Moustache man, artist Paul Cooley visits ISU

On Thursday, Feb. 23, a lecture was held in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union titled ‘Addiction and Art’ where Paul Cooley shared his story. Cooley is an artist on the rise who has overcome drug addiction and homelessness to pursue his dreams. 

Alexander Gray

Cooper Martin, a student at ISU, reached out last year to artist Paul Cooley when his design department was voting on new art pieces to display at Iowa State.

Cooley’s was voted in, and is now available to be seen right outside of the Lebaron auditorium. Since then, Martin and Cooley have been in touch, finally leading up to his first visit to Iowa, and his feature lecture Thursday night, on art and addiction.

Cooley talked about his life growing up with a very religious family in Queens, New York, and the effect that had on him. The first time he realized that he was different was when he wanted to play with the other kids, and when someone denied Paul to play “Power Rangers” with them, he punched the boy in the face.

From then on, acting out was his coping mechanism. Cooley got in trouble a lot, and was known throughout the school for his behavior. His classmates realized they could blame anything on him, regardless if he did it or not, because it was believable.

In middle school, Paul discovered graffiti, and became well known within a small crowd there, just by his tag. As he put it, NYC is the “Mecca” of graffiti, and he became addicted to the recognition he got when people saw his tag. Around the same time, he also fell into drinking and smoking pot.

At 15 he was arrested for the first time, by an undercover cop, for vandalism. In the next three months, he was arrested five or six more times for the same thing.

In order to avoid further legal repercussions, his parents refinanced their home, and sent Paul to a military boarding school. The judge agreed to this, giving him three years probation, stipulating that he must graduate. At the school, he said he met “a whole bunch of juvenile delinquents” and, “[he] went right to the bad side.”

His senior year, Cooley was finally kicked out for a pattern of misconduct, and from there was sent to a group home in Staten Island. At the group home, he was sober for the first time since he was 12, and he obtained his GED, but he never felt like he was doing any of that for himself, only out of sheer obligation.

After that, he moved back in with his parents, claiming that he was going to the local community college, but he wasn’t actually. Instead, he had returned to drug use, saying, “It was the only way I learned to cope with life.”

Despite the dark nature of his lecture subject, Paul was still laughing throughout, and kept all of the audience engrossed in his life story.

Paul said ages 18 to 21 was the roughest time in his life. He became addicted to painkillers, and stole from his mother to keep up with the addiction. He was sent to rehab twice, and was clean for the duration, but immediately went back to his old habits.

Eventually he moved in with a drug dealer he knew, and stayed on his couch. Cooley had finally dumped painkillers, but was still taking “drug cocktails.”

On July 5, 2010, Cooley was in a motorcycle accident while high, and survived — his worst injuries: “road pizza” on his arm. After the accident he picked up painkillers again, and lived homeless in Richmond, Virginia, floating between a homeless shelter and sleeping on the streets. At this point, his parents told him he wasn’t allowed back home again.

With nowhere left to go, he contacted his friend in Tallahassee, Florida, who was graduating in Social Work, who agreed to take him in. He took a two day trip on a Greyhound bus to live with her.

That two day trip marked Paul’s first two days sober in a long time, and he has been ever since.

Paul joked that he was her “senior project.” She took him to Narcotics Anonymous, and helped him stay clean. Sometimes he said he had thoughts about drinking or using again, but he realized that if he came home inebriated, she wouldn’t let him stay, saying, “That was the only couch I had left.”

Despite being sober for some time, Cooley still didn’t feel like he was doing this for himself, only changing because he had no other options.

At four months clean, he was working as a bellhop at a hotel, and for the first time wasn’t having daily thoughts about drinking or getting high.

“Working that job was the start of everything,” he said.

Working late nights, he had plenty of free time, which he spent drawing, and reading books on business. Now he had set his sights on loftier goals, reading up on business to hopefully open a skate shop someday.

Finally, with some money in his pocket, not being spent on drugs, Paul purchased a laptop, and got Adobe Photoshop from one of his friends.

Later, he became interested in tattooing, and began jumping from idea to idea. At this time, Cooley was one year sober, and just “psyched” about life. He got an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop in Tampa, where he stayed for five months, before deciding to move back to New York.

Now 23, Paul was hooked up with a job at gym, and after working there full time every day, he would back to his apartment to tattoo anyone he could.

From here, Paul said, “I just went with the flow.” Even though he didn’t plan on it, he got an internship at an art house, where he learned a lot about the art business, which he said was crucial to obtaining the success he has now.

Now two years clean, Paul felt caught up in life, though his past lingered.

But instead of turning back to drugs, “That savage part of me began manifesting itself in graffiti,” Cooley said. “From 2:00 am to 5:00 am, I was very productive; In vandalizing.”

Instead of going back to his old tag, he began spray painting his iconic mustached face across all of NYC.

Later in the Q&A section of the lecture, he revealed that he was eventually found out by the vandalism division of the NYPD, and had to work fifty days of community service in Queens, which he said,  “was gnarly.”

Initially, he never planned to sell any of his work, only doing art for the adrenaline rush he got from it. In 2012, one of his Instagram followers sent him a message asking to buy one of his pieces, and Cooley sold it for $600. Now, he realized, he could make some money.

Starting a clothing brand had always been a dream of his, and after selling his first piece, he began selling t-shirts with his moustached man on them.

With some experience in Photoshop, one of his friends hired Paul for his business selling watches, where he designed ads. His official title was the Head of Creative Department, but in a business with only six employees, he said, “I am the Creative Department.”

Recently Cooley sold art at an auction, which also had art from the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey, a huge step for him. This Summer, he is working in Greece, and has many other big things coming his way.

Before opening up to Q&A, Paul left us with one more story. Throughout his rough early life, from middle school through high school, Cooley had a girlfriend who had stayed with him the whole time, saying, “She was the only good thing in my life.”

When he was sent to the the group home, that was the final straw for his high school sweetheart. And he understood. Despite actively trying to keep his language in check earlier in the lecture, Paul said, “I was a complete f–k-up.” They didn’t talk for two years.

When he moved back to New York, three and a half years clean, he got her back.

“My life today is beyond my wildest dreams,” he said, “If I died today, I would be so happy.”

Much to the delight of the lecture attendees, Cooley is tying the knot soon.

“We’re getting married next week. …My dad’s marrying us.”

After saying that, many of the attendees were understandably brought to tears.

Paul Cooley has been through an eventful journey, and is finally starting to really make strides in the art world. It won’t be long until he becomes just as recognizable as the peers in his field.

To see some of his art, go to Paul’s blog or his Instagram page.