ORFN: A Life Under Shadows

With the passing of a graffiti writer, both outlaws and artists have come out of the woodwork to speak to his influence. But who was ORFN?

It’s 1993, and 19-year-old Aaron Curry is trapped on an overpass towering above a crime-ridden Hayes Valley, long before the Central Freeway came down and it became the uber-chic hamlet it is today. Curry, better known as Bay Area graffiti writer ORFN, had been spotted mid-tag on the two-story-high roadway, and cops are approaching him in both directions.

He thinks fast and jumps — not to his death, but to a nearby wooden telephone pole. He grabs hold with his jacket-clad arms and bare hands, and wobbles down to safety.

“The next morning, he comes to my parents’ house and he has a splinter going into the web of his hand that was as long as my finger,” says graffiti writer AMAZE, recalling the story from artist Alicia McCarthy’s Oakland studio.

“We pulled it out, and he was so happy. He was like, ‘Yeah … I jumped off the freeway, they probably thought I was dead but I got away … I hid all my paint, I took all my clothes off and got underneath this car.’ He was just always so many steps ahead,’ ” says AMAZE.

McCarthy says she was taken by his tenacity and raw, creative energy.

“He worked 24-seven, consistently, for 25 years — I mean on the street, and in his room,” she says. “There was no separation of person and creativity. It was really all the same. He had his own vocabulary of looking in the world and being in the world.”

Aaron Curry aka ORFN (Photo by Mark Cross)

After a quarter-century of making his mark around San Francisco, Aaron Curry died on Dec. 7, 2016. Not in some death-defying police pursuit, but in a hospice bed in the Castro, of melanoma that spread to his stomach, back, spine, liver, heart, lungs, and brain in a matter of months. He was 42.

He was one of the most prolific graffiti writers in Bay Area history, and for decades, you couldn’t walk a few blocks without seeing one of ORFN’s innocent, baby-faced characters sporting a smile next to one of his meticulously dated tags.

But he was also a private and particular person who, while kind and well-respected, only let a handful of people into the inner sanctum of his personality. Regardless, many of San Francisco’s most lauded painters and curators from the past two decades cite him as a key figure in the Bay Area art scene, some even comparing him to Jean-Michel Basquiat, the socially conscious Neo-Expressionist and contemporary of Keith Haring’s who died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at age 27.  

Using a can of black spray paint, he had the ability to provide the viewer a crystal-clear window into the dark and humorous inner workings of his mind. When he worked in color, he’d employ straightforward patterns and tone combinations that could make sleeping faces of sad children leap into the world from the side of a white box truck. Laced with cobwebs and spooky imagery, ORFN’s work was somehow different than anything else on the street.

In a world sometimes dominated by a thuggish, jockish mentality, ORFN cut through the norms of wild-style lettering and fancy handstyles to build a lo-fi, accessible, and oftentimes playful and emotive aesthetic that would come to define a new generation of S.F. graffiti writers with names like SPRAY, PANDASEX, HYPE, and EURO.

ORFN’s work is currently on display at SFMOMA, where McCarthy has featured nine of his pieces as part of her Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Award Exhibition. He’ll also be featured in a posthumous show at The Luggage Store Gallery during the first week of August.

But how did he garner the respect of outlaws and artists alike? Why did this newspaper deem him to have the “Best Graffiti Tag” in 1996?

“If you’re one who sees a deeper significance in the squiggles of marker and spray paint, consider the ramifications of this tag seen all over the Bay Area,” SF Weekly wrote at the time.

Who was this guy, and why did he write his name all over the place?

City workers opted to leave this ORFN character on a wall at 16th and Mission streets when they repainted it in 2004. (Courtesy of AA Hurry)

Sitting at a table at Cafe International on Haight Street, a graffiti writer named PIPER wears a Raiders hat, a T-shirt sporting a signature ORFN vampire face, and a silver herringbone chain necklace as she recalls her friendship with the guy who’s silkscreened across her chest.

PIPER knew ORFN from being in the same crews, BKF [Big Kid Fun], US [Under Shadows]. “Graffiti brought us close, also we had the same schedules — he’s a night person like me. I loved painting with him. I had some of my most insane painting times with Aaron — but God, did he take forever,” PIPER says.

“The thing about Aaron is that Aaron does what he wants to do,” she adds, notably speaking in the present tense as if his ghost was sitting with us at the table. “He’s not influenced by anything else. The way he sees things, sometimes it’s really spot-on with reality, and sometimes it’s not. But you’re not going to tell him fucking different. You can either go along for the ride and accept it, or you’re not even going to get along with him.”

In New York City, Steve “ESPO” Powers, a household name in both the history of graffiti and the world of contemporary art, thinks as much. He’s authored several books on graffiti, and he’s even given a TED talk on the subject.  

