The artist Dash Snow rammed a screwdriver into his buzzer the other day. He has no phone. He doesn’t use e-mail. So now, if you want to speak to him, you have to go by his apartment on Bowery and yell up. Lorax-like, he won’t come to the window to let you see that he sees you: He has a periscope he puts up so he can check you out first.
Partly, it comes from his graffiti days, this elusiveness, the recent adolescence the 25-year-old Snow spent tagging the city and dodging the police. “He’s pretty paranoid about lots of things in general, and some of it was dished out to him, but others he’s created himself,” says Snow’s friend, the 27-year-old artist Dan Colen, who—like so many of their friends—has made significant artistic contributions to the ever-expanding mythology of Dash Snow. Colen and Snow went to London together this fall for the Saatchi show in which they both had work. (Saatchi had bought one of Colen’s sculptures for $500,000.) Saatchi got them a fancy hotel room on Piccadilly. They had to flee it in the middle of the night with their suitcases before it was discovered that they’d created one of their Hamster’s Nests, which they’ve done quite a few times before. To make a Hamster’s Nest, Snow and Colen shred up 30 to 50 phone books, yank around all the blankets and drapes, turn on the taps, take off their clothes, and do drugs—mushrooms, coke, ecstasy—until they feel like hamsters.
If you want to find Snow, you have to find Colen, or Snow’s other best friend, the 29-year-old photographer Ryan McGinley, who four years ago became the youngest person ever to have a solo show at the Whitney. That show, “The Kids Are Alright,” depicted a downtown neverland where people are thrilled and naked, leaping in front of graffiti on the street, sacked out in heaps of flannel shirts—everything very debauched and drug-addled and decadent, like Nan Goldin hit with a happy wand. Part of what made McGinley so famous (like Goldin before him) was that he offered not just an artist’s vision of a free and rebellious alternative life but also the promise that he was actually living it, through photos that looked spontaneous, stolen, of an intimate cast of characters, a family of friends, and in McGinley’s case, of Snow in particular. In some ways, Snow has been his muse.
“I guess I get obsessed with people, and I really became fascinated by Dash,” says McGinley, who shares a Chinatown loft a few blocks away from Snow’s apartment with Dan Colen, whom McGinley has known since they were teenage skateboarders in New Jersey. The apartment used to be a brothel; for a long time, Chinese men would come to the door and be disappointed when McGinley or Colen answered it. McGinley shows me his photos of Snow over the years, dozens and dozens of them. Snow with cornrows, with a shaved head, with a black eye. There is one photo called Dash Bombing that was in the Whitney show: a shadowy shot of Snow out on a ledge, tagging a building in the night sky, Manhattan spread out below him. It’s an image of anarchic freedom, one that seems anachronistic and almost magical in this city of hermetically sealed glass-cocoon condo towers. It’s as if Snow were an animal—prevalent in the seventies, now thought to be extinct—that was spotted high over the city.
“I actually don’t like graffiti,” McGinley says. “I was just interested in the person that would write their name thousands and thousands and thousands of times. These kids that would go up on a rooftop, 40 stories up, and go out on a ledge to write their name—it’s just, like, the insanity of it all!” McGinley smiles his clean smile. “It’s funny to me that Dash has become like a rock star, but he’s so paranoid. That comes from graffiti culture—like, you want everybody to know who you are and you’re going to write your name all over the city, but you can’t let anyone know who you really are. It’s, like, this idea of being notorious.”
And because notoriety is crucial to something much larger than graffiti culture, Dash Snow is becoming a kind of sensation. Young people poured out onto Joey Ramone Place waiting to get into his last show at Rivington Arms gallery. He had a piece in the Whitney Biennial—a picture of a dog licking his lips in a pile of trash and several other Polaroids. You may not be able to find him, but you can hear his name, that zooming syllable—Dash!—punctuating conversations in Chelsea galleries and Lower East Side coke parties and Miami art fairs and the offices of underground newspapers in Copenhagen and Berlin, like a kind of supercool international Morse code. Because the art world loves infamy. Downtown New York City loves infamy—needs it, in fact, to exist.