When Craig Costello launched his graffiti marker and ink company, Krink, at Alife’s Orchard Street store in 1999, it was originally envisioned to be a creative project rather than a commercialized brand. Long before Alife’s founder, Rob Cristofaro, designed some of the brand’s first product labels, Costello put his original drippy ink concoctions inside old soda bottles, which he handed out to fellow graffiti writers. This was back when Costello was spray painting “KR” in San Francisco during the early ‘90s–alongside writers who defined the Mission School art movement such as Barry McGee and Ruby Neri. But when Costello released those first 8 oz. glass bottles of Krink, they sold out instantly at Alife. In the early 2000s, Costello’s brand was quickly backed by graffiti writers in New York, and drippy graffiti tags painted with Krink became a common sight in downtown Manhattan. Within 10 years of launching the brand, companies like BMW, Nike, Stussy, and Levi’s began asking Costello about Krink collaborations.
“Back in the day, when I made markers for friends, it didn't have to look pretty,” says Costello, who is now celebrating the past 20 years of Krink’s success with a newly released retrospective book by publisher Rizzoli. “It's very difficult to make something that looks nice on the factory floor, on my floor, and then on the shelf of a retailer.”
Today, Krink has come a long way from being an underground graffiti company that Costello produced inside his Lower East Side apartment. Chances are, if you walk into any art supply store, you’ll likely stumble upon a wide display of Krink tools. From simple markers to fire extinguishers filled with paint, the brand has continuously released some of the most innovative tools for graffiti writers and creatives. Over the years, it has been co-signed by artists such as Pharrell and Tom Sachs and used to decorate stores like Colette, Dover Street Market, and Supreme’s dressing room at its San Francisco store. Recently, Krink has collaborated with luxury brands such as Moncler and streetwear brands like KITH. We spoke to Costello about the brand’s new Rizzoli book, the challenges of growing a small business, Krink’s apparel, and the stories behind some of the brand’s most iconic collaborations such as the Krink x Nike Air Force 1.
Brands like Supreme, Undercover, Louis Vuitton, and now Krink have retrospective books published by Rizzoli. How'd this Krink and Rizzoli book come about and why did it feel right to publish this book now?
So many things with Krink happen pretty organically. I was working on a project in Hong Kong, and one of the guys that I was working with was like, "You should meet my friend Tony." Tony came by the studio in New York and was a freelance editor at Rizzoli. He wrote some graffiti back in the day and was into Krink, Alife, and all of those things during the early 2000s. So he pitched a book to Rizzoli and they loved it. We just started working on it from there. It was pretty seamless.
This Rizzoli book arrives nearly 20 years after you released the first glass bottles of Krink at Alife's store on Orchard Street. Back in those days you were making Krink out of your apartment by hand and Alife was barely a year old. How did the original Alife space help jump start the brand back then?
I'm originally from New York, but I moved out to California in the early '90s and lived in San Francisco for six years. That's really where I first made Krink, and it was just this graffiti thing. When I came back to New York, I moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and I met Alife. I lived right around the corner. They had a store that was very welcoming and were basically positioning themselves as a creative hub. They just convinced me to sell and do something with Krink. I never thought that it could be something commercial. It was never made like that. But they had a store and were able to help me. It was just this creative project that started from there and sold well. With New York being the crossroads that it is, there was some great marketing on their part. The Lower East Side still felt new and people would go to Alife to see what's going on. It just kind of blew up from there.
What's always fascinated me about Krink is it started as this small independent operation. But in less than 10 years your markers were stocked in Colette and you were collaborating with brands like Nike on sneakers. How did you break Krink out of the Lower East Side and build the brand's image in the early years?
In New York when you do stuff, whatever it might be, it's much easier to be seen. There's a lot more visibility and opportunities. For example, when I gave Krink to the IRAK crew, those guys were running around and covering the Lower East Side with Krink. It looked like a very new thing so people became interested in it and asked, "What is it?" I was just doing my thing. There was no plan.
People also liked the aesthetics of the packaging, the ink, the markers, and the concept. So the phone just kept ringing with people calling about press pieces or collaboration opportunities. I think it was just something that was happening at the time. Bigger companies were looking for young artists to work with and looking towards graffiti/street art for content.
I’ve always been a fan of your collaborations. One of the earliest Krink collaborations that I can remember is your Nike Air Force 1 from 2008. An Air Force 1 covered with this reflective 3M material and detailed with silver drips. How did that collaboration with Nike come about and what was the release of the sneaker like? What was your vision for that Air Force 1?
