Writing His Future

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

Doffing takes no commission on sales of Vulcan's paintings, though he has profited from Start Mobile, which sells cellphone wallpaper art by Vulcan and others. (Vulcan sits on its board and has an equity position of 1 percent — the same as other advisers, including Bill Fields, the retired CEO of Wal-Mart.)

"With Vulcan, it is not about money," Doffing says. "It is about making history and bringing great art to the widest possible global audience." He's glad to provide the man he calls "one of the greatest artists of this generation" a place to stay.

For his part, Vulcan, now 46, feels no guilt about cashing in on his underground cachet and his friend's business connections. "Being an artist in America today is like taking a vow of poverty," he says. After years of living without money, he has no qualms about taking on corporate projects, especially when the companies allow him carte blanche in his paintings. "It's a mistake to judge professional work [alongside] work that's personal," he explains. "I don't consider it art — it's a job."

Grey commissioned Vulcan to paint a few walls along with the canvas.
Gabriela Hasbun
Grey commissioned Vulcan to paint a few walls along with the canvas.
Vulcan’s paintings might have dozens of layers of spray, acrylic, and oil paint.
Gabriela Hasbun
Vulcan’s paintings might have dozens of layers of spray, acrylic, and oil paint.

Vulcan's recent financial success is only half the story. Dozens of artists have cashed in on their street cred as hip-hop culture has become commercialized, but Vulcan wants something more elusive — to be taken seriously by the fine art world. He longs for a future in which he doesn't have to worry whether he can make the rent or buy himself food, and that won't happen unless he draws interest beyond a few Bay Area collectors.

But as he makes inroads at the galleries, Vulcan wants to maintain his status as one of the kings of the underground. "Just because I'm in the art world now doesn't mean I don't love the streets," he says. "That's my first love."

What Vulcan is doing isn't unprecedented — street painter Chris Johanson was in his mid-30s when gallery owners finally caught on to him — but it is rare. For as long as outsider art has existed, some of it has been welcomed into high-priced galleries and collectors' living rooms. The best example is Jean-Michel Basquiat, the teenage Brooklyn street artist who burst onto the New York gallery scene in the early 1980s before dying of a heroin overdose at 27. Some successful San Francisco artists, like Keith Haring and Barry "Twist" McGee, bridge the gap between alternative and fine art, but Haring discovered the streets while in art school, and McGee didn't show in major galleries until after he had studied at the S.F. Art Institute. Even among painters whose work isn't dismissed as illegal, many weren't recognized as masters during their own lifetimes.

"There's this layer of translators, this layer of people who dictate what art is and what art is not," says photographer Paniccioli. "Those same people ... rejected every new form of art — Van Gogh, Gauguin, Georgia O'Keeffe ... [but] as they began to sell, the money began to roll in, the recognition and accolades came in, and these art dictators sing a different song." For the first time, Vulcan is finding praise among mainstream art critics and collectors. He painted one of the rooms in the Hotel des Arts near Union Square in 2004, and a few months later opened his first solo show, at the Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street.

"When I think of Vulcan, I think of ... someone making work on a galactic level," says Darryl Smith, co-founder of the Luggage Store. "It was an honor for us to have him be in our gallery."

He didn't sell any pieces there, but the exhibits did generate several reviews.

"Vulcan's major accomplishment, like that of a great jazz musician, is to communicate the feel of improvisation," Keats wrote in San Francisco magazine in February. "Vulcan's mural is simply, marvelously, a celebration of dead space redeemed by human inspiration."

Doffing recently arranged a few lucrative sales to collectors, many either friends of his or executives at businesses he deals with. He has also arranged for a massive show at Google's Mountain View headquarters next month — it's open only to employees, but then, the Google cafeteria is home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires this side of Davos.

"I feel on the top of the world, like I can do anything," says Vulcan. "It seems like people are finally connecting with the work. Before, nobody noticed."

As excited as he is right now, though, the artist remains worried that his newfound success will be fleeting, especially given his experiences over the last few decades. "If you describe my life the last couple months, it's great. But if you describe the last couple of years, it's crap."

For almost his entire career, Vulcan has lived in a self-imposed exile, both from his peers and from the mainstream art world. It took him years to realize that being an "outsider" wasn't worth the price. Now, with Doffing's encouragement, he seems willing to do whatever it takes to enter the conventional art world, whether that means painting Google servers or having his art appear on a tiny cellphone screen on the other side of the world. And when he's not willing to sell himself, Doffing steps in.

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