PRINT March 1994


I REMEMBER THE DAYS WHEN a subway train illegally painted by Lee Quinones would roll into a station and the people on the platform would spontaneously applaud. I remember artists like Lee, Zephyr, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Crash, Daze, SAMO© (aka Jean-Michel Basquiat), and Keith Haring putting art out on the street for free. But graffiti isn’t what it used to be. Style is all but gone, and this outlaw practice, once a field of ambition, daring, rebellion, and improvisation, has largely reverted to a form of unconscious egoism and conformist vandalism.

There are still a few sparks of unauthorized public art out there, though.

I think I might have noticed Cost and Revs at the beginning of their careers—I remember seeing some of those conventioneer stickers that say “Hello My Name Is” around town with their tags markered on. But I didn’t really latch on to them. I really noticed them a year or so ago when I started seeing their 8 1/2-by-11-inch wheat-paste posters all over New York. And I mean all over. Most visible was their use of the backs of “walk/don’t walk” signs—it seemed like they’d hit just about every intersection in Manhattan. Each poster had the name COST or the name REVS and a qualifying word or slogan: Specimen REVS. COST was here. Machine REVS. COST is dead. Turkish REVS. COST fucked Madonna. That one made me laugh out loud when I first saw it.

COST and REVS also do larger works, which they call “rollers,” because they make them with paint rollers on walls. One of them is visible in a Donna Karan DKNY ad that shows a New York landscape; COST and REVS are a part of the landscape. They’re getting more elaborate these days. They’ve hit SoHo walls with guerilla canvases. They’re doing authorized murals. But they’re still taking their message to the street with determination, sincerity, wit, and guts.

Cost and Revs are a couple of New York kids. White kids. New York etched in their accents. Being in their mid 20s, they’re getting a little old to be kids, but they’re kids as long as they keep doing what they’re doing. What they’re doing is getting up everywhere, making their mark, making a name for themselves in the landscape. It’s unauthorized nonprofit public art. It’s not made for museums or foundations or galleries. It’s not made for speculative investors or dealers or critics or collectors. It’s made for an audience of their peers.

One day I noticed a poster with a phone number on it: COST (212) 592-4133. I called the number and couldn’t believe what I heard—the speaker wasn’t Cost or Revs, it was an old lady. You could tell from her voice that she’s cashing a social security check. If you can believe Cost and Revs, she’s in her 90s, and she goes by the tag Graff’s Grandmother. As in Graffiti. She gave an eloquent oration on how her boys Cost and Revs were holding up the standards of graffiti in an age of decline. A few months later I caught up with her again. She explained that she had been in the joint, where she was “runnin’ shit,” and she recounted, in her ancient tremolo, how she had been in the same prison as Mike Tyson and how she had explained to the champion that he needed some spiritual values in his life and how that had led to his conversion to Islam.

Graff’s Grandma hasn’t been on the hot line in recent months, Cost and Revs have been issuing their own funky but grandiose manifestos, but I just checked in with the line now and there she was:

I am the only Grandma of Graff. I am the wisdom, the engine, the teacher behind the Cost and Revs machine. I built these boys and I built them to last. As you can hear I am no joker and neither are they. They are merely henchmen to me and purely servants to New York City. They are art outsiders looking in on life and watching and learning from other people’s stupidity. They are the sugar in your coffee, the sauce in your spaghetti, the salt in your stew. They are everything you’ve ever wanted but haven’t realized yet, so take it from me, kiddies, the Grandma of Graff says Cost and Revs are the move. Or as Cost and Revs say, “Move over.” Either one. Both are true.

I talked to Cost and Revs recently. Cost talks more, but when Revs gets revved up he is declarative and passionate about what he does.

Glenn O'Brien

COST: We met in ’85, then went our separate ways. About a year and a half ago we were doing things that were similar so we started hanging out again and combined the mission. I think we brought wheat-pasting to a different level.

I was intrigued by graffiti since I was eight or nine years old. I’d read the walls and I’d wonder how it got there and want to do it. When I started to get some time to myself I found myself buying markers and trying to write on the walls, on dumpsters, on doorways with my friends. It built from there. I never stopped.

I respected a lot of graffiti writers. When I was young I was really impressed by Zephyr.

REVS: I’ve always liked Lee’s stuff. He put his heart and soul on the wall, and not a lot of guys do that. I really respect that a lot.

GLENN O’BRIEN: Who is the Grandma of Graff?

REVS: A wise old lady who gives us direction. She’s an old-timer. She goes back to when Kilroy was around.

COST: She guides us. She instructs at times on what to do and how to do it. She’s got the wisdom.

GO’B: What’s your relationship to graffiti?

COST: Some people say it’s an eyesore. I think it’s a spice, a treat. It livens things up. I’m trying to let people know that I’m here during this time period. Let it be remembered or forgotten, that’s up to the people.