Nike was doing the OneWorld project with the Air Force 1 and were collaborating with a lot of different people. I knew somebody who worked there from another project before he moved over to Nike. He gave me a call and it was on. It took a year to make but Nike has so much capability. You can just ask, ‘Can I do this,’ they'll send it to their people, you don't hear anything, and a sample just arrives in the mail. It was really interesting and you just had to illustrate what you were interested in and give it to them to run with. It worked out great. The release was right when they opened 21 Mercer so there was a lot of hype around the store. It sold out in half a hour.
You also tagged all the shoe boxes for that release right?
Yeah tagged all the boxes and painted the store. If I'm around to do it, I'm happy to sign things or write on them or any of that.
I saw that Nike revisited that Air Force 1 collab nearly a decade later at Complexcon and at Nike’s second SoHo flagship on Broadway. Are there any hint of new Nike collabs in the future?
Generally speaking, I really don't talk about anything until it's done. And now, with everything that's going on, there are just so many unknowns. A lot of projects are postponed because we just don't know what the near or far future is going to look like.
Speaking of Nike collaborations, I see that Tom Sachs is also a big fan of your work and has collaborated with the brand on a small run of sculptures. I loved that Krink cabinet he made out of old wooden police barricades. How did you collaborate with Tom?
For Tom Sachs, markers are a big part of his practice. It's a tool that he's used for a very long time in the history of his practice. Again it was really organic. I bought something off his web shop and someone who was running the shop out of his studio knew what Krink was. So we sent over a package for him to try it out. Again, Tom loves tools and he’s really interested in all different kinds of tools. It could be a drill bit or a marker. So we just started a conversation around tools and we ended up working on something together.
You've done collaborations with luxury brands like Moncler and designers like Marc Jacobs. What collaboration is your favorite and what do you think was the most difficult one to make if there was any?
The Krink x BMW MINI was great because that collaboration came very early. The MINI is a design icon associated with cities and small spaces worldwide. That was also quite difficult because I only got one shot to paint the car. It's easier to do things that are production based because you can make a sample and then make adjustments. It's really hard when you have to hand paint something and someone’s like, "Here, paint this pair of glasses." Like, "What am I supposed to do with this?" In general, the best collabs are when people kind of know what they want and know what you do. I'm not really a sales person and I’m not going to convince you to work with me. But it's best when people are like, ‘I love what you do. And we want you to do it on this object for this season.’ When it just makes sense and everyone's on the same page, those are the best ones
Although Alife was where Krink was born as a brand, the story of this ink dates back to the early ‘90s in San Francisco, where writers like yourself, Twist (Barry McGee), and Reminisce (Ruby Neri) created this very special moment in the city that is viewed as a “golden era” of sorts. What was it like bringing a New York City style of graffiti to the Bay Area at that time and how does it tie into the story of Krink?
Me being from New York, SF was just very chill. It was a very different place back then. It was way more relaxed and it was easier to experiment. People like Twist and Reminisce were doing a different kind of graffiti. It was easy to get supplies and rack stuff, which I was doing a lot of at the time because it was just part of the graffiti culture. What I was doing was really nothing new in terms of what was happening in New York. But out in San Francisco, the graffiti sensibility that I was bringing felt new. It was really just fun. It was kids running around writing graffiti, and wasn’t really anything too serious. But it ended up just being influential.
I'm personally a pretty big fan of your work as a graffiti writer. Who were your influences within that medium?
Now this is not in any specific order. I think what Cost/Revs did was super influential just because of how diverse they were, what they did, and how ubiquitous it was. Veefer was just so prolific, so consistent, and was really just everywhere. It really depends on the era. You had Joz, Easy, and Josh5 going back to the ‘80s on streets. That was really influential because they were very methodical and they were one of the firsts to go “all city” on the streets. That was very new in the late '80s because graffiti used to be on the trains, but when it came out onto the streets, it was still really working itself out. There was this guy on the insides of trains named Roaches. He had the insides on lock and I used to ride those trains to school. He had a mix of characters which were roaches. He'd draw them a foot wide and had mop tags all on the insides of trains that always stood out.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Earsnot of the IRAK crew at Dover Street Market, where he made this installation with a Krink marker inside the store. He told me he had his own doubts about writers buying Krink back then because there was this tradition of stealing supplies. And there is also this tradition of just making your own tools. Today, almost every graffiti writer has used a Krink marker at some point.
I was always curious to know, did you ever see anyone else attempt to make a branded graffiti marker back then? What gave you the confidence to keep pushing it forward?
