How A Small Cape Cod Town Helped Turn An Artist’s Life Around
“A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” – Henry David Thoreau
The towering sand dunes and wind swept woods of Wellfleet on the Cape Cod National Seashore have provided respite for many, and it’s here where graffiti artist Andrew Jacob was able to slide away from the trouble brewing in his life, temporarily stepping off the map into obscurity, and into his own as an artist.
“I was drawn to graffiti at an early age,” Andrew explains from his back deck nestled deep within the Wellfleet woods. “When I was real young I always wondered what the writing was on the walls of buildings and highway overpasses, especially the legible ones. I thought that aliens were coming down and writing their names because I couldn’t imagine a human being doing that so perfect and bubbly.”
During a trip to New York City in the early 90’s, a then twelve-year-old Andrew came in contact with a copy of Crazy Kings magazine, a publication focused on the world of graffiti, which unveiled the truth behind his extraterrestrial myth. That experience altered his artistic course from sketchbooks, to train yards, down alleyways, above billboards, onto rooftops, and years later, into jail. Catching himself before it was too late, he escaped to the Cape where as a teenager he stood tall atop perfect emerald peelers.
Andrew recalls, “My dad took me to the Cape when I was thirteen, I had just gotten my first surfboard. The waves were waist to chest high. I remember it started getting crazy overcast. Then, this thunder and lightning storm came down and everyone scattered. My dad was standing on the beach, and I just couldn’t get out of the water because it was like the first waves I was catching, and I was just so amped on that. I’d stand up and there would be this crackling lightning behind me. My dad must have thought that I was going to get struck, but he knew better than to try to wave me in.”
Growing up along the seaside towns of Boston’s north shore, Andrew moved around from places like Marblehead, to the famed fishing ports of Gloucester, to Salem Village, home of the infamous witch trials of 1692. The sights, smells, and sounds of these coastal towns ebbed and flowed their way into his being, but the young artist wasn’t about to start painting sailboats and sunsets.
At about the same age he picked up surfing, Andrew and his good friend, Ben, also picked up spray paint cans and through skateboarding started rolling with a few established graffiti artists just outside of Boston. The elder cats schooled the young guns on the sub-culture of graffiti, and all the different facets that existed; showing them that graffiti could be hip-hop, punk rock, death metal, or whatever they wanted it to be.
By 1994, Andrew and his friends had established a crew they dubbed, Soul Kontroll. Their initials tagged “SK” would take on various meanings throughout the course of existence. The budding artists honed their craft at a Salem train yard, sneaking in on school nights when new trains came in. The yard provided a safe haven from some of the more notoriously violent graffiti crews that surrounded the area. The Soul Kontroll Crew would paint the freights, clean up their mess, and the trains rolled out of town the next morning.
After high school Andrew moved into the city to study typography at the Art Institute of Boston. There, he and his crew continued to push the envelope. They kept their pieces tasteful, staying away from personally owned business opting instead for highway spots, billboards, and a few coveted heaven spots, which are areas high atop a building, next to another that was about to be torn down, or had temporary scaffolding they could climb that once taken down, leaves people wondering how the artist ever got there in the first place.
Planning is paramount to spraying an illegal wall. Andrew routinely checked spots the night before to scope out the scene and get a sense of security. Having a solid partner that will stick by you, no matter the circumstance, is also essential to painting a successful piece. Strong bonds are formed in the trenches of the urban sprawl. Having a good friend watch your back can help ease your nerves in the stickiest of situations. Andrew recalls a time when he and a friend took turns playing lookout while bombing a rooftop, literally right above, and in plain sight of a Boston Police officer.
“One of us kept our eye on the cop who was across the street, while the other one painted. We’d give a little shout when the cop was about to turn around. He never saw a thing. It was pretty wild. There’s a lot of adrenaline, anxiety, and tension when you’re engaging in an illegal activity. But at the same time, if it’s a sick spot you just want to lay the best tag you can. You want the bottom to be thin, you want it to fade out, you want it to have gesture, and movement. It’s just like surfing, you have this medium, you’re gonna’ draw some lines, and you want to make the most out of it. You basically want to explode on the wall.”
Through his craft, Andrew was able to experience the true underbelly of the city. He and his friends stumbled upon strange alleyways, weird buildings, hobos, thugs, prostitution, and all kinds of seedy sediment. Sometimes though, it’s not what you find that you need to worry about, but what may find you.
