Writing His Future

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

"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 often paints his canvases with unorthodox tools, like scrapers and rollers.
Gabriela Hasbun
Vulcan often paints his canvases with unorthodox tools, like scrapers and rollers.
Beyond Control(1984) is one of Vulcan's most famous murals.
Ernie Paniccioli
Beyond Control(1984) is one of Vulcan's most famous murals.
Vulcan’s complex lettering was often unreadable to all but practitioners of the art.
Vulcan’s complex lettering was often unreadable to all but practitioners of the art.
Vulcan helped found Harlem’s Graffiti Hall of Fame.
Ernie Paniccioli
Vulcan helped found Harlem’s Graffiti Hall of Fame.
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.
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.
The sun/fan image is a prominent motif in Vulcan's recent work.
Gabriela Hasbun
The sun/fan image is a prominent motif in Vulcan's recent work.
Vulcan often works on many paintings simultaneously, keeping them around his studio.
Gabriela Hasbun
Vulcan often works on many paintings simultaneously, keeping them around his studio.

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?

The boy picked up scraps of knowledge from kids at school and friends of friends, collecting rumors about an underground culture of spray can artists who called themselves "writers" and strange tales of a place up in the Bronx where subway cars went to rest for the night. He took the name Vulcan — not, as is widely assumed, after the home planet of Star Trek's Mr. Spock or the Roman god of fire, but after a model rocket owned by a friend. He started with motion tagging: riding the train for hours after school, marker in hand, looking for empty subway cars in which to write his name. Soon he began painting the insides and outsides of trains with spray cans. His work was fueled not by cravings for fame or money or outlaw status (he says he was never arrested), but by an irrepressible desire to express himself.

"Now it's very popular, kind of 'urban chic' to be a writer," Vulcan remembers, "but back then, it wasn't something you wanted to be. Girls aren't interested, your family's not interested, your friends think you're stupid."

He was a smart kid, an honors student who skipped fifth grade, but he "stopped caring" at age 14 when his father died, and graduated high school as quickly as he could. Around the same time, he quit writing.

As a teen Vulcan bounced from apartment to apartment in New York City, moving through a variety of Renaissance-man adventures. At 15 he became a club DJ, playing after-hours parties downtown. A few years later he bought a dirt bike and created a motocross course on Ward's Island (where city bulldozer workers trained), co-founding a Harlem motorcycle scene that's still vibrant today. He joined a series of funk and metal bands, sometimes playing bass, sometimes singing lead. His family (whom he's wary of discussing) didn't approve: He barely talks to his two siblings, and his mother, who died several years ago, was never interested in his art.

Slowly, writing crept back into his life. At first he just watched, ogling the work of the best street artists. Then he spent months drawing at home, plotting his return. Vulcan would walk the streets of Harlem, fantasizing about the complex murals he'd soon create. Around age 20, he began painting with spray cans again. Compared to most of his fellow writers, he was already an old man.

Within a few years, he was among the top practitioners of the underground (and illegal) art of painting trains and walls. Vulcan's style was different from most of his peers' — more geometric and robotic, with letters so layered and intricate they were frequently unreadable. He often used hundreds of colors in a single piece, though he'd scavenged most of the cans rather than buy them.

"Vulcan was doing pieces in '83, '85 that were so advanced at the time — I don't even know how he got ahold of so many colors back then. He was light-years ahead of his time," says Saber, painter of the largest work of spray can art in the world, a football field-size piece on the cement banks of the Los Angeles River.

Vulcan founded Harlem's renowned Hall of Fame, a place for street artists to show off their best work, which soon attracted art-loving tourists from all over the world. His own paintings appear in dozens of books and magazines from and about the era: He's on the cover of Aerosol Kingdom, the definitive academic work on spray can culture, which is named after one of his murals.

In contrast to the bombastic DJs and rappers around him, Vulcan let his paintings speak for themselves. He was so soft-spoken as to be an almost ghostly presence in any room. Ernie Paniccioli, a well-known hip-hop photographer for three decades, remembers meeting Vulcan on the Lower East Side as he leaned against a painted wall. "He was already a legend, but he was really shy," Paniccioli says. "He was so serene and quiet, not really fitting in ... standing there looking mystical."

As Vulcan came into his own as a writer, hip-hop culture was going mainstream, and artists were cashing in with deals to make T-shirts, clothing lines, and ads.

"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."

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.

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."

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.

"Not to sound pretentious," says Doffing, unrolling a hot-pink, digital-lettered, unmounted canvas that Vulcan painted in the '80s, "but I think this will be hanging in a museum in my lifetime."

Vulcan isn't sure what kind of offers will come next, though he feels he could probably gain sustained financial success — maybe even move into his own place — if he could negotiate a major gallery show in Los Angeles. People like Keats and the Luggage Store's Smith say this goal is within reach, perhaps after a few more local shows.

For now, he's just trying to come to grips with the past few months as he begins to plan the near future. "I'd like to be able to create work, however that happens. If it's museums, it's museums; if it's a gallery, it's a gallery," Vulcan says. "I'm not sure where I'm going with this or what's going to happen or how it's going to happen. I'm thinking it's not going to be something I'm expecting. Because I didn't expect any of this."

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