I was fortunate to have the time to catch up with seminal New York contemporary artist and musician Paul Kostabi as he was en route to Williamsport for the opening of “From Paul Kostabi, With Love” show at the Grey Art Gallery downtown. Over the past four decades Kostabi has forged a distinctive path in the worlds of art and music.
PK: I was born in Whittier, California and played punk rock around the state from 1976 to 1983. Then I heard about a punk rock explosion in New York called hardcore, so I went to New York to investigate it. I was playing music, showed up at CBGB’s to a hardcore show and I was shocked at the energy level created by the roughly 30 people in attendance. Even though there were just 30 people, it felt important whereas the California scene just felt commercial. I felt something’s going on here—the music and an art scene were starting to bubble.
DW: Was the feel and sound of hardcore music influencing the look and aesthetic of the art being created or were they pretty independent of each other?
PK: It was sort of all mixed together. The East Village was all ready to explode because at that time the rents were very cheap in New York. If you were an artist, or a burgeoning art dealer opening up a space, you could do it on a shoestring budget. In 1984 alone, 175 galleries opened in the East Village, which meant there was room for 10 artists per gallery; you multiply that by all the artists jockeying for wall space and you can imagine how volatile, yet vibrant the scene was back then. All the artists had bands too. I had Youth Gone Mad, Jean- Michel Basquiat had The Grey and L.A. artist Michael Kelly had a band as well. It was a really exciting time, that ’83–’86 period in Manhattan and the East Village.
DW: That period in the early ‘80s seems like it was a very fertile time creatively in New York City, as styles and sounds transitioned away from the ‘60s and ‘70s influences into a new era. What was it like being on ground zero for all of that?
PK: I did miss that whole Max’s Kansas City scene and the early days of CBGB’s but sounds were transitioning from garage and punk to something heavier, faster, and wilder-hardcore. It was the evolution of punk rock music, speeding it up to the point of almost a speed-metal type of sound. The music was high energy but I was already used to the violence in California and was trying to escape it. New York had a similar violent hardcore scene but much smaller.
DW: How did the zeitgeist of that time—all those creative things happening all around you—influence your evolution as an artist? What was your style at the time? What medium were you working in?
PK: I came from the cartoon world and was doing line-styled drawings; by that point, however, I was working with whatever I could get. My favorite medium at the time was oil stick because it was an extension of the crayon. I also used crayons and spray paint. I did a lot of spray paint and stencil work for band logos. So I’d be spray painting band names on sides of buildings, which is sort of street art today. Back then it was usually called vandalism.
DW: Later in the decade you became friends with and hung around Dee Dee Ramone—what was that like?
PK: Dee Dee was into doing art when I met him in ’89. He had just quit the Ramones because he was sick of playing in front of no one. Dee Dee just felt like the band was dead. So he and I started hanging out; making art together. He kept playing music solo, but it was difficult. No one wants a solo artist; they just want what the original was. It was frustrating for him. The audience just wanted him to play Ramones covers, but he didn’t want to do that. It made it difficult for him to work on music, so instead we worked on art together. It was interesting. We were great friends.
DW: So let’s fast forward to today, what’s the East Village specifically, and New York City in general currently like?
PK: Well, New York today compared to 20 or 25 years ago, to me, is more like a transplant city. If you came to New York in the ‘80s, and lived there for a year, you couldn’t really wear the stripes of being called a “New Yorker.” Then in the ‘90s, New York became a little more accepting of transplants to the point that, after 2-4 years of living here you were considered a New Yorker. Today, however, you can move to New York in one week and pretty much learn the ins and outs. When a band or an artist moves to New York today they consider themselves a “New Yorker” right away. It’s become gentrified as a lot of the individual characteristics of the specific areas have become lost. Because in the digital age, you can just dial in and any web channel you be on Avenue A. So the exotic nature of the city is sort of gone. We’re still probably the greatest city in the world but it really should be called “The City” instead of “New York City.”
DW: How did a long-time New York City artist like yourself find out about our art scene here? Have you been to Williamsport before? Do you have previous connections here?
PK: It’s interesting how I wound up here actually. There was an artist in New York, Luke Yocum, he contacted me a couple of years ago about doing a show in Chelsea, at the Chelsea Hotel; he asked me to be in a show there, which I said yes to, but unfortunately it never materialized. We stayed in contact after that. He told me about the success of his shows in Williamsport; it piqued my interest, so Luke introduced me to Casey (Gleghorn) of Grey Art Gallery. I was impressed by Casey’s enthusiasm and agreed to do a show in Williamsport.
DW: What do you think of Williamsport?
PK: I like it. I especially like Casey and his energy, as well as his enthusiasm, about everything. It creates a really good, happy energy, not unlike the galleries up in the East Village. That combined with the presence of talented New York artists who have relocated here like Luke and Todd Lim reminds me of the early East Village scene. So I feel a strong connection to the area.
DW: Williamsport has this interesting dichotomy going on. You have downtown, which is developed and is cool. But then you have the Pajama Factory which is like its own creative subculture away from downtown. It’s really something to experience the similarities as well as differences of both sides. I’m sure as an outsider coming in you wouldn’t expect such a varied and vibrant arts and music scene in a town this size.
PK: I’m very curious about this Pajama Factory space. I’ve heard that there’s an investment group out of the Tribeca area of New York involved. I’ve heard so much about it (the Pajama Factory). The way it’s been described reminds me of a place called “The Brewery” in Los Angeles, where they’ve done the same kind of thing. It took about twenty years to do it there. But “The Brewery” is a fabulous place and I’d imagine the Pajama Factory is as well.
DW: Tell me a bit about the band you’re bringing to town?
PK: Yeah, Damn Kids. We’re almost like folk punk rock and we’re very storyboard oriented. What we’re bringing tonight is our own kind of punk rock. We’re influenced by things like the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, and early punk rock like the Sex Pistols. Our sound is also diverse enough that some of our songs have a tone not unlike the Allman Brothers.
DW: What do you have planned coming up after this with you art as well as your music?
PK: I’ll be traveling to Europe first and then in the summer back in New York working on art. In June I have 3 concerts in Italy with my brother Mark and Tony Esposito along with a museum style show of paintings. I am also working on an album with singer Martin Royle from New Orleans, it promises to be a beautiful indie-pop album.