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Chasing Dash Snow

Colen and McGinley in Dash's bed at Dash's apartment.  

What makes the legend richer is that Dash Snow could very easily have lived a different kind of life, been a different kind of artist. Snow’s maternal grandmother is a De Menil, which is to say art-world royalty, the closest thing to the Medicis in the United States. His mother made headlines a few years ago for charging what was then the highest rent ever asked on a house in the Hamptons: $750,000 a season. And his brother, Maxwell Snow, is a budding member of New York society who has dated Mary-Kate Olsen. But Snow has concocted something else for himself. He has been living as hard as a person can—in and out of jail, doing drugs, running from the police—for a decade. He’s unschooled, self-taught. And in much the same way that Andy Warhol used the life force of young artists and assorted beautiful people to keep himself inspired, sharing his own talents and imprimatur in return, McGinley and Colen have adopted Snow as the mascot of their message.

Ryan McGinley wasn’t an artsy sissy growing up; he was a jock, and his green-eyed confidence is working on all cylinders. McGinley is the youngest of eight children of a father who worked for Owens Corning and a mother who goes to church every single day, and he’ll give you an answer to anything you ask. McGinley is big on family, community, and he is his scene’s court hagiographer. Instead of Warhol’s test shoots, McGinley took Polaroids of every person who would walk into the apartment he and Colen used to share on East 7th Street, a place that became locally famous in the nineties as somewhere to hang out and get wasted and be bad. People fall in love with McGinley’s work because it tells a story about liberation and hedonism: Where Goldin and Larry Clark were saying something painful and anxiety-producing about Kids and what happens when they take drugs and have sex in an ungoverned urban underworld, McGinley started out announcing that “The Kids Are Alright,” fantastic, really, and suggested that a gleeful, unfettered subculture was just around the corner—still—if only you knew where to look.

In actuality, McGinley is methodical, calculating, disciplined. He can barely drink anymore and follows a strict dairy- and sugar- and caffeine-free diet to reduce his tinnitus, a chronic ringing in the ears. One long wall of his apartment is lined with shelves on which he keeps his alphabetized collection of art books and binders cataloguing all of his work and Snow’s. “Because you never know what’s going to happen with Dash,” McGinley says and gets up on a ladder to pull down some of Snow’s old Polaroids.

There is a shot of Snow’s bloodied face: a self-portrait. “I think he jumped through a window? I’m not sure what happened that night.” Next is a photograph of a glorious girl grinning in a hat on the boardwalk. “That’s Dash’s wife, Agathe.” They married when they were 18, and Agathe, who is Corsican, needed papers to stay in the country.

“But Dash was totally in love,” Dan Colen tells me later. “They were like husband and wife for a long time, and they still have a really strong bond, as much as either one of them likes to ignore it or pretend or whatever. They were like the coolest couple ever.”

There is a picture of someone snorting a line of coke off an erect penis, and then one of Snow naked with an Asian girl wearing red ski goggles. “She must be a hooker because he’s wearing a condom,” says McGinley. Many of the same people are pictured in Snow’s photos as in McGinley’s early work, doing the same kinds of things, but Snow sees something very different. “I’m into freedom and a celebration of life, and Dash is more about the fall of humanity,” McGinley says. “Hells, yeah. He’s into some dark shit: S&M, crack, corrupt cops...”

McGinley and Colen met Snow when they were in art school (at Parsons and RISD, respectively) and Snow was 16 and living on 13th Street in Alphabet City and starting a graffiti crew called Irak (in graffiti slang, to “rak” is to steal, which they did) with a guy named Ace Boon Kunle, “a big, black homosexual,” as McGinley describes him, whose tag is Earsnot.

“Dash was like me, a polished derel”—a polished derelict, says Kunle. “He got that twinkle in the eye that lets you know. But Dash wasn’t like a lot of the derels I was hanging out with who would run out of stores with clothes in their hands. Dash would steal, but it’s the way you steal: I go in and I’m really friendly with the help and I’m smooth. I’ll make it sweet, so the next three or four times I come in the store, it’s all good with the help. Dash got really good at it. One of the things I always say is that a really good graffiti writer will make a good shoplifter—someone who’s used to breaking the law fifteen or twenty times a day.”