GO’B: How many posters have you done?

COST: Somewhere between 75 and 100. Some we put up 1,000 of, some 500, some 50. Graffiti’s changed in the ’90s; nowadays writing your name on walls, just putting it up everywhere, is the same old same old. Scrawl on the streets, write on the trains then it gets cleaned the next day, talk a lot of garbage—I’m too old for that now. You’ve got to try something different.

A lot of young writers are looking for trouble; we’re not trying to hurt anybody, we’re trying to do something positive. We’re trying to change philosophies a bit. Change everyday life. We want to open people’s eyes up when they walk outside their house, let them see something a little different. There’s not much left for me to do in the graffiti world, I want to stay as far away from that world as possible. Stay away from the in graffiti-crowd. I just want to be a lone wolf.

GO’B: What were your favorite posters?

REVS: Turkish REVS has no meaning whatsoever. Machine REVS: I’m a hard worker, I work like a machine. Specimen REVS: I’m just a specimen of a larger whole. It’s kind of abstract unless you know me.

GO’B: What kind of messages do you get on the hot line?

REVS: Some people have threatened our lives. Some people tell us, Keep going. They’re waitin’ on our next move. They’re rootin’ for us.

COST: A lot of graffiti writers call. Some have beefs to settle with us: we try not to go over people, but sometimes someone will say, You went over me here. Or they don’t like what we’re doing. We’re trying to change graffiti, which is all about using spray paint. I don’t think it’s all about spray paint. I think you can use other mediums.

REVS: Others say they love what we’re doing and we’ve inspired them. We get old people saying we’re ruining the city. We get marriage proposals.

COST: Some people think Grandma is the Grandmother of Grass instead of Graff. They think she’s a weed lady. We get a lot of hot girls rappin’ to Revs.

REVS: Right now we have some violent information. Words of wisdom for the everyday public. Opinions on things. We like to shake up the system, have high impact.

COST: We’re saying we’re not graffiti guys anymore. What we do has a graffiti attitude because we’re promoting our names, but we’re on the art tip. At this point we might be the most outlaw art in the city. Not too many people are doing street art and basically street art is illegal.

GO’B: Postering is an old New York tradition. For a while the police went after clubs featuring hands that did postering.

COST: We took it to the extreme. People think we’re vandals; that’s not what we are. We want to put things up that will be appreciated by people. We’ve painted a few murals and we’re doing more—we did one on Lafayette Street called Mount Crushmore. It’s Warhol, Keith Haring, and me and Revs on a mountain.

REVS: We also did King of the Pigs, with Rodney King, on Elizabeth Street and Houston. We’re basically insulting everybody.

COST: The police department for their stupidity and Rodney King for his stupidity. He’s no great guy either.

REVS: We’re not insulting the good cops, just the ones who abuse their job. Most people want to take one side or the other, but to us both sides are wrong. It may be a little harsh but it’s got to be said.

COST: Today all you see is “Knowledge is Power” and “Safe Sex.” That’s the basic message from everybody. I’m not saying that’s bad, but we’re coming from a little different angle.

REVS: We think art should be dangerous. Everybody’s into safe art, doing safe things in their studio. We’re bringing danger back into it. It’s got to be on the edge, where it’s not allowed.

COST: We live on the edge and that’s what makes it good.

REVS: The art world is too sissyish for us. There’s no raw quality.

COST: The galleries are too quiet. You sip a little champagne.

REVS: It’s got to be real crude. Crude.

COST: Rude and shit. Noisier.

REVS: Graffiti writers do have a message. It’s just that nobody knows what it is. It’s not a strict statement, it’s a way of life.

COST: It’s revolt.

REVS: It’s considered mindless vandalism by most people but there’s really a lot to be said about a guy who scribbles his name on the wall. Why would a guy risk being hurt to do that?

GO’B: It’s territorial. It’s leaving your mark.

REVS: It’s to say, This is what I produced while I was alive.

COST: We don’t even have a choice in the matter, we have to do this stuff. It’s not like we planned out a career. It’s about putting our lives on the wall and letting people decipher it from there. I always say, We’re going all the way to the top with it. Or all the way to the bottom. And either one is fine. I don’t want no middle ground—being an average Joe. Put me on the top of the pile or the bottom of the pile. Either is fine, just no mediocrity.

REVS: Some people use the front door. Some people use the back door. We’re crashing through the side of the house. We’re gonna level it. Nobody’s going to deny us. It sounds like a megalomaniacal bad attitude, and maybe it is. But that’s okay.

COST: We don’t think we’re big shots. I consider myself the little guy out there trying to claim my piece. But we’re gonna get what we’re shootin’ for because we’re not gonna stop. There’s just so long people can ignore you in this world.

Glenn O’Brien, a former stand-up comedian, is a contributing editor of Allure and creative director of advertising at Barney’s, New York.