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Adam Cost is at a Basquiat exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, a rare trip for him into a world he's never been welcome in or belonged to. But for the legendary graffiti artist, that may have to change. "I'm trying to be more legit, so I want my stuff in galleries," he admits. "I've just never made art trying to get in a gallery."
As if to prove just how out of touch he is with art-world protocol, Cost—his real name is out there but we promised not to use it—asks one of the gallery staff if he can take a photo of the work on display. Rebuffed instantly, he saunters off with a slick smirk, reveling a bit in his outsider status, that he doesn't fit in. Not now, not then, and possibly not ever.
New York City changes so fast it will be almost unrecognizable soon, which makes Cost's comeback all the more important. After years of nearly complete silence, "Gadfly COST" is active once again. Extremely active. Even though he's not divulging much about his past, present, or future conquests (we still don't really know if "COST fucked Madonna," as one legendary tag had it), this much is true: Cost—one half of the graffiti writing, wheatpasting antiheroes COST & REVS, the duo who forever transformed graffiti, street art, and even advertising—is finding his New York groove again.
Still in its beginning stages, his comeback already has people taking notice, prompting bloggers to ask if the new posters, stickers, and tags around the city are from the real COST or some guerrilla marketing campaign for a new Starbucks flavor. Well, it really is him. But while he's not quite the recluse REVS is, Cost mostly avoids the limelight, preferring to let his work stand in for him. "You're not doing your craft for money; graffiti is about fame, really," he explains. "Which is a bad precedent if you plan on eventually earning a living as an adult. A [graffiti] writer invests so much time into racking paint, scoping spots, and scaling buildings, there's no time left for developing other skills. Beyond that, too much fame could be [counterproductive] in that you'll have entire squads of cops dedicated to getting you." He knows: A Queens judge once sentenced him to 200 days of cleaning up graffiti.
This is Cost's paradox: He and REVS were shunned by the art world for being too uncompromising, and by graffiti circles for not being "real writers" (they got their names all over the city with a lot of help from a Xerox machine, pasting posters instead of tagging from scratch each time). Still, there's no arguing with the colossal impact the two made in the 1990s, and COST's work is coveted in the art world (he says he sold one piece for more than $30,000). So much so that his new posters are being pilfered right off the street.
"It's not cool," he says about the vandalism of his vandalism. "I understand people are fans, but it's detracting from my life's work. It's like locking up a wild animal in the zoo if you take my art that belongs in the street and put it in a frame on your wall." Shaking his head and pulling down on the brim of his hat, he seems by nature a bit skittish and unsure—an occupational hazard, no doubt. "I mean, I understand the demand for my stuff," he goes on, eyes darting from piece to piece in the gallery. "But eventually it's going to drive me into the gallery world full time . . . which isn't a bad thing, necessarily."
Once, the thought of having his outlaw art jailed in a posh Soho gallery made Cost bristle. Nowadays a little compromise might be in order. And no wonder: Nearly every anecdote Cost tells about his life in graffiti is booby-trapped with fallen comrades, off-the-record tales of his many friends who've wound up behind bars. "All of those stories were my inspiration for coming back," he says.
Daylight fading in Chelsea, COST is about to punch in. He has a new female "bombing partner" now, ENX, who came on the scene right around the time his life "had sort of blown up" and a long-term relationship he'd been in was ending. "Graffiti never leaves you," Cost says. "You never really stop doing it. I just felt like the timing was right."
COST and ENX will have artwork at Doyle New York's StreetArt Auction on April 8.