After a Theft, a Street Artist Speaks

Adam Cole a.k.a. CostDale W. Eisinger
aDSC_0774Jenn Pelly Adam Cole, the reclusive street artist who is also known as Cost, and the newspaper distribution box that he designed. The box was stolen from a street corner and Mr. Cole played a role in its recovery.

In the early 90’s, Adam Cole, a.k.a. “Cost,” hit the streets undercover. As one half of the now-mythic graffiti duo Cost and Revs, he was busy revolutionizing the graffiti world and catapulting the wheatpasting medium to an international street art phenomenon. According to Mr. Cole, he and Revs were wanted by the NYPD. He wore a mask in photographs.

In 2010, Cost’s life is different. After remaining largely quiet since a graffiti-related arrest in the mid-90s, he heads to Mars Bar for a recent interview — on the theft and recovery of his most recent work — in a Porsche. Over noontime beers, Mr. Cole explains he has done “okay” for himself with “honest work” as a small business owner. “I don’t want to run from the law anymore,” he says, each word’s articulation recalling his home borough, Queens. As one of New York City’s most infamous and enigmatic street artists, Mr. Cole found himself, in December, chasing after a thief himself.

Described by Cost as a “professional street art thief,” that Brooklyn-based criminal stole, a carefully crafted newspaper box Mr. Cole created for Showpaper, a free newssheet of all-ages DIY concert listings distributed throughout the city. The box was Cost’s largest public artwork since his mid-90s arrest, and hit Second Avenue at Houston Street one Monday last November. By the Thursday evening, it was stolen, and immediately posted on eBay with a $4,000 price tag. The box has been off the streets since—but after being recovered by project curator Andrew Shirley in December, it will return to the East Village in coming weeks.

When it first hit the East Village, the box was loaded with rocks and concrete, but Mr. Shirley, also at our Mars Bar meeting, was not surprised by its theft. “We dropped the box off around two in the afternoon, and as we drove back down First Avenue, that day, I didn’t even expect to see it then,” Mr. Shirley said. “I didn’t think it would last a day.”

“The thief represents society to me,” Mr. Shirley said. “Society is all about money —capitalism, and making a buck. The thief took the joy and purity out of the project.”

At Mars Bar, Mr. Cole rehashed the criminal’s explanation. “The thief’s story is, he heard the box was over here, and he was in Soho, so he came to look at it,” Mr. Cole said. The thief saw “two guys standing there, touching the box,” and feared they would steal it first. He bolted to Home Depot, on 23rd Street, and purchased clippers, a dolly, and a tarp.

“When he came back, he said another guy was leaning against the train station, with a hand-truck and a big box, a little bigger than our newspaper box,” Mr. Cole said. The thief feared he would be beat to the box. “That’s his story,” Mr. Cole said, “that these people were swimming around the box, like sharks.” The thief put the box on the dolly, covered it up, and wheeled it — for four hours — from the East Village to Williamsburg. “People thought he stole an ATM,” Mr. Cole said. “He had a lot of trials and tribulations to get that box from Houston Street to home base.”

But no criminal’s story is totally believable. “Like all thieves, you take anything they say with a grain of salt,” Mr. Cole said. “He goes to extreme tactics to remove street art.”

Mr. Cole’s newspaper box was not the thief’s first foray into New York street art pillaging. He looted a REVS sculpture two weeks prior to stealing Cost’s box — which, according to Mr. Shirley, he admitted to stealing and selling. “That’s why we were deeply offended by the whole thing,” Mr. Cole said. According to Mr. Cole, the thief also recently sold “random street art paintings for about 100 bucks a pop,” which were listed on his eBay page.

“It’s a triple slap in the face,” Mr. Cole said. “We had to go after this guy. Unless you curtail this, he will continue.”

Mr. Cole and Mr. Shirley did just that. Immediately after the box went up on eBay, Mr. Shirley e-mailed the thief. “I was like, ‘look, you can deal with the police department’s forces, you can deal with the COST and REVS forces, or you can give the box back,” Mr. Shirley said. “I was trying to coax him into doing the right thing.” Eventually, the thief sent Mr. Shirley his phone number. “We talked at length multiple times, but he had personal vendettas,” Mr. Shirley said. “He felt he was getting jerked if he gave up the box for no money.”

But the thief had a conscience. “Eventually, he was like, ‘Dude, this is bothering me, I’m getting hate mail, and realizing I did the wrong thing,’” Mr. Shirley said, adding that Cost’s status as a street art “legend, and that he is huge in this history,” is largely why the box was recovered.

Showpaper Newsbox ExhibitionJenn Pelly Another view of the distribution box created by Mr. Cole. After it was stolen, it had been offered for sale on eBay.

The thief “was being pursued from two angles,” Mr. Cole said. “From the police, and the streets. Me and my friends, we were all closing in on him. His window got very small and tight. In a sense, he had to give up the box.”

Eventually the thief invited Mr. Shirley to his home in Williamsburg to retrieve the box. “He basically gave it back. It was a very surreal experience,” Mr. Shirley said.

According to Mr. Shirley, the thief tried to haggle $560 from Showpaper for his supplies. “That’s when, sorry to say, I had to clear this guy’s head. It was time to hand the box over,” Mr. Shirley said. “I said, basically, is dealing with the cops worth 500 bucks? No. Is dealing with COST and REVS worth 500 bucks? No. Obviously.”

Mr. Shirley and Mr. Cole believe the thief’s presence in New York is detrimental to the street art community beyond Showpaper’s scenario. “It’s not just a problem of people stealing work off the streets, it’s the fact that there’s a market,” Mr. Shirley said. “And that people are going to pay money for stuff to be stolen from artists they like — it doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Cole’s biggest problem with the thief was that he put a value on his work — whereas Mr. Cole prefers his work to remain without a price tag.

“My work is for me and for the public,” Mr. Cole said. “I’ve always had a love affair with the landscape of New York City, so I like to put my work on the streets, not in a gallery, and the thief went against that code. The thief created a value on it.”

Although Mr. Cole’s intention has never been to make money, he does appreciate credit. He’s satisfied, “as long as people know I was there when [street art] started to take off,” he said.

“You can have a guy like Derek Jeter who makes $20 million a year, and what not,” Mr. Cole said. “But Willie Mays will always be Willie Mays.”