Well first of all, I'm definitely all for kids making their own inks, markers, and tools. Experimenting and doing whatever they can with whatever they have. I think that that's really important to not just graffiti, but creativity and whatever else it is that you're doing. There have been plenty of other brands and it really all exploded in the late ‘90s. As far as me sticking with it, the phone was just constantly ringing and it became obvious that I could never keep up with the demand. The demand was always growing and I just fell into it.
What would you say was the biggest challenge when it came to growing your business in the earliest days?
Even today, Krink is a small business. Globally, big businesses take over everything. You can't compete with these huge conglomerates because they could buy up the supply chain. When I was trying to grow, I would need 1,000-5,000 marker bottles. These guys were used to orders ranging from one million to five million units. Why are they going to sell you 5,000 pieces? Why are they even going to take your call? A tremendous challenge for a small business is growing and getting any sort of market share against a big business. Eventually, I developed a technique where I'd say, ‘Hey, you know what? I need your help. Could you please just help me? I'm trying to grow here. I'm confident that if I grow my next order will be 10,000.’ If people were cool, they would help you grow. I mean it is their job to do that, but you kind of have to push them along because they'll straight up tell you how they work with another company that takes a million units. I used to have a guy call me, and he'd say, "Listen, we're making a run and they're taking 100,000 pieces. Every time they make a run, I'll call you. And you can tack on your order, however small, onto their huge order." And then from there he'd just help me, we had a relationship and I would just up my orders every time. Without that, the minimum was 50,000 pieces, and I just couldn't do that at the time. So that was very nice of him. But some places, they won't be willing to help you.
I always felt like Krink had this great ability to take rugged graffiti tools and make them look luxurious. To the point that you could find some of those first 8 oz. bottles of Krink exhibited in museums with canvases by Jose Parla and Barry McGee. The brand has released tools such as fire extinguishers, soda bottle spray paint applicators, and even stick and poke tattoo devices. How do you come up with ideas for new tools and how long does it take to design them?
A lot Krink’s ideas are just based on historical use. Whether it was a graffiti tool or something that I kind of messed around with and manipulated–like a certain type of marker or ink. How long does it take? It depends. It's easy to make something in ones and twos if I just make it for you or someone else to mess with. Back in the day, when I made markers for friends, it didn't have to look pretty. It's very difficult to make something that looks nice on the factory floor, on my floor, and then on the shelf of a retailer. It’s difficult to make something look good and also have it work immediately six months later. That's what a consumer expects.
Quality control has always been the biggest issue. It takes a long time depending on what it is. It's actually crazy because certain chemicals in ink react with certain plastics. So you can't use a certain plastic bottle to hold it. Sometimes you have to make a whole new mold for a cap because you want it to be a certain color, and the mold doesn't accept that kind of plastic. You're buying metal barrels from this guy, and he suddenly gets bought out by a big company. So now, that big company doesn't want to do business with you unless you're buying 100,000 units. We’re constantly putting out little fires. I mean, it's crazy.
Although Krink releases its own apparel today, older readers may be more familiar with the products that you released with Alife back in the day. In recent years, Krink has collaborated with streetwear brands like KITH. When did apparel become a part of the brand and what do you enjoy about working in that realm?
First and foremost, Krink is an art supply and creative brand. I think that because of Krink’s history with Alife, the creative scene in the Lower East Side, and early associations with media outlets like Complex, our brand has also become associated with that scene. But we are not a fashion brand. The T-shirts just accompany our products because people asked for them. So we just do it for fun. Our web business has grown over the years, so we're just able to sell it on our site. We don't deal with the fashion calendar or buying cycle because we're not a fashion brand. Our apparel sells well, but it would probably do better if we tried to pursue the fashion calendar.
As an artist, and as a brand, what do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years? Now that you hit 20?
Given the way things are right now, it’s all about survival. Things are really tough because of the virus. It's really just trying to stay creative, promote creativity, and make new stuff. Sometimes we make things and say, ‘Is this thing crazy?’ And then people love it, which is pretty amazing. I really enjoy the whole invention side of things, and bringing new things to the public.
It’s cool to see how popular artists like Pharell and enigmatic ones like Jim Joe have cosigned the brand over the years. Today there are many companies that make graffiti markers. But none have ever been able to make the impact that Krink has. Why do you think that is?
At the end of the day Krink has a history that's rooted to an individual and a creative culture. I think a lot of other brands make great products, but they're kind of just a business. The person behind it is a businessman, who has no real history or just noticed that kids were into graffiti so they started making a product. It's just pure business. Whereas, people are really attracted to the Krink story. They can say, ‘Hey, this guy wrote graffiti, he made his own markers, it turned into a business, and they release creative collaborations.’ People really enjoy that story.