The Drip: Craig Costello on the early days of Krink
To talk with Craig Costello is to appreciate the beautiful aesthetic of the perfect mess. The graffiti writer known as KR, celebrated for experiments in creating the Krink brand of graffiti markers and inks, as well as bridging the landscape of graffiti with design and fashion, Costello has shaped a career around the simple concept that economy and resources dictate innovation. His brand marks multiple evolutions in the graff world, with an insider’s knowledge and ability to link together multiple cities and eras. This year, he released the book Krink: Graffiti, Art, and Invention, and the Radio Juxtapoz team sat down with Costello to discuss the idea of resources, supply chains, the Mission School, Queens and the genesis of the monograph.
Doug Gillen: How many years in the making, and what is the purpose of the book?
Craig Costello: The book is an overview of some of the things that we'd done over the years. The subtitle is Graffiti, Art and Invention. It's really those three things: the main, guiding words, if you will. There’s my early graffiti, San Francisco, New York, and graffiti turning, I guess, more art-related, less graffiti and being kind of name-based. Taking the name away and just doing drips, and that, in turn, becoming this abstract, more creative art-driven practice. And then that turned into collaborations, products, business and all the other people also working with Krink.
DG: A lot of your persona is hidden behind the brand, and from what I’ve picked up, that's not by accident. We definitely have to go into your teenage years in the ’80s in Queens.
People all seem to have a certain nostalgia for New York. I don't know what others think or what their experience is or was, but for me, New York, as a kid, was very open—not that I knew it at the time, but it's multicultural, super mixed-class. I used to go to the MoMA as a kid because I had a pass that let me go for free. Not everybody gets to do that. We used to go to the Met, and you could hang out and smoke weed in the back, go into the museum, and that was just there for you. There are so many resources there, and a lot of opportunities, not to mention a lot of interesting people and all that kind of stuff.
And not just graffiti. I skated when I was a kid. I didn't really start writing until a little bit later, my later teens. Nowadays, I think they’re much older. Somebody could easily be 26 and killing the streets. Whereas, I would say, back then, in the 1980s, a lot of people started writing graffiti much younger, like young teens going to the train yards, it was a much younger kind of thing. And everyone I knew wrote or had a name. Graffiti was already part of the NYC landscape. It just existed, and I don't remember a time before it. "Like, wow, what's happening? There's graffiti." It was just already there, like a bit of teenage hijinx mixed with skateboarding and a school yard.
Evan Pricco: When you reached your early twenties and moved to San Francisco to attend SFAI, what was the scene like?
I got to San Francisco soon after the big earthquake, so there was a lot of rubble, and San Francisco in the early 1990s, the city was… kind of seedy. You know how there's always a skeevy side of SF? I'm so out of touch with it now, because I've been out of there for a while, so I'm not really familiar with all of the tech money, but, yep, it was pretty seedy then. And SF is not a flashy place. It's kind of counterculture. New York, there's a lot of money and people show it. SF just wasn't like that, but it was super beautiful for me, just watching the sunset on the ocean or seeing pelicans and sea lions, and just different trees and all that. That was really nice for me.
DG: Did you start finding yourself continuing in graff and art circles once you were in SF?
I have a photo background, so since I was a young teenager, I worked at one-hour photo places. I worked at MotoPhoto in Daly City when I moved there. I was there for a while, and really, I was just trying to get my bearings, and when I eventually did, I started looking more at other things to do. I think there was a spray paint ban at the time. I don't remember, but there was something weird with spray paint, but that eventually went away. San Francisco was way easier to rack compared to New York. Racking is shoplifting, right? It was really easy to get markers and spray paint where it was available.
DG: What was your technique?
During the height of my racking, it was pretty methodical. I had an inside pocket sewn in. That was just for markers, stickers, really anything that would fit. When you're racking, you pay attention to places and what they have, and you don't take everything. You take a little bit, but often. That's very important. Don't burn your rack. If you take everything, then they're going to know and they're going to keep an eye on that.
EP: As you were doing graffiti, going to art school and documenting your friends doing graffiti through photography, did you have a sense that there was a movement happening? Now, in hindsight, those are the original days of the Mission School movement, when that group of artists defined an era. Was there a feeling that you could see how San Francisco was doing something on its own that was different than New York?
No, not for me, at least. There's so much more media today than there was back then. It was just the beginning. Yeah, there was a graffiti zine here and a zine there, but it was still just beginning. And that was a form of communication. Otherwise, you had to go to SF to see what was going on there. Whereas today, we see so much homogenization, where you can go to Berlin and see somebody participating in the same trends that you are. Or someone is influenced by São Paulo graffiti, they live in France, and their style looks the same—yet they've never been to São Paulo in their life. Before that, you had to actually go to São Paulo. You had to go to SF. Basically, no one knew about Krink and mob tags unless they went to SF. It did not exist in New York.
