Ghost aka Cousin Frank

If you’re a writer, or a street artist, or any of the things that seem to float between the two these days, you’ve probably been inspired by Ghost (a.k.a. Cousin Frank). Truth be told, even if you think you haven’t, you’re wrong, as the six degrees of separation that keep us all connected must be even fewer in light of the size of the graf community (small), and the impact he’s had on it (huge). Read on as Format chats with one of graffiti’s true (no, really) legends.

“Not planning out what I wanna do gives me the freedom to just do it. I do take the same approach to painting canvases – and I do wanna say that I never really wanted to stop painting trains.”

Format: Wow. You’ve been in this since the beginning. What do you know that we don’t?
Ghost: The beginning of what? What you probably don’t know is I wasn’t there from the beginning – I came out much later on. I started in the late 70’s in my neighborhood, scribbling on staircases and back alleys. I didn’t really start motioning ‘til around ‘79, which was a toy thing to do. I didn’t really take writing seriously at the time, but eventually I kept on and 20+ years later, here I am.

Format: Trains, galleries, walls, toys – you’re all over everything. Is there any popular place for graffiti art that you stay away from?
Ghost: Not really sure. I’m sure there’s a few things that I would shy away from, maybe some of the projects I did early on I wouldn’t do today. It really depends on what it is and who’s doing it.

I really feel that traditional (graffiti) writing is still not very popular, and street art is what’s in demand these days. I don’t like when they associate the two – I wasn’t a street artist, I was a writer. I did turn away certain videos cause I didn’t wanna be labelled as that, nor did I feel the need to use that to help get accepted into that place.

Format: So you’re really selective about the projects you take on. What elements does a movie, or a gallery show, or whatever, have to have for you to feel good about being involved?
Ghost: I’m not really sure, it’s not just one thing. It really depends on what it is, who’s doing it, and whether or not they’re trying to exploit me. Then again, I have done things I didn’t wanna do but did it anyway – like doing something just to get my stuff out there or cause I needed the fuckin’ money. Slowly but surely, I’ve turned into the person I always hated. [laughs]

Format: Unlike a lot of today’s writers, you don’t plan your pieces ahead of time – you just go. Do you approach your gallery art this way too?
Ghost: In the past when I first tried to do pieces I would try to plan out what I was going to do, then my shit would never come out the way it was on the sketch and I would get pissed, maybe even cross it out cause I didn’t like the way it looked. Then, later on, I would just say “Fuck it”, and do whatever came to my head. The only thing I cared about was getting it up and getting away with it. Eventually I wouldn’t even sketch out the name first – I would start filling in parts of a letter before I even finished the letter. Not planning out what I wanna do gives me the freedom to just do it. I do take the same approach to painting canvases – and I do wanna say that I never really wanted to stop painting trains.

When I stopped writing, I still had all this energy that I tried to ignore. But I was with a lot of dudes who were in it, so I started to draw all the time, then I got into painting canvases, which turned into showing in places. When I said that I take the same approach to canvas, what I mean is that a lot of the time I just paint to paint with no fixed idea of what I’m trying to do. I just do, take a risk and bug out.

Format: So what makes a street artist a street artist, and a writer a writer?
Ghost: I believe a street artist is someone who works in the street, whether through wheatpasting, stencils, doing their image or iconic image so that people can see their art. Then again, since I’m not a street artist, I wouldn’t really know about that.

A writer is someone who writes his name, a lot, through tagging, piecing or doing throw ups. It’s mainly done for other writers to see. It started in the streets, but moved to the trains once writers noticed their name would travel to more places. The more ground they covered, the more fame they got, and that’s what it was all about.

The whole thing with the street art/graffiti movement is that it feels like its easier for the art world and people as a whole to digest the street art scene. Then, they associate the two, but without accepting the more traditional aspect of writing/graffiti that came from the subway movement, which is mainly focused on letters. So when they say graffiti they’re talking more about the characters and iconic images – and I guess that’s what gets me. I’ve had people get referred to me cause they found out I was a writer and they wanted some project done, then when they went to my site were like, “No, no – I don’t want that, that’s the subway stuff.” Then again, writing has evolved into what is today.

Format: Why did you stop painting trains – and why don’t you start again?
Ghost: Why did I stop painting trains, hmm. I guess I’m too fucking old and life kinda got in the way. I never really wanted to stop painting trains – I love that shit. It was probably the best times in my life. What I was attracted to no longer exists anymore, and it’s just not worth it for me, especially at my age.

Format: With the exception of the police, mainstream America keeps getting more and more on board with graffiti, using it in PR stunts and brand associations and anything else they can think of. It seems like you like to play with this state of affairs (like when you showed up uninvited to an Adidas graffiti event a year or so ago).
Ghost: Who said I wasn’t invited. It was an outdoor, public event. [laughs]

Format: The current state of graffiti, from a cultural perspective, is so twisted – guys like Revok are getting their homes raided while people buy books featuring their work at Urban Outfitters. This is even more interesting in light of our new president, whose campaign was hugely supported by street artists doing what they do. What are your thoughts on all of these dual messages?
Ghost: Well those house raids are no joke, but they been doing that shit for years in Europe. Writers been dealing with that shit over there for a long time. When they use to tell me they had to stop keeping their flicks in their house, I was like, that shit is wack. I believe they passed a law awhile ago that allowed this – all they had to know is that it was you, and they could raid your house. Fucked up shit that they don’t even have to catch you in the act, meanwhile real criminals get off cause of lack of real evidence.

Same shit happened with Ket – he had to cop out to a felony and he was never caught doing anything. Any other “crime” would never have held up in court.

We do live in a twisted society; putting people in jail for writing is dumb. I’m not saying they should let people go, but some of the sentences are a little harsh. It doesn’t fit the crime. The quality of life has improved so much in this city, so they can focus on that bullshit. As far as the election and street art helping with his campaign… I didn’t really know that. Damn, I need to get out more often.

Format: Now that street art has given a few artists a lot of success, kids getting into graffiti are influenced by that. What do you notice in writers today that’s different than what you’ve seen before?
Ghost: These guys who do their street art iconic images all over the place to help them get some street credibility to propel them into the gallery, or art scene… which I’m not against, I’m not against art. I appreciate art on all levels, and I have seen some really cool shit and I seen some really dumb shit. I’m not against people looking for a career or anything like that. I just don’t like when they associate the two, or when they use it as a stepping stone to get in to the gallery scene claiming they’re old school graf legends. Every time you turn around there’s a new old school graf legend, meanwhile they been doing shit for 2 years.

When you talk to writers from the 70’s, they did it basically cause they had nothing else to do; they did it for themselves. They were having fun, they didn’t do it to get an art career, they did it for the fuck of it. That goes for my experience. I did it cause it was fun. It wasn’t popular yet – a lot of people in my neighborhood were like, why you doing that bullshit. Then, usually after 2 or 3 years, most people would reach that age and stop. Yet I kept on. But I wasn’t doing it with hopes to jump in the art scene or do gallery shows. I did it cause I enjoyed it. I feel like a lot of writer’s today are artists first who are trying to be writers second, where back then you were a writer first then (some) became artists. Then again, I shouldn’t really say that, cause most dudes didn’t really have a talent. Most writers did letters first cause that was what it was about: creating a style that would burn. Maybe then (if you could) you would rock a character next to your name to enhance the piece.

I don’t speak for all writers, just coming from my own experience and some info that I gathered from older writers I respected.

Format: …and what do you wish there was more of (if anything)?
Ghost: What do I wish there was more of… more porno on the internet.

Carmel Hagen

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