On First Ave., A Graffiti Artist’s Return

aDSC_0774Jenn Pelly A newspaper distribution box designed by Adam Cole, the graffiti artist known as Cost. The piece is the first major public work in more than a decade by Mr. Cole, who has been largely inactive since a 1995 arrest for vandalism. Below: The reverse of the box.

A newspaper distribution box in the East Village now showcases the first major public work of art in more than a decade by one of New York City’s most infamous graffiti artists, Adam Cole, a.k.a. Cost. The work is a distribution box for Showpaper, the free New York newssheet that lists all-ages concerts throughout the tri-state area.

As one half of the graffiti duo Cost and Revs, the artist achieved mythic status in New York in the early ’90s graffiti world, for revolutionizing the wheatpasting medium and helping catapult it to a worldwide street art phenomenon.

The Cost-designed newsbox stands on Second Avenue at Houston Street, one of 12 Showpaper boxes redesigned last week by 25 notable graffiti and street artists at the Brooklyn art space Market Hotel. For Showpaper’s guerilla initiative, the newsboxes function as works of public art, with Manhattan and Brooklyn streets as their pop-up gallery. A map of locations is available here.

Mr. Cole, 41, has remained quiet since 1995, when he was arrested for vandalism. Then, The Times labeled him “New York’s most prolific graffiti-ist,” citing his arrest as, for some, “the end of an era.” Mr. Cole, of Rego Park, was 26. One irritated Times reader, however, wrote a letter to the editor saying: “The graffiti writer using the tag ‘Cost’ is probably the worst graffiti vandal in the history of New York.”

In their early ’90s unauthorized public art, Cost and Revs made use of the backs of “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs at nearly every intersection of Manhattan, with confusing slogans that perpetually included either the name “Cost” or “Revs.” (A 1993 Times piece on those curious, incognito Manhattan signs is available here.)

Their work, which once hit the infamous Bowery/Houston wall, also included larger works called “rollers,” which used paint rollers on walls. Read a 1994 Artforum interview (via the Wooster Collective) here.

Cost’s presence in the Showpaper project is, for champions of the New York’s street and graffiti art tradition, monumental.

“Cost and Revs revolutionized the game for graffiti,” said project curator Andrew H. Shirley, 33, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and visual artist. “I don’t think he understands the impact he’s had on people’s lives. To have Cost come out and say, ‘Cool, I’m going to support this,’ is really huge.’”

A 10-minute phone conversation with Mr. Cole was all it took to bring the underground icon on board. “Adam was interested, one, because there was no money involved,” Mr. Shirley said. “He’s very anti-establishment when it comes to gallery settings and established art, and he was impressed that there was a guerilla initiative behind this, and that people weren’t being paid.”

aDSC_0793~Jenn Pelly Two of the boxes that were designed by local artists for Showpaper.

The images on Cost’s newsbox make use of his classic, recognizable “Cost” phrases. “He definitely stayed classic, but added some funny new twists,” Mr. Shirley said. Mr. Cole wheatpasted the entire box before adding color spray work and several polyacrylic coverings.

“It will be interesting to see how these boxes interact with the streets,” said Mr. Shirley. “Which ones get respected, which ones get dissed.”

Mr. Shirley explained that, for years, Cost stood for “getting information out by any means necessary,” like Showpaper’s approach to distributing information about New York’s underground music scene today.

According to Showpaper’s managing director, Joe Ahearn, the fusion of the street art world with Showpaper was natural.

“The role of most street artists is to distribute information in spaces where peoples’ voices are being submerged underneath the corporate gargle,” Mr. Ahearn said, outside of a Sunday night reception in Midtown, where all 12 newsboxes were on display, a rock band performed, and one of the artists gave $20 tattoos on the spot.

Mr. Cole did not attend Sunday night’s gathering and could not be reached for comment about his role in creating the distribution box for Showpaper.

Mr. Ahearn noted that Cost’s box will exist close to the graffiti world that has been, in recent years, “resurrected” through now-defunct Deitch Projects.

“The Lower East Side used to have an incredibly vibrant and diverse series of voices, through graffiti and street art,” Mr. Ahearn said. “Now, the Lower East Side is more vibrant than ever in certain ways, but also significantly more controlled. Most of the voices now are those with the most money.”

The boxes used by Showpaper were acquired this summer in Washington, D.C. by the news sheet’s founder, Todd Patrick. From his seat on a Bolt bus, Mr. Patrick saw the boxes being thrown away by the Washington Times, and he decided to salvage them to more effectively distribute Showpaper throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Along with listing concerts throughout the tri-state area — all of which are all-ages and under $25 — each issue of Showpaper features a curated, full-color piece of artwork by a contemporary artist, which Mr. Patrick said makes the “sophisticated, but closed-off and structurally problematic” art world accessible to those typically left out of the art-conversation.

“Showpaper democratizes the process of discovering visual artists,” said Mr. Patrick. “Which is great, because there is absolutely no democracy in the art world.”

This post has been changed to correct an error; an earlier version misstated the location of the newspaper distribution box that was designed by Mr. Cole.

aDSC_0786Jenn Pelly Some of the newspaper distribution boxes that were designed by 25 artists for Showpaper.