimental, conceptual work. When I arrived in New York I was writing a little bit of graffiti of course, but I quickly became tired of it. I soon stopped writing my name and just painted drips. It was in the same places, let’s say a mailbox, and using the same materials, Krink, but my conceptual background and passion for sculpture came into play. In my eyes, the mailbox I was painting became a sculpture. It was part action, part sculpture, and then became this minimal object. What I did was not graffiti anymore. I worked with a lot of different objects, but mailboxes and doors were the best. The door was a red rectangle, a black rectangle, but I could transform it into something different, more like a painting. The mailbox was an object that I could transform into sculpture. People saw it in that way, they were intrigued and I had a lot of positive feedback which persuaded me to go in that direction.

 

Establishing Craig Costello as an artist separate from Krink seems to be difficult.

 

Some things just happen organically. It came to be that the graffiti turned into drips and the ink turned into a business. The drips on mailboxes and on doors led to a car for Mini and to my desire to scale up. Using a fire extinguisher for the purpose of going bigger led to painting and the two became mixed. Is it an installation? Is it a Krink project? Is it a commercial project? Is it a tool? It’s just the kind of situation where there is no plan, just an organic evolution.

There is something consistent in the processes, tools, and finding new ways to make new kinds of marks. I knew that fire extinguishers were too difficult to control, so I started focusing more on creating large swathes of colors with drips and taking up a lot of space and covering large walls. There is a practical side that comes from graffiti, the ability to paint 40 by 40 foot walls in less than an hour. I’m working with something difficult to control, but I want to control it as much as I can. I apply the paint, but let certain things go uncontrolled. The environment plays a part: gravity, the surface and if it’s glossy or matte, and architecture, if there is a window, if it’s brick, if it’s smooth. It is all considered.

 

Similar to Tilt, your shift from graffiti to contemporary art deals with the evolution of a process, more than content.

 

Today, people still look at street art as something very new, even if it’s not. They like to see art in the streets, but they do not draw many parallels with contemporary art. Contemporary art can be quite strange to some people. They go to a museum or you show them a picture of an Ellsworth Kelly painting of a red triangle and they often hate that kind of art. There is very little reference and accessibility for them. Graffiti suffers from this as well and has many stereotypes. If I create a canvas with a line and a bunch of drips on it, there will be people that don’t like that kind of work and it’s just not for them. However, there will be people interested in it and that conversation; they will not have to pretend to understand, it will be intuitive and easy. Most of the works that I’m playing with now are very minimal. They are essentially monochromes. I feel sometimes my works are no longer related to street art and don’t always fit in that category.

 

Do you think studying art at school influenced this? Does this come from your background in graffiti or from specific contemporary artists?

 

The problem with naming artists is I like a lot of different artists for many different reasons. Of course there are artists that I like and am interested in. I’m a big fan of Ellsworth Kelly. I just saw his exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. They exhibited his paintings and photographs, it shows a vision that is very clear and that is what makes it really good. I’m a big fan of Richard Serra, too.

 

It’s easy to draw a visual parallel between you and these artists, but influences can also be a concept more than a shape. Think about Yves Klein and his way of working with his own materials.

 

Perhaps, but it’s up to you to draw such parallels. Yves Klein, like me, was making his own materials. He work has aspects of performance, minimalism, and invention. He put his International Klein Blue paint on a woman and had her to roll around on a canvas. An orchestra was playing, while Klein, who wore a suit, watched the woman. He never even touched the canvas, he was the conductor.

 

You have worked with Tilt in Toulouse for Rose Béton in 2016 and now at the Hangar 107 in Rouen with a new series of work. Is there continuity between these two projects?

 

There is a greater sense of hand in the works for Hangar 107. It’s an evolution from what I created in Toulouse for Rose Béton in 2016, where there was less of a sense of where I started and where I ended. You did not know how it was made, it was more abstract. In Rouen, the works show more of my physical presence. There is movement and it is traceable, the lines have a more distinguished start and end. This exhibition is a painting show, even if I do not consider myself as a painter. There are canvases on the wall and it’s painting for sure, but a lot of my previous works are more related to installation. It was a little difficult for me to see that I’m having a painting show, a show of canvases, without ever taking a formal painting class.

 

Are these works related to the new Krink Sprayer and the wall drawings you’re making with it?

 

All the works for Hangar 107 have been painted with the Krink Sprayer, a tool that I have recently released. I often use fire extinguishers to paint, but they are very difficult to control. It’s not easy to use in a small space. The sprayer scales down results created by a fire extinguisher. It’s friendlier in a studio environment.

Things have continued to happen organically, releasing a new tool through Krink and using it as an artist; continuing to develop a language that I’ve been working on for a while and making tools. I could still write letters, but I really wanted to create unique marks and make these other shapes, simple shapes and forms that are classic. Making a perfect square did not interest me.

 

How long did it take you to develop this tool?

 

It took quite a bit of time, around a year. I had to find the correct mixture of paint that is able to work in the sprayer. I also had to develop a surface that worked well with the paint mixture. I can’t just work on glass or plastic, it has to be a certain finish. Then, I have to create the finish on the canvases before painting with the sprayer. Once you get the hang of it, it is fine, but it has to be practiced. I wanted to create certain kind of marks. I’m still working on this, but now I can make a really soft line. It can look like spray paint, but I do not want that. A lot of my lines are really hard, messed up, which is on purpose. I also continue to work with scale. The works that are part of Hangar 107’s exhibition are large and I wanted to see if I could scale down a little bit. This is ongoing and something I’m continuing to work on.

 

Still in black and white or is there a possibility to see you work with colors?

 

I have worked with colors in past years, but I stopped. It was a mix of trying something new and getting away from that. It’s funny because in Toulouse for Rose Béton in 2016 everyone’s work had so much color, while my work was only black and white. I had a whole room, it was kind of somber and the mood was a little dark. I feel that I’m often surrounded by works that have a lot of color. It’s a trend that I’m stepping away from and instead working with some very basic elements, black and white or white and black, very basic. I will revisit colors for sure, but right now I want to keep things simple. It’s not about the colors, it’s more about the form.