“The New York style of writing had a moment,” he says. “It had probably a 20-year moment, but really, ORFN ushered in this very important, naive-but-knowing style of drawing, and drawing with spray paint. It was cool, because ORFN could have been a ‘street artist,’ but he was way cooler than that.

“The difference between [graffiti and] street art, as far as I’m concerned, has to do with when the wine and cheese comes out,” Powers says. “Street art’s a handy term, because people are kind of excited about it and market forces are at play.”

He also handily made the comparison between “Punk Rock” and “Hot Topic-Punk Rock.”

Another native East Coaster, a graffiti writer named MKUE who’s been painting illegally in the streets since the early ’80s and holds tremendous respect for ORFN, likens the practice to high-octane sports like surfing and rock climbing.

“In New York, graffiti was the fifth sport. I put it in the extreme sport department,” MKUE says. “We’re taking risks, we’re not really asking for permission, we’re not being sponsored. It’s like an extreme version of art. … It’s something on the edge, and I think that’s the attraction to it.”

It’s impossible to talk about graffiti without making at least a few people upset — particularly those whose property has been tagged — and it’s arguably the most vilified form of artistic expression. But there’s also no denying that sectors of the “legitimate” art world have been trying to capture its essence since the days of Keith Haring. The catch-22 is that once graffiti is condoned, it ceases to be what it is (or was).

Those seeking more proof that the art world just can’t quit graffiti needn’t look any further than the meteoric rise of Banksy, whose paintings now sell for half a million dollars a piece. Rest assured, no one is clutching their pearls when they wake up to see one of the elusive global artist’s telltale stencils blasted across their private property.

But beyond graffiti, ORFN created a space for other societal misfits to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Back in the early 2000s, former graffiti writer Mark Cross was one such person. He’s since traded in his spray paint for a tattoo machine and is now nationally recognized in his profession. But back when he first met ORFN in the parking lot of the McDonald’s on Haight and Stanyan streets, he was essentially just a lost teenager. Cross became one of ORFN’s best friends shortly thereafter, describing him as a “big brother, father figure, and spirit guide.”

“He carried the torch of the US crew, which started in San Mateo in 1991. It would have fizzled and died if it weren’t for him,” says Cross. “That crew brought us together. We were all young kids who were totally lost. We were totally lost together.”

“We weren’t painting with any sort of malice or hate,” he says. “We were painting with love and respect for the community that we lived in. Our lives happened between tags.”

Cross explains that in the years he knew him, ORFN spent many of them living in an art studio on 16th and Potrero streets, sleeping in a corner he’d cleared out amid endless stacks of black books, drawings, paintings, and other weird shit he’d collect, like food wrappers with faces on them, strangers’ photo albums, and Halloween decorations.

“He lived where he worked, and he was just this one thing, always, from the time he woke up until the time he went to sleep he was painting, whether that was inside or outside. It’s pretty incredible, really, the amount of work that he did create,” Cross says, noting that ORFN transcended traditional paradigms of graffiti and spoke to a more everyday crowd.

“His graffiti shined brighter and spoke to a broader audience. It helped define the psychic landscape of San Francisco.”

ORFN characters seen on a delivery truck in the Mission District in 2007. (Courtesy of AA Hurry)

It’s no coincidence that Aaron Curry chose to write ORFN. Subjected to a rough upbringing and unspeakable mistreatment across a smattering of different foster and group homes, Curry was, in fact, an orphan. He had no relationship with his biological father, and his mother was unable to care for him, giving him up as a small child.

ORFN bore the deep psychological scars of trauma each day, and, in retrospect, his work was prophetic, exploring themes of death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. But his linework was electric, and his messages seemed to embody the honest — oftentimes sage — sensibilities of a wise and elevated child.

When he was in fifth or sixth grade, he came to live with the Currys in Palo Alto. There, he met his adoptive brother Isaiah, about a year younger than him, who first remembers him as a tough kid.

“My first memory of him was being in youth group and some other kid was talking trash to him, so he just hauled off and hit him,” Isaiah says. “Like a one-two punch and dropped the kid … who was supposedly some sort of tough guy.”

Isaiah remained close with ORFN through their early 20s, but lost touch with him until they reconnected near the end of his brother’s life. He also remembers one of the first times ORFN went out to write graffiti when they were both in middle school. He had tagged along to take pictures of him as he spray-painted stencils in a tunnel in Palo Alto, and they were approached by cops from both entrances. ORFN bolted, but one of the officers tackled him.

“She was, like, cuffing him and sitting him up and [she] looked at me and asked if I was with him. Then, Aaron thought real quick and was like, ‘No, he’s probably the one who called the cops on me! Come here, motherfucker!’ And tried to come at me. So yeah, he kept me out of jail that night,” Isaiah says.

Back then, ORFN was widely known as a skater on his way to getting sponsored, the most coveted accolade in the world of adolescent skate culture. But that never happened, and Isaiah points to this as where his obsession with writing graffiti began.

