Writing His Future

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

"People knocked on my door," says Vulcan. "They said: 'You're gonna be a star and make millions.' I heard that a bunch of times."

He completed several commissioned pieces — an album cover for the glam metal band Twisted Sister, a piece for Graffiti Rock (a hip-hop version of American Bandstandthat went only as far as a pilot) — and traveled through Europe painting live with a hip-hop tour. He had one gallery show, with another street artist, in the then-gritty East Village. Yet by the late 1980s, the deals weren't paying much, and Vulcan had tired of scrounging to stay solvent.

"I had become at peace with the fact that I wasn't going to be a professional artist," he says. "I didn't want to do art for money; I just wanted to work, and not think anymore."

Google commissioned Vulcan to paint three servers.
Courtesy of Chris Brigham, Google Inc
Google commissioned Vulcan to paint three servers.
A Vulcan painting hangs in Grey Advertising’s new San Francisco offices.
Gabriela Hasbun
A Vulcan painting hangs in Grey Advertising’s new San Francisco offices.

Vulcan's "work" included producing electronic music records, playing in more bands, writing for Vibemagazine, collecting Japanese toys, and giving occasional lectures on urban art at schools like Yale. He even waited tables at a Manhattan sushi restaurant while crashing at friends' apartments.

"I know how to do a lot of things," Vulcan says, "but they're all the kind of things that somebody tells you to have a backup plan for."

That plan arrived in 2005, with a strange phone call from John Doffing: Sun Microsystems would fly Vulcan to San Francisco and pay him to paint live at its JavaOne Conference. (The company wanted to celebrate the "creativity" of the Java programming language.)

Vulcan barely knew Doffing, but he was desperate for cash, so he agreed. It was the first of many such commissions.

By last summer, when Tricia Choi picked him up at the Palo Alto CalTrain station, Vulcan was almost accustomed to corporate work.

As Choi tells it, she drove him to a big-box retailer, then led him down the industrial-sized aisles to the paint section.

"Pick the paint," she said.

"What do you mean?" asked Vulcan. He looked nervous to her.

"Pick the paint you want."

He was used to gathering the remnants of what other people threw away, not choosing from an array of fresh yuppie colors like canary yellow and mint green. "I can't do this," Vulcan told her.

It took her a few minutes, but Choi eventually convinced Vulcan to make some choices, then brought him shopping for more paint at Wal-Mart.

Later, at Danger Networks, where Choi worked until recently in the marketing department, she spent the weekend watching Vulcan complete a "secret" project: spray painting several stories of the mobile communications company's office stairwell. When employees arrived on Monday, they were floored by the piece, and Choi had become the latest member of the cult of Vulcan.

"I feel so privileged to have experienced him at all," Choi says. "The energy I feel from him is something that is so lost today. There's an integrity I haven't seen since I watched Leave It to Beaver."

The lovefest between Vulcan and the Silicon Valley elite hasn't slowed. Since moving from New York City to the Mission District barely a year ago, the artist has been commissioned to paint for Grey Advertising, Google, and Sun Microsystems. Mobile phone owners as far away as Australia can pay two bucks a pop to use scaled-down works by Vulcan as "wallpaper" on their cellphone screens. In the last few months, he's even sold a few pieces to individuals for upward of $10,000.

The matchmaker behind these unexpected marriages is John Doffing. The quintessential entrepreneur, Doffing has been most successful as a recruiter for dot-coms, but has also co-founded or worked at an assortment of tech-related startup businesses and nonprofits, from the 3-D graphics software company Paraform to the Internet marketing firm AtHoc. Fond of open-collared button-down shirts and leather slipper-shoes, the Cambridge-educated Doffing is like a grown-up prep school charmer, the kind of guy who, at 36, still refers to women as "girls."

He and Vulcan first met in 2003, when the artist showed a few pieces at an early event produced by START SOMA, Doffing's roving art gallery. At the time, Vulcan thought Doffing looked like "a suit"; Doffing saw Vulcan as just another artist.

After the JavaOne Conference two years later, Vulcan crashed at Doffing's apartment, part of Start SOMA's less-than-formal artist-in-residence program. He planned to stay for a few weeks; that was a year ago. The pair developed a surprisingly close friendship, sharing dinners, playing videogames (Vulcan has competed internationally in Virtua Fighter), and watching HBO together.

They live an impressively normal hipster-professional existence. Doffing's home office and king-sized bed are on one side of the huge room, Vulcan's studio on the other (he sleeps on some yoga mats on a movable stage in the front). The artist, a vegetarian, cooks in the open kitchen in the middle of the loft. For the last several months, Pure Evil has crashed on a mattress against the kitchen bar, often painting on large pieces of paper rolled onto the floor. They all work night-owl hours, and, when they're not working, they drink late at lounges like Otis, whose owner just bought two Vulcan paintings. Doffing's girlfriend, Cate Corbitt, doesn't seem to think anything of it: She walked in while Vulcan was painting late one night and chatted him up as if they were close friends.

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