When I first came to New York City in 1993, it was a very lonely place for me. That bitterly cold winter, I didn’t know where to go or how to meet anyone to go with me. I would take the train down from my Columbia dorm to what I thought was the cool part of town, getting off the 1/9 at Christopher Street and wandering back and forth along Bleecker in search of a local music scene, my feet freezing in my inadequate jungle-warfare combat boots. I felt dwarfed — dwarfed in my father’s oversized wool Canadian-navy greatcoat, dwarfed in this huge, thrumming city that promised so much but seemed to keep its promise at a distance, always receding.
Against the crushing anonymity and isolation, I remember discovering and then treasuring the mystery of COST/REVS. These graffiti stickers were everywhere pasted to the backs of street signs and WALK/DON’T WALK signs (back when they still had words instead of today’s pointillist icons). At first it was just those two words, stacked up on each other in block capitals:
Then they started getting blasphemous: COST SAVES, GOD saves COST, COST IS RELIGION. And then there was the phone number, which it took me months to bother writing down and calling. When I did, I got a rambling, incoherent voice message whose content has long since escaped my memory, which in those days was anyway frequently impaired and clogged with details about Apuleius and archivolts.
What I found so amazing about these stickers was the spectacular human effort that had gone into putting them up. They were everywhere, all across town, on sign after sign: thousands of them. And this was no vast collective effort, like putting up the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the dedicated work of one or two individuals, who for no obvious reason felt like altering the environment in which we all lived. It was human and passionate and sort of sad in its uselessness, but beautiful in its dedication and persistence.
For me, those tags are a marker of a particular time. Finding pictures of them online is surprisingly hard, but that was the moment just before Internet ubiquity, and the Internet is weirdly bad at archiving the time just before camera-phones. It was the era of Giuliani’s battles with East Village squatters, of Newt Gingrich, of a world without Kurt or Jerry. A couple of years later, I would be on Sven’s rooftop on the Lower East Side, watching the Fourth of July fireworks exploding over the Lenin statue on Red Square and talking about how New York City was the seat of empire. But that was in the future. REVS/COST helped me get through those confusing, lonely first years in the big city.
Today Gothamist posted a YouTube video of REVS at work on more recent projects. My favorite quote: “I’m into the individual spirit, anybody who does things in a solo way, like Ted Kaczynski, Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ.” REVS’s identity is still unknown, but at least now you can read about him in Wikipedia.