“He didn’t get sponsored, and he was really disappointed about that,” he says. “I think he was in an art class and he realized he had talent. That’s where his focus shifted.”

After that, ORFN pretty much ripped the knob off the dial, writing a surreal amount of graffiti from the early-’90s until a few weeks before he died, when his friends pushed him around in a wheelchair as he caught tags around Davies Medical Center.

ORFN moved to San Francisco in the mid-’90s, attending the San Francisco Art Institute for a year or so. It was during that period that he met Alicia McCarthy, who was then living with AMAZE. Curiously, the only point in which he wasn’t actively writing graffiti from the time he started was during the period he was in art school.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for him, more for the approach, the dedication and the discipline. If anything, it was his work ethic and his dedication to his own visual vocabulary,” McCarthy says.

Her SECA Award exhibit this month isn’t the first time she’s included his work in one of her shows, and she says she always felt honored when he’d allow her to show his pieces.

“When I had a show at V-1 in Copenhagen, he sold more work than I did, and they wanted more,” she says.

“What I like about Aaron’s art is that it has nothing to do with graffiti, as weird as that might sound, and I appreciate that. There were aspects where I could kind of see it, but Aaron was too smart to try to mix the two,” AMAZE says. “But his work is dripping with his persona — like, every ounce of his persona.”

That persona seemed to haunt both the graffiti and art scene for decades around the Bay, his influence subtly creeping its way into the work of others.

An ORFN character seen on a delivery truck in the Mission District in 2008. (Courtesy of AA Hurry)

Barry McGee has been a contemporary of ORFN’s since the late ’90s. An example of someone who successfully pivoted from hardcore graffiti to high-priced fine art — he also received a SECA award and is in the permanent collection at SFMOMA — without losing his street cred, McGee, who made his bones writing TWIST, sees ORFN as the real deal.

Speaking from a sunny picnic bench in the back of Dynamo Donut on 24th Street, McGee recalls ORFN’s prowess as a graffiti writer, emphasizing his perfect “bus flow” handstyle — a type of graffiti lettering that originated in San Francisco in which each letter is connected according to certain typographical rules.

“He was distinctively Bay Area,” McGee says, pointing out that ORFN’s style developed over a 30-year arc, and he would ultimately celebrate an erratic — as opposed to perfect — line.

“He was a fellow artist, but he stayed more close to the core,” he continues. “There’s a real dirty San Francisco graffiti and art scene right now, and without trying, he became the one everyone looked up to. He’d never want to be a leader, but he became the touchstone person for all these scrappy S.F. graffiti kids. He has a credibility that goes beyond anything a successful artist — whatever that is — could achieve. He has a street credibility that’s forever set in time.”

It’s true. Given the ephemeral nature of graffiti, it’s impossible to quantify the amount of times the word ORFN — or other his monikers, like SAD JOSE, HELLDIVER, MUDDGUTS, CHAINSAW, PHANTASMAGORIA, VERY VIVA SCOUT, HUNGRY WAIF, and DARK HOST — has been written in public. But sheer volume made him widely known early on, securing fame through the ubiquity of his tags around the Bay. At one point, he spent years going into the Sunset Tunnel, a historic proving ground for graffiti writers, writing “ORFN” on the train track from the entrance at Duboce Park until it spits out in Cole Valley. That’s more than 4,000 feet.

But what drives someone to this level of dedication? What was behind it all?

Jenny Rae, who now works for Rec and Park, met ORFN back in 2003. She was his girlfriend for about three years. They remained close friends until his death, and she did much in the way of getting ORFN’s house in order during his final months.

“He didn’t have a family Christmas to go to every year — to him, that was a great day to go out painting. He didn’t have any of those things that pull us back into reality. He just had him and his art. He had a rough childhood, and graffiti was his outlet. It saved him. Graffiti and art were the things that gave him something to live for, and something that he could control,” Rae says.

She describes ORFN as a kind boyfriend and an authentically good person, but also as a wild dude who approached the world with a youthful and reckless sense of wonderment. A big Carl Jung fan, he constantly listened to books on tape about philosophy and psychology, painting a picture of an extremely analytical person whose seemingly messy, wild aesthetic was, in fact, rooted in painstaking hours of deep thought.

Like others who became close with ORFN, George Crampton Glassanos knew him from his tags long before they met in person. He was only about 15 years old in 2008, and, at the time, a prime example of the scrappy young graffiti kids McGee had spoken about. Despite the age gap, he was one of ORFN’s best friends. He remembers his signature style, sporting North Faces, painted nails, Ben Davis pants, wingtip Doc Martens, and a “Zo Bag” (the original bike messenger bag) full of graffiti supplies at all times.