To a certain degree graffiti can be kids, like Andrew, who are into art. Then, there are those who just like to catch a buzz and deface property. But to others, graffiti is the real deal; guys that want to get their name up, and can be very territorial. If you paint over their work they take it personally and if they figure you out, they’re going to mess you up.
“It usually doesn’t come down to gun violence,” Andrew says, “but definitely knives and shit like that; fist fights on rooftops, it gets crazy.”
Over time negative incidents started stacking up like sets on the horizon. Fellow artists received serious jail sentences, detectives made personal threats, and Andrew saw a friend suddenly stabbed in the chest during a rooftop party in Brooklyn. Andrew and his crew were even held up at gunpoint in broad daylight while painting the red line T-station at Alewife in Boston.
“This little kid comes up, he must have been like twelve and he said, ‘gimme’ all your money.’ We all kind of looked around and thought it was a joke, so we just got back to painting. He said it again, ‘gimme’ all your fucking money.’ You could see he was getting nervous. His hand was shaking, and you never knew when he was going to squeeze that thing. It was definitely some sort of gang initiation. Two other kids, one older and one younger, were laid back on the tracks just watching. I think in the end he got a pocked knife and twenty dollars. It was nuts. I was with some crazy guys that I could tell didn’t want to deal with that and probably just wanted to grab the gun out of the kids hand but who knows what would have happened then.”
Eventually Andrew’s luck ran out when a misdemeanor charge landed him in a New York City jail cell for a week. The incident was a reality check and once released, Andrew traded the high-rise buildings of the city for the towering sand dunes of Wellfleet, where he found comfort in the woodsy majestic beach community that his family has had ties to since the 1930’s.
Wellfleet is a small town located on the Outer Cape characterized by sincere locals who harbor a tight knit sense of community. The west-facing bay side is an amazing spot for sunsets. Clean cold waters and fast moving tides in the bay are said to make the Wellfleet oyster among the tastiest in the world. Glacially formed kettle ponds full of minerals and energy nourish the rugged pitch pines that make up the wispy woods between the fragile shores. Facing east, The Cape Cod National Seashore boasts forty miles of pristine uninterrupted beach that are exposed to open ocean Atlantic swells, which rise quickly from deep water and detonate onto shallow sandy shores. But, windows of good surf can be short lived; scoring it requires knowledge of large tidal swings, swell direction, and shifting sandbars.
Andrew rearranged his life, putting all the energy he used for graffiti into surfing. He worked under the table where he could; teaching surf lessons and doing odd jobs, part of what Andrew says is the “Sacred Knowledge” one can find in may aspects of life.
“I remember one winter I was broke. My friend Ethan was down here too and had the same deal. We would go out at night and pick oysters all winter and make oyster stew; whatever we could do to eat and have enough energy to surf,” Andrew says.
Eventually with some help from local friends, Andrew began to find his hustle; saving up enough cash over the busy summer tourist season to be able to slip away from the dreary cold New England winters to places like Barbados, Puerto Rico, California, and Costa Rica where he was commissioned to paint murals in the guest rooms of the Paspartu Beach Hostel in Boca Nosara.
The artist remains passionate about graffiti; spraying surf shop vans, buses, concrete skating pools, and legal graffiti walls whenever the opportunity arises. Andrew paints a lot more hung pieces these days as well, layering in sharpie, acrylic, one-touch enamels, paint pens, and spray paint onto reclaimed wood, canvas, and even people.
“I’ve really been trying to develop the dimensions of my paintings,” Andrew says. Drawing up questions like, “Where do these things really exist? What is all this stuff floating around in the sky? Is it divine, or is it just like sub-conscious imagery? I guess it’s just whatever you want to think it is on your own personal level.”
Layered within many of Andrew’s trippy-surf graffiti sub-culture pieces are tags like Soul Kontroll, Sacred Knowledge, and Opiate. One name, however, now stands boldly on every piece without fear of consequence or retaliation and that name is Jacob.
Somewhere in the middle of a heated town council meeting, my eyes were strangely drawn toward the town hall window. With my recorder set and the article already framed up, I ducked out for a few minutes to capture this light. Who ever said small town politics were boring?