DG: At this point in the 1990s, had you started to experiment with what would become the Krink brand or the dripping inks?
In the beginning, I was really doing very straightforward graffiti, throw-ups, black and white, with Rustoleum. I was really experimenting with ink and markers. I guess that was the more experimental side, but my graffiti itself was very traditional and limited. I'd say I was just kind of a tag and throw-up guy, but that was pretty new to SF.
Krink became something where I made some ink, we put it in markers and it worked, and that became something that was, again, a technology that I pretty much kept to myself, though I shared it with Barry McGee and Ruby Neri, who wrote Reminisce, so only with my friends. We then had that advantage where we could coin that aesthetic.
In graffiti, there's a really, really deep tradition that is still alive, of experimentation with tools and space—and, obviously, with style. But you steal your space. I'm from the time where you steal your space, you steal your supplies, and that creates experimentation. You have to experiment, like, "Okay that was a total failure. Okay, let me try this. Okay, that kind of worked. Oh, now I see how this can work." It was really making markers and playing around; making inks, just really playing with materials. It's not like, “Well, I went to summer camp for chemistry and, poof, I'm a Walter White.” There's no chemistry background here. No lab coat, no safety gear.
DG: Can you go into the actual details of this process a little bit further?
EP: What’s the chicken-or-egg moment here? Was there an aesthetic that you knew you wanted, but that you knew you couldn't buy or rack? Or was it something where the aesthetic came out of so much experimentation?
There’s a few things. One is economy. Having everything be for free was really important, and to have that supply chain flow, that was really important and drove what I had access to. You can just buy anything, but you can't steal anything.
The other thing was, when I was a kid in New York, going to school, I didn't write on trains, but I rode the trains, and the interiors were just crushed with ink tags. They're a little different from what we know today, but those were the inspiration. Back in the day, in New York, people made their own markers, and they were often made with felt from a chalkboard eraser for the tip and, like, a shampoo bottle filled with ink. Or it could be a Ban roll-on deodorant container, where you dump everything out, get rid of the ball, stick on the felt, and then stick your ink in it.
The ink would be, let's say, hey maybe you came up on some black Pilot ink or some black Marsh ink. Maybe you came up on some green, so then you have all green tags, because you had a supply of that, or all red, or you mix the red with the black and you've got brown. These were telling things. People would be like, "Oh, we had green ink that whole summer and that was amazing." And then you had all green tags on the inside, so that was super influential and kind of the idea, and those were called mops. So, the original terminology, mop, for a marker, comes from New York City subway graffiti.
Then, after train graffiti died in the late ’80s, all those markers didn’t work on the street. And with subway graffiti, you generally went to a spot, you did your graffiti, then went home. Whereas, in the street, you're kind of roaming all around the place. Those markers, sometimes, you'd finish it and then you'd throw it away. Or they weren’t really cap-able. They were messy and you had to wear a glove. You can't do that on the street. And with the inks, if you were using colors, they would fade in the street. So, people would use, for example, supermarket ink, Flo-Master. Again, for the sake of economy.
When graffiti spilled out onto the streets and those markers went away, the marker that dominated in New York was a Pilot silver paint marker. That was the marker. So my early experiments were just kind of a mixing of these evolutions. I tried a million other things, but it was the lasting power of silver and the droopy aesthetics of the inside of trains that I was after. I made this silver ink that would just make it drippier and drippier and drippier, and sometimes I would want a tag that was so drippy that it was almost illegible, but that could just hold its shape. That was the specific look I wanted. I didn't want a little, tiny drip. I wanted something that looked like kind of a mess, but then, when you looked at it, whatever it was, it was clear that the tag, the shape, held.
EP: Do you remember the ah-ha moment, where you did that on the street, and it was just perfect?
I definitely remember being like, "Wow, this works and looks great," and then refining it. Because, let's say, the markers I used were 4 ounces, and let's just say I made 16 ounces each time; then I would refine it every time to make it drippier, or not so drippy, depending on my last experience. There were definitely moments where you had a good time; it was working.
I know people from back then, and still to this day, that you give them a marker and they go to write with it on a nice, clean surface. They will make a sound, and that's success. There will be this audible, "Oh yeah." And that's the best.
This conversation is an excerpt from the Radio Juxtapoz podcast with Craig Costello. Listen on Spotify, Apple or on Juxtapoz.com. The book, Krink: Graffiti, Art, and Invention, is available now on Krink.com