Crampton Glassanos recalls general rowdiness in what was still an edgy Dolores Park, late nights painting the streets in between house parties, and a time when ORFN knocked a guy out for torturing a cat. They were close until the day he died, and Crampton Glassanos cites ORFN as an early mentor.

“I think he lived his life to the fullest. He had a hard life and he made the best out of it,” Crampton Glassanos says.

Perhaps his dedication to living outside the boundaries of society’s expectations is what allowed him to tap into such raw, unfettered imagination. Maybe it was his ornery genius that forced him to live his life beyond the pale. Either way, ORFN was on Bay Area curators’ radar for years.

However, aside from a handful of shows and the inclusion of his pieces in his friends exhibitions, his work was pretty much out of the spotlight of formal display. Right up to his death, the best way to see his work was to just go outside and walk around the city.

“He could find his voice most truly making work in public spaces without permission,” says Rene De Guzman, Senior Curator of Art at the Oakland Museum of California.

“People who don’t understand graffiti don’t feel this way, but it’s actually an act of generosity. I think of graffiti as a beautification effort,” he says. “But I also think of it as an important sign of liberation, where an individual can say, ‘I matter, and I’m going to let you know that I matter.’ ”

ORFN leaves behind an 8-year-old daughter, Scout. Everyone close to him says the only thing he cared about more than his work was his daughter, and that he did all he could to be a father to her with the psychological and emotional capabilities he had at his disposal.

Before he got sick, ORFN planned on doing a rare solo show at The Luggage Store Gallery in order to raise money for Scout. Since his passing, McCarthy and Luggage Store co-founder and co-director Darryl Smith have decided to put on a posthumous exhibition featuring a cross-section of ORFN’s enormous body of work on Aug. 4. While his pieces won’t be for sale, the work of others — McCarthy and McGee have already confirmed — will, and all proceeds will go to ORFN’s daughter.

“You might think this is far afield, but to me, his work, the context and nature of it, reminded me a lot of Basquiat in a lot of ways,” Smith says. “That might sound far out there, but it was outside of what a lot of people were doing at the time.”

A Bay Area Basquiat. If that’s the case, what happened?

“He was definitely one of a kind. He was just dedicated to making his art, and I don’t know why his career never really took off. I think he was such a part of the underground. I know he wanted to sell his art, and he liked making money, but I don’t think he put himself out there like that,” Crampton Glassanos says.

Opinions also differ as to whether or not ORFN was after any sort of formal success in the first place. His brother Isaiah remembers him wanting to be a famous member of an artistic movement in his early adulthood, but that sentiment isn’t found among other reports of ORFN’s inner ambition. AMAZE thinks that while ORFN often liked the idea of showing in a gallery or pursuing commercial success, the realities of playing the gallerist game often made him feel agitated and uneasy.

“He wasn’t a good businessman,” AMAZE says. “Like, he would have paintings that were really good that people would spend a lot of money for and he would trade them to people in Japan for Japanese candy. I’d tell him that he could have sold that painting, taken a trip to Japan and got the candy yourself.”

One thing is clear: ORFN didn’t have a choice to be other than exactly who he was. He was different from what “normal” people might call a “normal” person, but it’s precisely that private epistemology that allowed him to see the world in such a unique way and produce the fine art, zines, and graffiti he made.

“With commercial success comes responsibility and sacrifice, and he just wasn’t interested in those things,” Cross says. “He was so particular about everything he did, so painstakingly meticulous about every detail. Everything had to be on his terms, or it just wasn’t happening.”

ORFN uses one of his many monikers – MUDDGUTS – on a piece in the Mission District in 2007.

In the winter of 2016, ORFN noticed a lump in his abdomen, and began to experience an increasing amount of pain throughout his body. On Aug. 31, he was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, and it spread quickly. He underwent a series of surgeries at Davies Medical center — just above the Sunset Tunnel where he had spent many nights painting graffiti — but he was ultimately admitted to the Coming Home hospice in the Castro, where he died in December.

“He did exactly what he wanted to do, unapologetically so, unwaveringly so, and it was fucking inspiring. There needed to be a person like him. He had to exist,” Cross says. “He just kept it so incredibly real and it cost him the comforts that a lot of normal people cherish. We all need that person, but nobody wants to be that person. He bore that responsibility with dignity and grace. He was sort of a martyr for the community at large.”

It’s impossible to tell whether or not time would have eventually tempered ORFN’s wild disposition and funnelled his creativity into the traditional trappings of a working artist — death has a way of cutting biographies short. However, if you look carefully around San Francisco, you can still spot “ORFN” scrawled across various poles and walls, a tribute to his legacy as a vandal, artist, friend, and muse.

At some point after his formal memorial service in San Francisco, a group of friends spread his ashes inside the Sunset Tunnel, catching ORFN tags as they meandered underground. It seems a proper resting place for someone who dedicated his life to making art in dangerous places.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Stories