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Writing His Future 

Vulcan, the erstwhile king of spray can art, wants to leave the streets behind without losing his soul

Wednesday, Sep 6 2006
"You can't understand." That's one of the first things Vulcan says.

No matter how much time you spend in the artist's studio in the Mission District, no matter how many questions you ask, you'll never really get it, never get him — because you weren't there.

You didn't jump a fence at 3 a.m., scared as hell, a can of spray paint in one hand and a gun in the other, ready to face a cop or a gang member or another writer hoping to paint the same subway car. You didn't DJ at the hottest clubs in Manhattan as a teenager, or travel across Italy painting for thousands of hip-hop fans, or spend the bulk of the 1990s crashing on friends' couches and waiting tables at a SoHo sushi joint.

Vulcan will try to be nice about your ignorance, though. He'll lean over the studio table filled with a rainbow array of spray cans or stare out the enormous windows at the tire shop across the street; flash his Buddha grin, a gentle-giant cross between a Rastafarian and Harry Potter's buddy Hagrid; and do his best to explain everything. He'll clarify aerosol art basics like the difference between tagging (writing your name) and lettering (painting layered, three-dimensional letters), and provide far-flung anecdotes from his hip-hop, high-IQ Forrest Gump existence, like the time he played vibraphone at New York's famous Apollo Theater at age 5.

This legendary spray can artist (he refuses to use the term "graffiti") has now retired from the streets of Harlem, only to move to San Francisco to sell paintings in galleries and take commissions to bomb the walls of corporate Silicon Valley, with the help of his unlikely friend, roommate, and art dealer, dot-com entrepreneur John Doffing. This surprising journey is the beginning of a remarkable process of reinvention: convincing the art world to see Vulcan the way he's always seen himself — not as a street artist, but as "just an artist."

Vulcan stands before a movie poster-sized canvas near the edge of a Van Ness Avenue loft, upstairs from a block of wholesale warehouses, gas stations, and, often, prostitutes trolling the sidewalk.

He drove back from San Diego last night, after about 36 straight hours of painting at a hip-hop festival. It's 9 p.m., and he's painting again, his forearm moving as if with its own soul.

The rest of his body remains stationary, almost zombielike; his cargo pants pockets hang down, the arms of his XXL T-shirt nearly cover his elbows, and a helmet of natty dreadlocks shields his head like a hijab.

Taming a spray can is like restraining a fire hose, but Vulcan's wrist maintains control. He shakes the can through a succession of tinny clicks, and test-puffs into the air like a lady adding a dash of perfume. Beneath the track lighting, the pink mist mingles with the smoke wafting from his nostrils.

The guitars of retro-rock act Monster Magnet thrash in the background, the vocalist yell-singing: "I just woke up the other night girl/ And now I know what to do/ I guess I'll see you in hell!"

The wrist guides the can across the painting, drawing a foot-long straight golden line, then a curl, and then quickly filling in the shape.

Vulcan doesn't say a word. It's a rarity for anyone to watch him paint, but he seems to be in a trance, unaware of the three other people in the room.

The studio takes up about one-eighth of the massive loft Vulcan shares with Doffing and the British artist Charlie Uzzell Edwards, also known as Pure Evil. The room's décor (created before they moved in) evokes a medieval-themed frat party, with foam brick walls, plastic vines, and half-body sculptures of jet-black Egyptian queens rising from pedestals.

Vulcan steps back, his left hand massaging his right wrist like a pet, staring at the canvas.

The painting, like the others resting against the walls and on bamboo chairs around him, employs the same bright hues, blended colors, and multiple layers as his 1980s-era work, but it's far removed from those overlapping-letter murals. It looks like raw energy transferred to canvas, with dozens of layers of shapes and gestures, fans and boomerangs, waves and matrices of spray paint and acrylic blobs. Vulcan isn't the only spray can artist to become an abstract painter, but few have developed a style so distant from the tradition's roots.

"He feels no compulsion to have lettering or any of the other recognizable forms that are traditionally associated with graffiti art," says San Francisco conceptual artist and critic Jonathon Keats. "His work is completely unmoored at this point from the precedents in history of graffiti art, or even his own personal history."

Even so, these new paintings retain the spontaneity of Vulcan's old murals, which were often washed away or painted over by city workers. Nowadays he might spend two days on a piece only to put it aside for months to let his ideas percolate, or paint over half of an already beautiful image. Sometimes, after a painting is finished, Vulcan will rotate the canvas 90 degrees before hanging it on the wall.

There's a part of him that plans elements of his artworks for weeks, and another that lets go, allowing his subconscious to move his wrist wherever it decides. After two decades of painting, he's barely able to intellectualize the mechanics of the medium.

"I don't know how a spray can works," he says. "It's magic."

When he was a kid, the words were everywhere — all over the streets, on nearly every gate in East Harlem.

"Free Huey," they said.

William Crutchfield, the boy who would become Vulcan, had no idea who Huey Newton was, or why the Black Panther co-founder was in jail. But the words became imprinted in his mind.

During grade school in the early 1970s, his family moved from Harlem to downtown New York City, and he took the subway to school every morning. He began to see names written on the trains and to wonder where they came from. Who was doing it, and when, and how did they avoid getting caught?

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein


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