All photos by the author
A few weeks before Election Day, Brooklyn-based graffiti writer and artist Russell Murphy—a.k.a. CASH4—was neck-deep in preparations for his upcoming show with fellow artist SMELLS. Bearing the title of "Mock the Vote," the signage-based exhibit is a crescendo of satire, cynicism, and all-out offensiveness that will open the evening of election day at 99 Bowery in Manhattan. "I want people to be like, Holy fuck, this is what these kids are thinking?" he told me. "It's open-ended, but provocative enough to make people question what the fuck is going on."
I met CASH4 around noon on a weekday; he was freshly-shaven, in good spirits, and surrounded by stacks of finished and half-finished pieces in his studio-slash-apartment. "You want a beer?" he asked me, and cracked a tallboy open for himself, chased by by a flask of cheap liquor and some weed over the course of our conversation.
As a graffiti writer, CASH4 has a history of butting heads with conventions of style—as well as with other writers. His public persona also doesn't help in a scene where staying low-key is a virtue; he first earned notoriety when a photo of him kissing his then-girlfriend while being arrested was published on Gothamist in 2012.
Even before then, he'd built a reputation for thinking outside the norm and getting people's attention. CASH4 became known for painting giant roller letters bastardized by pixelation and cartoonish faces on countless rooftop spots. His throw-ups were amoebus blow-up letters, rather than conventional bubbles; his stickers and tags playfully mixed his name with slogans ("CLASS WAR," "CRASH FLOOR"); his fake pawn shop sign "campaign" with SMELLS ("CASH4SMELLS") straddled the lines between graffiti and street art while recalling the legendary posters that artists like REVS and COST used to slap everywhere. Yet CASH4 was doing exactly what's expected of many graffiti writers: Develop his own instantly-recognizable style—and get up a lot.
A self-declared asshole with a punk attitude, he's rubbed a few traditionalists the wrong way. But if others might've thrown in the towel after the arrests and fights CASH4 has faced, he's remained defiant and unrepentant. "I've been jumped," he told me. "Graffiti writers are pretty much pussy...I'm not trying to waste my time on another person that writes graffiti. This is not the 90s."
That defiant attitude of not giving a fuck has wound its way through CASH4's artwork as well: Effectively unmasked and sidelined by legal problems, he's shifted his focus to fine art—most recently, in the form of irreverent sign-painting, which comprises the majority of his exhibition with SMELLS. Purists value sign-painting as a skillful craft that displays precision and a mastery of letters; while CASH4 respects that tradition, the content defines how he uses his medium.
"I could sit here for fucking hours making the letters look like I printed them on the computer," he states, but CASH4 has the impulsive need to express himself quickly before moving on to the next idea. That kind of unfettered immediacy poses some risks, but after years of honing his skills on the street, the hits outnumber the misses. You may not agree with him, but CASH4 will tell you exactly how he feels in a style he has mastered through sheer energy and repetition.
Unlike artists like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, who've used their platforms and success in the art world to push specific messages, CASH4's art isn't neatly aligned with any political movement. "I'm not an idealist—I'm an apathist," he insisted, albeit one brimming with opinions and full of contradictions who would like nothing more than to make you squirm.
His contribution to "Mock the Vote" consists of an a large number of hand-painted signs that adorn his studio as we talked: "Kill the Poor/ Protect the Oligarchy/ Vote," "Fight Oppression/ Rape Men," and "Pro-Incest," to name a few. Much like his graffiti, which rises above the visual white noise of the city, the volume and obnoxiousness of his catch phrases will stick in your brain, like them or not.
To CASH4, politicians are inherently corrupt, the media is "owned" and "an orchestra of misinformation"—and as for the election: "For people that come into the show thinking that either of these candidates or the majority of our government is legitimate, I just feel sorry for them." He quoted Thomas Jefferson on watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. "I don't know that we need to be killing more people, but I'm not necessarily against it either," he mused. "If Washington DC disappeared, would this country be in a better place? Yes. Hell yes."
In a loose scene that's largely apolitical and driven by achieving fame, CASH4 has an almost messianic urge to inject his work with meaning. He's enough of a classic vandal to believe that respect and legitimacy are earned on the street, but he's also among a subset of artists—including his associates in New York's 907 Crew—who put a premium on anarchic playfulness. For decades, 907 crew members such as UFO, OZE108, and, more recently, SADUE and DROID have eschewed conventions of style while also participating in large-scale installation and film projects.
Among hardcore graffiti writers, that slipperiness makes CASH4 both an insider and someone who openly brings alien perspectives to the game: A struggling artist who claims to have been "raised by three women," and who once trained to become an architect.
"There's this attitude of, I'm a one-man-army, fuck your shit, fuck property, fuck the transit, fuck anything!" he recounted, and that attitude once fueled CASH4's work as a vandal. But unlike other writers, he doesn't hide what makes him different. It informs his graffiti and his art, and that's why he is going to be remembered, regardless of how much of his work you may find on the street in the future (and for legal reasons he was obliged to insist that there will be none).
Unsuspecting viewers are sure to be engaged—or at least entertained—by his exhibition. Having a sense of humor definitely helps. If anyone is offended, to CASH4 that's just great. "I'm going to get mad shit at this show, but I'm going to be drunk enough and there's going to be enough people there and people are going to have a good enough time where it just doesn't matter." Come what may, at least for this election hangover, there will be a cure on Wednesday morning.
See more photos of CASH4's past graffiti work and upcoming art show below. "Mock the Vote" is open November 8 at 99 Bowery Street in New York.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.